Looking over the Fugu-Chef’s shoulder

Immortal! It’s been a dream for ages and I have managed to become immortal. I am immortal. At least this is what Saito-san, one of the most glamorous characters in the field of Japanese mountaineering, claims to me after we have just reached the highest point of the 3.776 m (12.400 feet) high summit of Mount Fuji. And he must know best for he has conquered the mountain more than 650 times already. When asked, Saito-san explains that, according to one of many theories, the name of the mountain is derived from the word for immortality (fushi).

But am I really supposed to believe this? I’m not sure and I ponder that respective proof wouldn’t hurt. Where is the best place to find such proof? At a Fugu-(puffer fish)-Restaurant, with a five course meal, of course. This fish contains lethal poison and that is why in most of Japans’ prefectures it can only be prepared by someone who has done two years of training and passed the final exams.

Yet there are exceptions, but only in a few prefectures, Fugu chef Hironobu Shimura (Restaurant Kakoh Kirin in Fuji (Shizuoka)), explains to me. This leads to around three fatalities a year. However he assures me that he had successfully passed his tests and proudly shows his test book.

But let’s start from the beginning. While planning my second trip to Japan in 2016, I asked my Japanese friend Jun if he could organise a Fugu-meal for us. Then, to me as a photographer, watching and taking pictures over the chef’s shoulder, when he is preparing the fish, would be the icing on the cake.
As it turned out, however, this wish wasn’t an easy one. My friend had to phone the complete area of Hakone until he finally found Shimura-san who was willing to cooperate.

When I reach Japan I learn first that April to May wasn’t Fugu- season and second that the fish can´t be prepared directly after filleting. So I book our meal and hope that within a time frame of just a few days a fresh puffer fish would be offered on the market so that I can photo-document its filleting.

So culinary pleasure first and then work. Shimura-san leads us to a separate room of his restaurant and shows us in a book the type of Fugu we will have for dinner tonight. I had no clue that there were so many different types and that only few of them were actually round ones as I had imagined them so far. While we are comfortably sitting on the floor, one dish after the other is served to us. We have Sashimi for starters; it’s light and not chewy at all, followed by fried Fugu and then Fugu fillet. The taste of these is pleasurable with an unobtrusive taste of fish. The main dish, so to speak, is the rest of the Fugu fillet put together with a soup of pasta, tofu, mushrooms and some vegetables – I even get the recipe later on. The Japanese friend has to take over distributing the soup – I am not able to handle the impossible tools provided for this cause, oversized chopsticks.

After dessert we not only get the bill – the equivalent of 350 Euros for four persons – but also the good news that the following day a fresh delivery of Fugu can be expected. Perfect timing!

Exactly at 9:00 am the following day I am in front of the restaurant again. Beaming with joy Shimura-san welcomes me and proudly presents the fish that is still alive. There are even two different kind of Fugu. Now, the following part is not for the faint-hearted. But with the eye of the photographer I can watch the procedure professionally in a neutral way and with great interest: the fidgety fish is put down on a large wooden board and then everything happens amazingly fast. Chop-chop, a few fast movements with a sharp knife and the first puffer fish is laid out completely skinned and dissected in front of us. In one bowl there are the poisonous inner parts; in another bowl are the edible fillets. With the help of a dictionary I learn more about the special training for preparing puffer fish, as mentioned above and the venomous parts. After some more, less spectacular moments, also the next three puffer fish are lying completely dissected in front of us. These are around six meals altogether. Very interesting. However I have to agree that I had imagined the whole thing to be much more exciting. Like carefully separating and with utmost concentration cutting around parts full of deadly poison. But none of this had happened and after the work is done, actually too fast, we are standing in front of the restaurant again.

One last picture with everyone and off I go towards Tokyo. I feel happy and pleased because of the very exciting and rare insight into Japanese Cuisine and also, of course, because I have actually found proof of my immortality.

Otherwise the puffer fish tastes only like fish – the special flavour comes from the risk involved.

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