During My Last Visit to Japan, I Had Poisonous Fish

In the wide world of Japanese cuisine, Shimonoseki, Japan is particularly famous for something particularly controversial:

Shimonoseki - Sewer Cover fugu
Manhole Cover with Fugu Design in Shimonoseki, Japan

Blowfish.  Pufferfish.  Swellfish.  Delicacy.  Jimmy.  No matter what you call it, there are still…plenty of other words to call it.

River pig (河豚).   鰒/フグ, pronounced fuguふく fuku, which means “good fortune” and which serves as a pun on fugu, the official name for the venomous fish.

Hire me to remove the eyes, ovaries, and in particular the liver, and you won’t be around to read my next post.  Nor will I.  I’ll be in jail.  You really need to find the right chef at the right time.  Or, cower out and try the poison-free version.

Shimonoseki isn’t shy about its most famous resident.  I had never tried fugu before visiting that city, but a visit to one of Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores, called konbini, changed all of that:

Shimonoseki - convenience store fugu
Convenience store (konbini) fugu! — There really was a slight tingling sensation after taking a bite

Do Japanese convenience stores keep humans in mind? Fugu, bread stuffed with chocolate and margarine and pocket-sized cans of sake really make you wonder if we are their main source of revenue.  Then again, have you ever had the displeasure of breathing in at a 7-11 in the US?  Those stores must be one of the many layers of Buddhist hell.

For a short history lesson, immediately following the end of the Meiji Era (~1868-1912), Shimonoseki was the first city in the country to allow legal consumption of fugu. It’s not even the region where most fugu are caught; yet, due to its trend-setting stance on allowing people to eat blowfish, Shimonseki became the venomous fish’s main distribution port.

Anyway, let’s take a brief tour of Shimonoseki.

Shimonoseki - Karato Market exterior
Exterior Shot of Karato Market, Shimonoseki, Japan

Japan’s most famous fish/wholesale market is undoubtedly Tsukiji Ichiba (市場/いちば/ichiba = market), located in Tokyo.  However, for a much more relaxing yet equally delicious market visit, check out Karato Ichiba in Shimonoseki.

For which marine product are they most famous?

Take a wild guess.

Shimonoseki - Karato Market fugu sculpture
Is that a float? Imagine that during Mardi Gras

That’s English for fugu, and Japanese for fugu.

canned fugu supermarket
Canned Fugu and Whale Curry in a Shimonoseki Souvenir Shop

Someone went a little overboard here.  Fugu (Japanese-style) curry, boiled fugu in a can, raw fugu in a can, even whale curry tags along…who says Japan and China aren’t alike?


Would you try fugu?  What if it were a birthday gift?

Kerala Set My Mouth on Fire, Part 1: The Fish Dish of Kovalam

After a 16-year hiatus, I revisited India, spending one week in the South Indian state of Kerala.

Although it sounds like a short trip, I was able to cram a lot of different meals into those days, spread out over three primary locations: Kovalam, Trivandrum (aka Thiruvananthapuram), and Kochi (aka Cochin).

south indian set meal
Truly One of the Best Fish Dishes I’ve Ever Tried, Kovalam, Kerala, India

Starting with Kovalam, a beach-centric suburb of Trivandrum in the southern part of the state of Kerala, one particular lunch was a feast; I can gladly say that it was one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever had, the bizarre presence of grape juice notwithstanding.

A typical South Indian set meal is called sadya (സദ്യ, in the predominant Kerala language of Malayalam), and is served with a variety of vegetable curries surrounding a heaping portion of white rice. You scoop it all up with your hands, and can even ask for refills!

If you’d like to see me embarrass myself struggling with the chilies while attempting to scoop up rice, check out the video below–

Although it’s much easier to find North Indian-influenced cuisine in the United States due to immigration patterns, I’d highly recommend seeking out sadya, or even try preparing one yourself … though banana leaves might be in short supply!

Oden (おでん): Japan’s Wintry Snack

Tokyo - Oden (1)

What’s that floating by the cash register of many Japanese, Taiwanese, and Korean convenience stores?   It’s called oden (おでん), something you will generally see once the colder months kick in.

The big question: What is oden?  It’s a type of hot pot in which fish plays an important role, both in the stock – also known as dashi, made of kelp and katsuobushi – and as a bobbing ingredient.  Eggs, a starch called konjac, tofu, and various pieces of vegetables and meat commonly round out the oden basin.  Another ingredient is called shirataki (白滝) is sometimes part of the oden pot; it is made of the root of the elephant yam, also known as konjac.  This root contains a fiber called glucomannan which makes you feel full for a longer period of time.

Tokyo - Oden (2)

You can even find your favorite oden in a vending machine.  Collect all 1000.

From left to right, ganmo (がんも)- a disc of fried tofu with vegetables; gyuu suji (牛すじ)- beef tendon; tsumire (摘入/つみれ)- fish balls.


Now, we’re going to focus on one member of the oden clan: chikuwa.

Chikuwa (竹輪) is a tube-shaped fish paste cake.

Unusually, I noticed on a Japanese television channel a man playing a chikuwa as a flute.

Tokyo - Chikuwa Oden (1)

Okayama - Chikuwa Oden (2)Coincidentally, a few years later, while on a trip to Okayama I happened to pass by this statue of what else, Chikuwa Flute Man.

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