4. Fugu (Puffer Fish)
I too could have easily died from eating fugu, a fish that derives its name from its instinct to puff up when feeling threathened. The chef might have been a first timer. A borderline student who got lucky on the exam day. Or the chef might have had an argument with his wife earlier the day. And his lapse of concentration might have led to tetrodotoxin from the fish's blood, liver or ovaries tainting its flesh. The lethal tetrodotoxin could have killed me by first causing numbness in the mouth, then vomitting, paralysis in the body and eventually death.
But none of that comes to mind because I am in the very good hands of Izuei Honten. This seven-storey restaurant in Ueno has been operating since the middle of the Edo period extending between the 17th and 19th century. Mind you, that makes them over 270 years old. We are actually here for their famous charcoal-grilled eels, but since I have blogged about a better experience in Narita I will not bore you with the details here.
Back to the fugu. Its presentation is a feast on the eyes. Thin, almost translucent slices of fugu are meticulously arranged in the shape of a full chrysanthemum blossom. This arrangement may seem inappropriate considering chrysanthemum generally signifies death in Japan, but it is comforting to know that (yellow) chrysanthemum is also the imperial seal of the emperor. But strangely, the emperor is the only person forbidden by law to eat fugu.
The emperor is not missing out on much though. The texture of fugu is chewy and its taste unexcitingly bland. Failing to locate any signs of subtle sweetness expected of fresh seafood, the tasting experience is quite anti-climatic. Flavour improves when eaten with the accompanying ponzu sauce, grated radish, chopped chives and lime. But it makes one wonder why fugu is such a sought after delicacy. Perhaps it is the bragging rights that are forever bestowed upon those who dare.
Think Sydney Fish Market. Then multiply it by infinity to get the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.
Overflowed with sights and sounds, there is a lot going on at the Tsukiji Fish Market. There are fishmongers shouting from all directions. The sound of a band saw cutting up a large frozen tuna. Amused tourists looking on, and occasionally trying to get out of the locals' way. Men in rubber boots pushing wooden hand carts and motorised carts whizzing past. The seafood, apparently 450 kinds of them, come in all shapes, colours and sizes. Slimy fresh sea cucumber, Japanese mentaiko or seasoned fish eggs and prawns buried underneath thick layers of wood shavings to keep them alive. You can find them all here.
And once you are done with oohing and aahing over the seafood, it is best to find a good seafood restaurant to keep your stomach happy. My tips? Look for one that has a long queue and allows you to take pictures inside the restaurant. This is someone speaking from experience, unfortunately.
2. Yuba Meal in Nikko
Nikko, a city northeast ofTokyo, is the home of Japan's most ostentatiously decorated shrines and serene Buddhist temples. Nikko is also the home of the 17th century wooden carving of the three wise monkeys at Toshogu Shrine. Monkey Mizaru, covering its eyes, sees no evil. Kikazaru, covering its ears, hears no evil. And Iwazaru, covering its mouth, speaks no evil.
But for me, Nikko is most memorable for its yuba or bean curd skin meals. Made from soy beans, yuba is prepared by boiling soy milk in a shallow pan until a thin layer of bean curd skin forms on its liquid surface. The skins are collected, dried and used in cooking in a variety of ways. Tempura prawn coated with shredded yuba in place of bread crumbs. Rolled yuba braised in dashi stock. And my favourite, silky soft yuba in its purest form. All served with a warm bowl of rice.
There is something profoundly satisfying about having a meal with soothing flavours in a sacred city.