I had never tried fugu and for my first time, I decided on Tomoe, a restaurant in Kyoto whose name means “filled with taste”. Michelin says that the owner-chef wants to capture as much of the taste of its wild tora fugu (tiger blowfish 虎河豚) as possible, which is aged for three days. Tomoe ages it one day longer than Yamadaya as they prefer larger fish. I asked the chef and one of his 4.5kg fish serves 8 people. Since blowfish is often described as tasteless, I thought that eating at a restaurant famous for a stronger flavor would be a great place to start my education.
About a handful of people die every year from fugu, most of them by attempting to make it at home. Although there is no antidote, doctors will put patients on life support until the toxin disappears from their body. In contrast, between 4,000 and 5,000 people die in car accidents every year in Japan. Texting causes 6,000 deaths in the United States. It seems to me more likely to die in the taxi on the way there than while eating it. I wasn’t worried at all.
Because I had big fugu dreams, I was disappointed by the setting of this one star restaurant, to the point where I was not sure if I had walked into the right restaurant. The restaurant looked simple, a little bit old and the disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) were the cheapest I have seen in a Michelin restaurant.
This put me on the path of understanding this restaurant. I thought that the chopsticks were so cheap, it had to be a clue as to how they see the experience they want to provide. Then I had fugu sashimi and things started to grow on me. The more you chew, the more the flavor will come out, the daughter said. They serve their sashimi with salt, in contrast to other restaurants. Tomoe is a family affair: a husband, a wife and a daughter. Michelin should have written this in their guide. It is fugu for your family, by another family, comfortable and familiar, to celebrate something with great food or have fun with friends. I had shirako served in a cheap aluminium paper and hire-sake, which tasted stronger than anticipated. All fins of the blowfish, except the tail, can be used for hiresake. I enjoyed my first fugu at Tomoe. As I would later understand, the secret of fugu is not discovered by seeking a stronger taste.
The color of the sashimi is fascinating and its taste is mysterious. The fish magically changes from a slightly bouncy texture, soft yet chewy sashimi, to very soft in a hot pot and juicy when fried. I liked the culture of fugu, the dedication of mastering the art of serving a single fish, the fact that it is best eaten only three months a year. It represents Japanese culture in several ways. It does make yourself realize that it is nice to survive for another day. People eat endangered species such as tuna without even thinking about it. In this sense, Fugu inspires gratitude more than any other food.
One week later, I had fugu again in Tokyo at Yamadaya. This time, fugu was not only enjoyable, it lived up to the legend. The entire experience was perfect. The sashimi was delicious, the deep-fried dish was juicy and tender, the hot pot showed the unique qualities of this fish, and the rice porridge was simply the best porridge I ever ate. Yamadaya satisfied not only my quest to understand fugu, but also put the bar high for any meal. I could not believe how good the porridge was, every bite was better than the last. Even the fried dish seemed to be cut in a way that made it easier to eat. The way the fish changes from raw to fried to boiled is fascinating. I cannot imagine that someone would not fall in love with fugu at this three-star restaurant.
Fugu makes winter seem too short. I wish there was a dish in my country that could celebrate winter so well and make you wish it lasted longer. Like tai, there is a lot to discover about fugu. Fugu and tai left a very similar impression on me. Some ingredients are magical and it is wise that the Japanese have chosen to celebrate them.
Finally, let me debunk the myth that the magic of fugu would be in the feeling from some poison that the chef would leave in the fish. This is not absolutely not true - the chefs at highly-ranked restaurants do not leave any poison and it would be illegal to do so. This is not at all where the magic of fugu lies.
Tomoe: Kitaoji-dori Senbon Higashi iru Kitagawa, Kita-ku, Kyoto (Dinner only)
Yamadaya: B1F, Fleg Nishi Azabu Vierge, 4-11-14 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo (Dinner only, closed Sunday)
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
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