Thursday, December 03, 2015

Tetrodotoxin Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving can be a tricky holiday overseas. As it is a distinctly North American holiday, anyone outside of the USA and Canada will not necessarily understand what is going on.  Before we had kids, I would take a day of annual leave on Thanksgiving Thursday, and cook up a storm for local friends. We have been having expat Thanksgivings in Canberra ever since I first came here in 1997, and the tradition has continued in most years.

However, as the arrival of children has cut into our spare time, and as work responcibilities have increased, scheduling issues have forced me to abandon the strict calendar approach and host Thanksgiving on the following weekend. I've generally managed to be home on Thanksgiving, but for the first time since the field work for my PhD in 1998, this year I was stuck overseas.

I had a few thoughts about what to do, but my wonderful hosts in Japan's National Institute of Polar Research saved the day and took me out to dinner.  When I asked what it was, the answer was, "boiled fish." But it wasn't just any old fish, it was a notoriously poisonous-and Japanese- one.

The Fugu is a toxic blowfish (there are a variety of species, apparently). In a country known for the diversity of diet, it is one of the most extreme and iconic dishes of Japanese cuisine.  A poisonous fish, with the parts that will kill you carefully removed by a licenced chef, turned into a fancy meal. One of our post-docs had a manuscript rejected that morning, so she volunteered to be the taster. And the drinker.

The first course was salad of vegetables and strips of raw fish skin.  This was followed by the sashimi (shown below). After that came the deep-fried fish, followed by the main course; fish meat so fresh it was twitching, boiled at the table. After that, various vegetables were cooked in the fishy water, hotpot style, with thin strips of fish eaten shabu-shabu style. Finally, the residual broth was used to make rice.

As one can imagine, pufferfish are not particularly muscular.  Quite the opposite, in fact. So most of the later courses involved coaxing small amounts of meat off of large, perforated, platy bones. The boiled course, in particular, was probably the most difficult-to-eat chopstick meal that I have encountered in Japan, China, or Korea.  And the meat itself was extremely mild flavored, in contrast to the orange paste shown above, which was quite spicy.

The price was more reasonable than I feared- 5000 yen per person, including the beer. Overall, it was a fascinating experience, but not something that I will add to my standard rotation of what to eat in Japan. Still, it was better than trying to find a turkey substitute that wasn't quite the same as mom cooking her great-grandma's recipe, and it was a great way to celebrate the holiday with a meal that has a distict sense of place, even if that place was where I was working, and not my home.

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