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A Japanese roulette: ‘Fugu’ is not for the faint-hearted

A Japanese roulette: ‘Fugu’ is not for the faint-hearted

Fugu sashi (blowfish sashimi) fanned out into the pattern of a chrysanthemum blossom. – Pictures by CK Lim
Fugu sashi (blowfish sashimi) fanned out into the pattern of a chrysanthemum blossom. – Pictures by CK Lim

SAPPORO, July 15 — Susukino comes alive at night. Only a couple of subway stops from the main Sapporo station, this is a neighbourhood of hostess bars and pubs that never seem to close. Most folks are drawn here by the glare of the red lights but we shuffle towards a dingy building down a side alley.

We’re here to taste fugu.

Better known as blowfish elsewhere in the world, fugu is a Japanese delicacy that is as expensive as it is dangerous (more on that later). There are many places in Japan that serve this delicacy, which require a licence to serve. Here in Hokkaido, it is an especial treat at Hanakoji Sawada, one of only three restaurants to gain three Michelin stars in the region.

Hanakoji Sawada is a traditional Japanese restaurant in Hokkaido specialising in seasonal ingredients (left). Expect a warm and inviting atmosphere (right)
Hanakoji Sawada is a traditional Japanese restaurant in Hokkaido specialising in seasonal ingredients (left). Expect a warm and inviting atmosphere (right)
An apprentice learning the ropes
An apprentice learning the ropes

We exit the elevator on the third floor and enter the 36-seat restaurant run by Chef Tomoya Kago. Friendly staff greet us and seat us at the counter where we can witness the chef in action. Hanakoji Sawada is renowned for its simple omakase (chef’s choice) style menu: traditional dishes, seasonal ingredients and depth of flavours.

Even with the warm welcome, we can’t help but feel like lambs being led to slaughter. Fugu, after all, is notoriously known as the fish more poisonous than cyanide. About 200 times more toxic. In spite of this risk — or perhaps because of it — customers are happy to pay tens of thousands of yen for the luxury of participating in an experience that is not unlike a game of Russian roulette.

Losing this game could mean one’s last supper. Consider this a distinctively Japanese roulette then.

We begin with some slippery yamaimo (Japanese mountain yam) topped with ikura (salmon caviar) and minty shisho. Next, a signature appetiser of suitokon tempura, lightly battered to showcase the sweetness of fresh Hokkaido corn. Each dish deceptively simple, belying the craft behind it.

Yamaimo (Japanese mountain yam) topped with ikura (salmon caviar)
Yamaimo (Japanese mountain yam) topped with ikura (salmon caviar)
Suitokon tempura (Hokkaido corn in light batter)
Suitokon tempura (Hokkaido corn in light batter)

Craft and years of dedicated training also go behind preparation of fugu for safe human consumption. Even with decades of experience, Chef Kago takes great care when handling fugu: first cutting the fish head to remove its brains and eyes, then removing the skin before approaching the most dangerous parts — the innards.

A bite of the ovaries or liver or the intestines can be potentially fatal. Upon removal, these are respectfully set aside in a separate, clearly marked tray. Such caution eliminates the danger of tetrodotoxin poisoning, a violent process that begins with the numbing of the lips, then paralysis, and finally death.

Have I mentioned that one would be entirely conscious throughout such a process? (Ah, I hear the lambs bleating louder now.)

Kegani or Japanese hairy crab
Kegani or Japanese hairy crab

With every nervous breath, we say thanks for the craft and care, realising that, unlike wuxia films where there is always an antidote appearing at the most heart-pumping moment, no such antidote exists here. Not for fugu.

The omakase resumes with kegani, Japanese hairy crab at its best during peak season, tasting of the ocean. Whole lobes of fresh uni (sea urchin) are served on nasu dengaku (grilled miso-glazed eggplant), the briny flavour of one contrasting wonderfully with the smoky sweetness of the other.

And then, without warning, it’s time for our fugu course.

