What it's really like to eat puffer fish in Japan, the dinner that can kill you
What it's really like to eat puffer fish in Japan, the dinner that can kill you

The big fish arrives at the table in a wooden bowl. He moves his tiny fins convulsively as he tries in vain to breathe.

The cook directs the container in my direction with a broad, pleased smile and I respond with an expression that in my intentions would like to be similar: only that in the video shot on the mobile phone of this episode, my face is frozen with dismay.

My only previous encounter with a puffer fish was this morning: it is my first day in Tokyo, where I landed the night before.

I'm working on a book that includes a story about tuna, and so the first stop in town is Tokyo Sea Life Park, an aquarium overlooking Tokyo Bay, frequented by families with children and virtually no tourists.

In a tank dedicated to the marine fauna of the region, the guide shows me some small fish. "These are called kohada" "Are they eaten?" I ask "Sure," she says. "And these?" I ask pointing to another specimen. "Sure," she repeats. In quick succession he points out some other species to me, and then concludes, so as to anticipate: “We eat everything”.

And in fact, it would be hard to find a people as omnivorous as the Japanese: the proof I find in the fish that floats lazily in the middle of the tank, a disproportionate and graceless creature, the spotted body.

Here is the fugu”he points out“let's eat that too". The puffer fish is, in fact, exceptionally poisonous, as anyone familiar with the classic episode of The Simpsons knows in which Homer risks his life eating it at a Japanese restaurant, so Dr. Hibbert gives him a brochure to prepare him for this eventuality entitled " And so, you are going to die “.

Fugu contains lethal amounts of a substance called tetrodotoxin, which is concentrated mostly in the liver, ovaries, and eyes. The poison paralyzes the muscles while the victim remains fully conscious (conscious of being asphyxiated, in practice).

The poison is 1200 times more potent than cyanide, and there is no antidote: a single fish can kill as many as a hundred people. For obvious (state) reasons, the emperor cannot eat it. Since 1958, cooks have been required to obtain a special license to prepare and sell puffer fish in their restaurant, and a multi-year internship is required.

I came to one of the restaurants of the Meiji Kinenkan, a complex that extends for tens of thousands of square meters next to the famous Meiji temple. Here is one of the best restaurants in Tokyo to eat a kaiseki menu entirely dedicated to puffer fish: it's called Hanagasumi, and it does not have a common room, but only 11 private rooms, with the tatami mat on the ground, where guests dine in perfect privacy, while their view lingers on the winter garden outside the windows.

To be my Cicero and Shigeru Hayashi, who was in charge of the dining room of one of the very first Japanese restaurants opened in Italy, the Suntory in via Verdi 6, a stone's throw from La Scala, in Milan.

When we are interrupted by the gasping fugu, Hayashi is showing me an extraordinary find: an issue of Capital magazine dating back to April 1986 that contains a six-page article, signed by Luigi Veronelli, on Japanese gastronomy, based on his experience at Suntory..

My favorite part, however, is the cover, a cross-section of very fat cows in Milan that seems almost a caricature of an era: on the cover there is a haloed Borromeo entitled "Living as a country gentleman" while at the bottom left appears the reference to a "Guide to the best farms for sale".

When the fugu returns to the table it is not as alive, but at least it no longer terrifies me.

fugu sashimi
fugu sashimi

The first dish on the menu is a sashimi: the fish is cut into very thin slices that remain translucent and almost transparent with a technique called Usuzukuri, each slice is arranged like a petal in a concentric circle and this gives the finished dish the appearance of a chrysanthemum - no irony, it is not a flower that refers to mourning in Japanese culture -, or a monochrome image composed of a kaleidoscope.

The flavor of the meat, compared to other fish commonly used to make sashimi, is rather bland.

Follows the Fugu-chiri, where the fish is boiled together with vegetables, if possible even more hospital than the previous one. It definitely goes better with the fugu karaage: large pieces of fish with bones are fried in batter, and the overall effect is reminiscent of chicken wings.

The plat de resistance, the fugunabe, is that stewed in a common pot that is widespread throughout Asia, and that in Italy has no name that is not imported: you can call it a hot pot, or if you are nostalgic for the 80s and still have the corresponding set, you can call it fondue chinoise.

The question is always the same: a pot full of broth is placed in the center of the table and boils thanks to the stove below. Generally, it is the diners who serve themselves, but here the service is first rate and it is therefore a no longer young waitress, dressed in traditional clothes, who prepares the dish.

Each of the ingredients has a different cooking time and the process is quite long. For this reason, while the fresh tofu, or shiitake mushrooms, or fugu fillets in the broth drop from time to time with impeccable grace, our host entertains us by asking us - in Japanese - some questions about us and the country we come from.

In particular, she is curious to know "what is the name of the emperor of Italy" (on this we must disappoint her), and subsequently if my boyfriend and I, who both have curly hair, "are brothers" (this misunderstanding delight). Hayashi translates for us without getting upset.

When it comes to settling the astronomical bill, it is with a mixture of admiration and disappointment that I consider this fish to be a textbook example of how "there is no bad publicity": expensive and almost tasteless, yet it is considered a real delicacy.

Will it perhaps enter with the admiration that the Japanese pay to creatures with great destructive potential?

When the next day, in Shinjuku, I pass in front of the offices of the Toho film production house, it seems to me that the huge head of Godzilla that sticks out behind the building is giving me a wink.

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