Blowfish- Japanese Roulette

Anthony Bourdain said this about Japanese food: “There’s a level of perfectionism, attention to detail, quality ingredients and tradition and technique unlike anywhere else”.

Zuboraya Restaurant- Photo by Bill Wiatrak

I have to agree. The food in Japan is epic. A simple trip to the grocery store uncovers aisle after aisle of gastronomic treasures. Even a simple bento box in a train station looks like it was handcrafted by a designer. I soon discovered it would take months to scratch the surface of understanding the plethora of tastes, so what do you do if you only have 10 days? For one, blowfish.

When I first heard the myths about this poisonous fish, I was intrigued but didn’t  imagine that I’d ever be at a restaurant that served it, or that I’d be able to afford such a meal. After all, isn’t true  that the Japanese pay thousands of dollars to dine upon this delicacy? 

I’ve eaten rotted shark in Iceland, ant eggs in Mexico, cobra in China and piranha in Colombia. Menu items like these are arguably challenging, but the biggest fears are that consuming these creatures is that they either taste really bad or bite you before you bite them. Osaka is a city full of delicacies and blowfish isn’t down some hidden back alley as one might suspect. In fact the giant 3-dimensional mammoth-sized pufferfish dangles above a Dotombori restaurant like an unreachable piñata. The restaurant is called Zuboraya and is a popular choice for those who want to sample this strange delicacy.

The entrance of Zuboraya- photo by Jennie Timar

In the sea, this unassuming fish appears to be a normal creature until threatened. Then it expands its body with air and spikes appear, making it a seemingly inedible choice for would-be attackers. It also has glands full of neurotoxins that will kill a human if consumed. Which is exactly the reason it’s become such a food challenge. Trained chefs spend years learning how to remove the poisonous layers between the edible flesh. If they make a mistake, the patron will be poisoned. Imagine it as sort of a seafood Russian roulette. 

Not a lot of other diners when we arrived at the – photo by Jennie Timar

When we entered the restaurant, I was surprised there wasn’t very many people eating there compared to the busy street outside. Were they eating fugu? I wondered. I had half watched a couple of shows about this controversial dish, but didn’t know what to expect. When in doubt, drink sake. We did.

Then we had some more.

Menu from Zuboraya- Photo by Jennie Timar

The menu was bright and colorful, the picture of the bristling mascot looked almost cartoonish and non-threatening. A couple sat down and ordered something in Japanese. They looked like they’d been here before and they were still …alive. That’s a good thing, right?

The restaurant’s claim to fame is that they serve the entire fish as sashimi, fried fish and then as a soup. One fish, but three ways to die in Japan other than ninja stars and nunchakus. We decided to split the dish and order more sake. As soon as I placed the order I was reminded of how I had decided to go skydiving on my 40th birthday. Signing up was easy. Driving to the airport, piece of cake. Putting on the gear wasn’t even really that scary. However, once the plane ascended and I was staring out an open door of sky, clouds and possible death, things became incredibly real. I changed my mind, but such things aren’t allowed after you’ve already paid. Yeah, there’s a reason you pay first.

Fried Fugu and tempura- photo by Jennie Timar

That was another similarity with skydiving. No other sit-down restaurant in Japan had required payment up front, except this one. A REALLY confident restaurant would have you pay later, maybe even extend credit. Nope. You order, then you pay. No one is slicing your fugu until the cash is in the till.

Then there was the big window next to the river. An easy place to get rid of a body it seemed. I paid the waiter and things became a little more serious. We weren’t just talking about trying blowfish someday. The fugu was being sliced and diced in some back room as we waited; hopefully by someone who knew what they doing.

When I went skydiving, I had a friend on the ground filming the whole thing. When I eventually got scared and questioned my decision, it was that moral support that made me jump.I didn’t want to disappoint the camera or my friend who was patiently waiting to see my parachute. There were no friends here to spur me on, or was there?

Facebook Live can make us do dumb things. Most people don’t care about tuning in to watch your vacation, but if you’re doing something really stupid, and there’s a chance of you hurting yourself, you’re likely to have a captive audience. A few friends were up in the middle of the night in Texas and that was all we needed. Cue audience, drink sake, serve the fugu and let’s get on with this. The sashimi was off-white translucent layers arranged in a petal like formation. While we had been waiting, I Googled fugu one more time. I discovered that the neurotoxin in the fish is 1,000 times the strength of cyanide and can instantly paralyze a person. Did I really trust this place? It sounds funny when you talk about it, but how disappointed would my mom be if she saw me commit sushi-suicide on Facebook?

Blowfish sashimi- photo by Jennie Timar

As my handful of nocturnal Houston friends watched with curiosity, I lowered the raw fugu into my mouth. I chewed slowly wondering what it would feel like if I was suddenly paralyzed. The meat was a little chewy and to be honest, not the finest sashimi I’ve put into my mouth. Hamachi (yellowtail) is still my favorite. It didn’t have a lot of flavor, but maybe it’s an acquired taste. The soup wasn’t particularly exciting but it was interesting trying the fish prepared in different ways. The fried blowfish was the most palatable part. To be honest, fried can make almost anything taste good. And then it was done. I had eaten fugu and I was still alive. Did I mention there was blowfish sake? Even their little fins were being served with rice wine. It was time for a celebratory drink. A toast to life!

Should you try it? Like skydiving, it only lasts a few minutes and then you wonder why you were ever nervous to begin with. Being close to death sometimes makes us feel more alive. So, yes. You should try it. Unless you got some poisonous fugu…

In which case, we never discussed this.

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