Grilled fugu (blowfish) and shirako (blowfish testicles) from Tempura Matsu in
Kyoto, Japan // © 2010 Deanna Ting
I consider myself to be an adventurous (and voracious) eater, but my eating prowess was recently tested on a winter trip to Kyoto, Japan, just like a scene from television’s “Fear Factor.” It was here where I was first introduced to the highly prized Japanese delicacy of shirako, or blowfish “gentleman bits,” as our friend, Mark, a staff member from the Hoshinoya Kyoto hotel explained to us.
The opportunity to consume such “bits” took place when my boyfriend and I, along with Mark, decided to partake in an elaborate 10-course omakase (chef’s selection) menu at Tempura Matsu per the recommendation of the Hoshinoya Kyoto’s general manager, Ms. Masae Kikuchi. The restaurant is a favorite among locals for its revolving menu of innovative and satisfying dishes incorporating the freshest and finest seafood, vegetables and meat. During our meal, I tasted that firsthand: The opening shiso-leaf amuse bouche, with its bold flavors and flawless presentation, told me we were in for quite the culinary adventure. It was followed by uni (sea urchin)-topped grilled eggplant; a sumptuous lobster tail in saffron-scented broth; melt-in-your-mouth kobe-beef teriyaki and octopus sashimi; and flavorful crab risotto, to name a few.
Then, came the unexpected shirako. At first, I didn’t even know what it was, presuming it was some sort of fish or animal intestines, perhaps. We soon found out, however, thanks to Mark’s translation skills, that it was actually the notoriously poisonous fugu (blowfish). In Japan, only specially licensed chefs are allowed to prepare it because the fish, if prepared incorrectly, can literally kill you with its tetrodotoxin, which is nearly 100 times more poisonous than potassium cyanide. In January 2009, seven people were hospitalized in northern Japan after consuming ill-prepared shirako. Gulp.
I was a little worried, to say the least. I didn’t want to offend our chef but, at the same time, I wasn’t exactly ready to play the gastronomic equivalent of Russian roulette. After about a minute of internal conflict, however, I decided to go for it.
First, I went for the grilled fugu. It had a really subtle flavor and flaky consistency to it, although it did leave my tongue and lips with a slight tingling sensation. Then, I went for the piece de resistance: the shirako. Without getting too graphic, I have to say that the shirako possessed a texture unlike any other food I’ve had before — weirdly creamy and with a distinctive flavor that certainly lingers. Also, on a side note: Those blowfish are surprisingly well-endowed — trust me.
After eating the fugu, I was overcome with a surging sense of achievement. In retrospect, I think that might have had more to do with the tetrodotoxin than anything else. Still, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the restaurant chef/owner literally beaming with pride. Even though I felt a little bit lightheaded, I couldn’t wait to savor our next dish, and that’s exactly what I did, with gusto.
21-26 Umezu Oonawaba-cho
Ukyo-ku Kyoto-shi Kyoto-fu
The restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily, except on Wednesdays, when it is closed. If your clients are uncomfortable with any of the ingredients used in the omakase menu — fugu included — the chef will gladly substitute a particular dish or ingredient. Clients are also encouraged to inform the staff of any food allergies before ordering. While an English menu is available, the chef’s selection dinners, of which there are three, change daily depending on what is in season. The omakase menu I indulged in came out to approximately $110 per person — a steal for the quality of seafood and ingredients used.