Uni (sea urchin) served on nasu dengaku (grilled miso-glazed eggplant)
Uni (sea urchin) served on nasu dengaku (grilled miso-glazed eggplant)
Seared tai (sea bream) needing only a squeeze of lime
Seared tai (sea bream) needing only a squeeze of lime

What’s before us is simply the flesh, not the lethal innards. We expected this, naturally. What we didn’t anticipate is how beautiful this dish would be: Chef Kago had sliced the fish into impossibly thin, translucent slices and fanned them out into the pattern of a chrysanthemum blossom.

The knife used is forged not by a knife-maker but a swordsmith to ensure the sharpest edge possible. As a result, we can even see the faint patterns of the plate beneath each “petal” of fugu. This sashimi preparation is called fugu sashi; the technique for slicing it is known as usuzukuri.

Maguro (tuna) and tai (sea bream) sushi
Maguro (tuna) and tai (sea bream) sushi
Hokkaido beef lightly poached in broth
Hokkaido beef lightly poached in broth

We just call it a marvel, a little miracle.

Reverently, we take a bite. Fugu, we discover, is chewy. A nice, bouncy texture. It tastes, we admit to each other, rather nondescript. Mild and not unpleasant. More importantly, there’s no numbness around our mouths. With every slice, a sigh of relief.

The rest of our sublime meal, inevitably, is less electrifying if also significantly less life-threatening. We continue with some lightly seared tai (sea bream) seasoned with but a gentle squeeze of lime. Sushi is simple — with dependable toppings of maguro (tuna) and more tai — but skilfully shaped by Chef Kago. Our Hokkaido beef, poached lightly in broth, is utterly tender; an homage to the island’s impeccable cattle farming.

Years of training go behind every dish crafted in Hanakoji Sawada’s kitchen
Years of training go behind every dish crafted in Hanakoji Sawada’s kitchen
Freshly made soba noodles (left). Dip the noodles into tsuyu (sauce) flecked with tenkasu (tempura flakes), green onion, nori seaweed and wasabi (right)
Freshly made soba noodles (left). Dip the noodles into tsuyu (sauce) flecked with tenkasu (tempura flakes), green onion, nori seaweed and wasabi (right)

In between courses, we can’t help but discuss the fugu we’ve had earlier. This is one dish that retains its thrill long after the last sliver has been chewed and swallowed. One in many an adventurous gourmand’s bucket list (but not the Emperor of Japan who isn’t allowed to eat fugu, apparently, for his own safety).

We dip freshly made soba in tsuyu (sauce) flecked with tenkasu (tempura flakes), green onion, nori seaweed and wasabi. When we’ve finished the noodles, we add some of the water the soba was cooked in to the tsuyu to create a light broth.

Our meal winds down with kani meshi (rice is cooked with crabmeat), pickles and miso soup. Fresh fruits follow, and sweet gyokuro tea. A simple finish to a wonderful dinner. Yet if you were to ask us about everything we’ve tasted, our minds are still blown away by the blowfish.

Kani meshi (rice is cooked with crabmeat), served with pickles (left). A simple bowl of miso soup (right)
Kani meshi (rice is cooked with crabmeat), served with pickles (left). A simple bowl of miso soup (right)
Fresh fruits to end the meal with
Fresh fruits to end the meal with

Fugu is not for the faint-hearted, and we’re far from gambling men. Sometimes in life, though, taking a chance (or “daring greatly” as Dr. Brené Brown puts it) is how we discover new experiences. New ways of seeing.

And we do see ourselves more clearly, more truthfully, than before. We want our hearts to thump, to beat like the hearts of lions, not of lambs. That, I realise, as we walk back to our hotel, is what fugu tastes like: courage, and honesty.

Hanakoji Sawada

3F, Plaza 7.4, Asai Building, 4 Minami 7 Jo Nishi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

Open daily (except Sundays & public holidays closed) 5:30pm-11pm

Tel: +81-11-562-0088

http://hanakoji-sawada.com

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