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Whatever caused the first guy to figure out how to eat a blowfish and live — an attempt to impress a girl or perhaps a wealthy patron — we may never know, but we can be grateful that he did.

My first fugu experience was when a friend’s brother had just graduated from cooking school and had a license to prepare the potentially lethal fish. When I put a piece of the paper-thin sliced raw flesh on my tongue, there was a tingle, and an ever so slight numbing. The one-pot dish in which we cooked the chunks of flesh clinging to bone was revelatory. Flavor, texture, bite after bite of succulence.

I now know, after having prepared and eaten many a fugu myself, that the tingle on the tongue was not the norm. Somewhere along the line the flesh had been contaminated with the poison that resides mostly in the internal organs.

Fugu, also called blowfish or puffer fish, is today tremendously popular in Japan, where mostly farm-raised, much safer fish, are consumed. The handling of fugu is regulated in Japan on the local level. While Kanto and Kansai both require licensing, some of the outlying prefectures don’t. In Osaka, where I work, there are several classes of certification — wholesale, butchering and resale. Wholesalers are required locally to remove the inner organs before selling. Working with a chef as an apprentice, you are not required to be licensed, if he is properly certified.

Another common word for fugu in Japanese is teppo (pistol). It comes from the phrase “teppo ni ataru,” to be shot. The word ataru also means to suffer from food poisoning. Tessa is the word for the paper-thin fugu sashimi, and tecchiri is the one-pot nabe dish that features blowfish.

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Tecchiri nabe

Last week featured a nabe with a rich broth, yosenabe. Today I present a chirinabe. Chiri is a one-pot dish where the ingredients are cooked in a very light konbu stock or water and then eaten dipped, generally, in a ponzu sauce. Tecchiri has become very popular in the last 20 years — fugu was not widely eaten before the war — and there are many restaurants that offer fugu courses for as little as 3,000 yen. These shops feature huge tanks with fugu swimming en masse.

These tank-raised fish are not as flavorful as those caught in the open sea, but they are a bargain and a very safe bet for first-timers. Preparing tecchiri at home is also not a difficult task. With a gas burner on the table and some good ponzu, you are set.

Most good supermarkets and indeed most fishmongers carry fugu that has been gutted and boned and is ready to go in the pot. Just get together the vegetables and you can be a fugu chef in your own home. After you are done with the vegetables and fugu, remove the konbu from the stock, and add 2 cups of cooked rice and two beaten eggs for a delicious zosui (rice porridge).

1 liter water
1 small piece konbu (about 5 cm)
500 grams fugu, gutted and boned
1 bunch leeks (shiro negi)
1/2 head Napa cabbage (hakusai)
1 bunch spinach (horenso) or kikuna
4 shiitake mushrooms
1 package enoki mushrooms
1 carrot, peeled and sliced in 2-cm rings
1/4 daikon, peeled, halved and sliced 2 cm

Ponzu sauce

1/2 cup koikuchi shoyu (dark soy sauce)
1/2 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
2 tablespoons mirin

Garnish

Grated daikon
Cayenne pepper or chili paste
Finely sliced scallions

1) Wash and trim the vegetables. Set aside the pieces of fugu and the vegetables.

2) Combine shoyu, lemon juice and mirin, and set aside.

3) Combine grated daikon and a pinch of cayenne pepper or a dab of hot chili paste.

4) In individual serving dishes, place grated daikon, scallions and ponzu.

5) Place water and konbu in a large pot and set on portable gas flame at the table.

6) Add fugu and vegetables a little at a time, when they are cooked dip them in the sauce to eat. Serves two.

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