Nearly a year has passed since my last article for Fishing Fury, entitled A Different Kind of Fishing, where I described fishing for Gobies in Tokyo Bay. Here I would like to introduce another traditional Japanese fishing technique, quite unrelated but probably as obscure to most Western anglers, known in Japanese as kattÅ, which is a method, or rather a specific type of tackle, for catching Fugu (the fish known variously in English as pufferfish, globefish or blowfish) for human consumption.
To be poisoned by Fugu is to be shot with a musket: both are deadly.
So goes the old Japanese saying, revealing how even in the age of black powder the potency of the poison of the Fugu was known to the natives of these shores. In the West too, Fugu poison has been known for many years; Captain Cook documented its effects (and those of Ciguatera poisoning) in his second voyage of discovery in the 1770s. However, the flesh of the Fugu is not poisonous and is a highly prized and very expensive delicacy in Japan. In purely culinary terms, Fugu is quite a versatile ingredient that possesses a unique texture, lending it to a number of different methods of preparation. The very high prices paid for Fugu meals give it a rather hallowed status and is considered quite the indulgence, whilst the apparent danger associated with such a poisonous fish imbues the diner with a sense of daring or adventure. In fact, the gourmands name for raw Fugu, tessa, is an ironic term derived from the phrase teppÅ sashimi, or musket sashimi. However, with the correct preparation Fugu can be enjoyed quite safely and here in Japan, especially in the eastern KantÅ region, the hungry fisherman can indulge himself in Fugu dishes that normally command prohibitively high prices in exclusive restaurants.
Many species of Fugu are found throughout the Far East. Indeed, many sport fishermen in Japan consider Fugu to be a nuisance, for a number of reasons. Firstly, their hardiness, lack of predators and tolerance of a wide variety of conditions such as salinity, temperature and depth means they can be encountered almost anywhere, from the deep sea to estuaries and secluded marinas. Second, their large, sharp, very strong beak-like mouths “in nature used to crush shellfish and small crustaceans” easily cut through most fishing line, especially the thinner fluorocarbon varieties that many people use for leaders when pier fishing or casting from shore. In the event of landing a Fugu, removing the hook from the mouth of the fish can be dangerous as well as time-consuming; the larger varieties are quite capable of separating a fingertip or two from its owner. Lastly, in a country where most fish caught end up on the dinner table, the average man cannot prepare Fugu himself. From deep-sea fishing excursions to summer holidaymakers fishing outside their beach houses, many Japanese fishermen have been tormented by Fugu at some stage or other.
Although there are more than twenty species of Fugu found in Japan, the majority are not considered edible. Some species are completely poisonous with no edible body parts, whilst others are simply too small to eat. There are three main species that are favoured for consumption in Japan: torafugu (common name: Tiger Fugu, scientific name: Takifugu rubripres), akame (Red-Eyed Fugu, Takifugu chrysops) and shÅsaifugu (Spotted Fugu, Takifugu snyderi):
Tiger Fugu, especially those taken from the waters near Shimonoseki, is generally considered the tastiest. Tiger Fugu is also popular since it grows to a large size (up to 60cm) and that in addition to its meat, the skin, bones and fins do not contain poison. The skin has a unique gelatinous texture, and is usually sliced into strips and par-boiled; its consumption is said to be most beneficial to the complexion of ladies. The bones can be boiled to render a most delicious and rich Fugu stock. The fins are used to make an unusual alcoholic drink of the somewhat uninspiring name, fin sake, which is just that. Sun-dried fins of the Tiger Fugu are grilled, and then, straight from the fire, plunged into a cup of boiling-hot sake. Sometimes the sake is then lit, in the manner of certain Western cocktails. The grilled Fugu fins impart a rich, smokey, earthy flavour to the sake, which already has its own distinctive taste, and this “extract of fugu”, in addition to being delicious, is supposed to be quite tonic to the health. However, the recent boom in aquaculture of Tiger Fugu in the Shimonoseki area has caused a flood of cheap and inferior quality fish in the market, and irresponsible farming has caused wild Fugu to become scarce and command a much higher price at market. Because of the higher monetary value attributed to wild Fugu (fetching twenty to thirty thousand yen (approximately US$200-300) a kilogram at Tsukiji wholesale fish market) the market is riddled with unscrupulous tradesmen re-labelling farmed Fugu as wild-caught, and amazingly even passing off, as prepared fillets of Fugu meat, cuts of other fish such as halibut or filefish.
Red-Eyed Fugu are generally quite small and occasionally can be taken as by-catch when fishing for Gobies or other Fugu; although its flesh is edible it is the gonads of the male Red-Eye that are highly prized among gourmands. Although Westerners may cringe at the prospect of eating the milt-producing organs of any fish, they are quite delicious grilled or, parboiled and eaten with slightly pickled sliced cucumber and wakame seaweed.
In terms of taste, the Spotted Fugu is traditionally considered to be in a lower class than the Tiger. However, because of the high incidence of poor quality farmed Fugu and fraud among dealers of Tiger Fugu in recent times, it is often said that freshly caught Spotted Fugu is actually superior in quality to most store-bought Tiger. The Spotted Fugu is distributed throughout Japan, but can be found in particularly large shoals at the entrance to Tokyo Bay and also the Pacific coast of Chiba Prefecture. In contrast to Tiger Fugu, the skin of the Spotted variety also contains Fugu poison, as does its blood, preventing the culinary use of its head, fins and bones. However, its large numbers make the Spotted Fugu the most common target of Fugu sport anglers, and it is on this variety that this article is based.