As I weaved through the stalls of Kuromon Ichiba Market in Osaka, I found it hard to resist sampling the various snacks on offer, and soon enough my stomach was so full that I could barely walk. Nonetheless, the stroll facilitated digestion.
With nearly 200 years of history, the famous covered market no longer has much of its ancient architecture but has kept all its lively traditions and ambience.
It remains the same old good wet market, supplying locals with its dizzying assortment of fresh agricultural produce and marine catch.
However, I observed that locals tend to stay away from those eat-in shops for sushi and sashimi that are popular among tourists.
Meanwhile, at the fishmongers’ stalls all you could hear is Japanese. Unlike most tourists, I let my curiosity take me to this untouristy zone and tried to get the authentic feel of the place.
In front of one shop a small crowd had gathered around a water tank with five chubby fish – fugu! Each pufferfish must weigh one catty, I reckoned.
As a delicacy, fugu is one of the most dangerous to eat. The fish is so poisonous that the slightest mistake in its preparation could be fatal, and only a licensed chef is allowed to prepare the fish meat, making sure that it is not contaminated by toxins from its internal organs.
In a sense, those who dare eat fugu are risking their lives to experience the taste.
Many years ago I visited a fugu restaurant in the Namba district of Osaka. The entire set of fugu offerings was very expensive but I gave it a try for the sake of culinary experience.
Fugu was first served as wafer-thin sashimi, and then as part of chirinabe or hotpot with fish and vegetables.
In the end, it became a pot of stew, and with the addition rice, it looked like a Cantonese-style sliced fish congee.
Frankly, I was unable to appreciate the highly-acclaimed fish as I found the sashimi rather tasteless. The hotpot was fine and the stew was better as it had a stronger taste.
The most impressive, though, was the fried pufferfish skin topped with sour sauce, which yielded an interesting mix of tastes; the texture was like that of beef tripe.
Later I was asked to do two fugu dishes in mainland China. No way, I said. In preparing fugu, I could only trust a certified Japanese chef.
Later I was told by a Japanese friend that some pufferfish available in the market these days are quite safe – they are less lethal or even completely non-toxic – as they are born and raised in farms.
“Are they any good?” I asked.
“Of course, the wild ones taste better,” he said.
So back to Osaka: The five wild pufferfish cost between 21,000 and 29,000 Japanese yen each, meaning the most expensive is around HK$2,000.
“Does it mean they are more poisonous?” I couldn’t help but ask, and my friend quickly translated it for the fishmonger.
The vendor laughed and nodded: “Much more oishi!”
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 24
Translation by John Chui
[Chinese version 中文版]
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