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The dish: Fugu fish

One of the world's most dangerous foods is immensely sweet when (carefully) prepared into sashimi

Photo: Hizwan Hamid
Controversy
Fugu fish (aka pufferfish) is considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous foods – cue dramatic violins and cutaway shots to panicked faces. The fish is lethal due to the tetrodotoxin poison in its organs, a type of toxin that’s said to be 1,200 times deadlier than cyanide. Death is very possible if the poison isn’t removed during the preparation process, which has been the case with a small number of Japanese who have rashly attempted to cook the fish at home. If the poison is consumed, symptoms will show within ten minutes, beginning with numbness around the mouth followed by muscle dysfunction and asphyxiation. Right until the point of death, the victim is conscious. On a less morbid note, fugu is immensely sweet when (carefully) prepared into sashimi.

Preparation
Only a licensed chef can prepare and serve fugu, and rightfully, the process of acquiring a license is a long-drawn-out affair. Chef Tetsuya Yanagida, the executive Japanese chef of Tatsu, is one of a handful of chefs in KL armed with a license. He’s practiced on hundreds of fish in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market before passing the test. The classes begin with identifying the kinds of fugu: Some fish contain minimal poison and can be safely consumed when cautiously prepared, while others are completely inedible. Guts, ovaries and organs must be removed, and chefs will distinguish the sashimi section from other edible sections to be used in nabe (hotpot). Most times, a designated knife known as fugu hiki is used to slice the fish into translucent paper-thin slivers. The slices are typically overlapped into pretty petals on a heavily patterned plate so that the design beneath the plate comes through. The petals symbolise chrysanthemum, a flower that indicates grief in Japan.

Taste
What fugu lacks in flavour and lushness, it makes up for in sweetness and an oddly chewy texture. Really, the hype surrounding fugu largely comes from the dangers, skills and cost of preparing the fish rather than its taste. Even when dipped in ponzu dipping sauce, the fish lacks the creamy luxury of a thick-cut tuna or salmon. The off-cuts are commonly thrown into hotpots, and in the case of cooked fugu, the meat is slightly rubbery and carries the neutral flavour of chicken. When eggs are cracked into the pot and rice added, it’s a warm wintertime dish that counters the cold shoulder many have given fugu.

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