THE “I’D DIE FOR A MEAL” EXPRESSION
GETS NEW MEANING AFTER MEETING
MASAYUKI NAKAI – ONE OF FEW LICENSED
FUGU CHEFS IN JAPAN. IF NAKAI HAS A BAD
DAY AT WORK, HIS GUESTS MIGHT END UP
SIX FEET UNDER. PLEASE HAVE A SEAT.
FUGU – ONE OF WORLD’S MOST POISONOUS
FISH IS BEING PREPARED AND SERVED.
It’s just another small door on one of the backstreets in Kyoto’s Ponto-cho geisha district. Behind this modest entrance, Msayuki Nakai, a very humble man, serves one of Japan’s most exclusive, expensive, and dangerous dishes – fugu. Fugu is a 35–50 cm blowfish found in the Pacific Ocean. One glance at this fish and you almost can tell it’s poisonous. It looks somewhat mean.
When we entered the Yoshibei restaurant, we observed a certificate, which proves that to become a renowned fugu chef, Nakai went through training that can take up to 10 years. The place is miniscule – about 15 seats and a counter where we sat in a row for what could have been our last supper. Skilled hands and sharp knives quickly separated the fins, opened the fish, and removed the swim bladder and liver (the most poisonous parts of these little rascals). Nakai scrupulously dealt with every detail. He then ripped off the skin. Suddenly, it looked less scary – more like an ugly alien.
After the knife work, he carefully washed the fish and put it to rest in the fridge. A fugu isn’t eaten fresh. Nakai prepares this fish dish one or two days in advance, so it acquires the right taste and texture. From the same fridge, he pulled out a fish that was dressed the day before, carefully sliced it into thin sashimi pieces, and placed it on a small plate. He added on tempura, some vegetables, and garnished with fugu roe – shirako– the ultimate delicacy.
While Nakai worked on the fish, his wife prepared an unusual drink called hirezake, a concoction we’ve never had before (and we’ve had a few). She flambéed warm fugufin-flavored sake that burned blue when she torched it.
Fugu fish are filled with
tetrodotoxin – poison that’s
a lot deadlier than cyanide.
Just 1 milligram can be
fatal within 20 minutes
We looked at each other. No one said a word. Chopsticks were passed out and with a nod, we each grabbed a piece of fish. Everyone seems to think – is this it? But it wasn’t. Of course not. But still. It was the experience. The sensation that comes from knowing that if you put something in your mouth, it might kill you – even if you eat as little as 1 milligram. A certain feeling. Nakai and his wife have probably seen this reaction more than once. Stupid westerners. They just smiled at us. We shared the drink. But to be honest, we left most of it behind.
And the fugu? Well... sashimi: very thin, pale, and unexceptional in flavor. The ceremony and the entire experience were better than the food. But hey: now we can tick that box.