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Tokyo (Day 1)- The Money Shot

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Well, back to Korea again after another wonderful adventure overseas.  This time it was to the Land of the Rising Sun a.k.a. Japan.  Now, I know Japan has left quite a Godzilla-sized cultural imprint on the world with technology, car manufacturing, and maddeningly-cute cartoons like Hello Kitty and Pokemon.  In these posts, like all the others, I will be showing you a gastronomical glimpse of the land that has brought sushi, tempura, and sake to a wider audience.  Naturally, there is much more to Japanese cuisine than just these three components, and I hope to demonstrate this through my Tokyo food series.

Day 1

After touching down in Narita, I was bracing myself for the train system which is the most complicated metro system I’ve encountered on my travels not due to its size but rather due to the number of private train companies that operate different lines which in turn affect fares, travel times, and how one manages to get from point A to point B based on which line and exit they take.  After a long time with the train info lady and making the sojourn to my hostel, I explored the neighborhood a little bit before heading back to my hostel to get some dinner ideas.  I talked to Hiromi at the front desk while showing her my handy-dandy personal guide I normally write up before I go places.  Thank you, Wikitravel!  I asked her about one restaurant, Torafugu Tei, and she immediately lit up with excitement.  It was probably because fugu is a Japanese deliciacy which involves making sushi out of an extremely poisonous blowfish.  Chefs have to have a special license in order to even serve the fish on the premises.   Roughly five people a year still die from this goofy-looking fish whose vital organs are deadlier than cyanide, and it’s the subject of one of my favorite Simpsons episodes where Homer thinks he’s going to die from ingesting improperly prepared fugu.  So I liked those odds for my first dinner in Tokyo.  Hiromi also recommended the sperm sacks which apparently were a winter specialty and her favorite part of the fugu since they tasted like cheese.  Turns out there are multiple locations in Tokyo, and I went to the one closest to my hostel located at 2-14-15 Nishi-Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo.  Mind you, they’re only open from 5 p.m. onwards. IMG_3305 I got a picture of the floating pufferfish, mouths still agape, while thinking this might be my last meal. IMG_3306 I’ve had it before during my trip to Busan in South Korea in soup form and survived, but this was raw fugu in the heartland of Japan.

Eventually I came in the restaurant behind some old Japanese businessmen, and the waitress thought I was with them for some bizarre reason.  She told me to take off my shoes, but as soon as the leader of the old men gave me the ‘What you doin’, gaijin?’ look, I was out of that room.  No one spoke English there, so it was just a humorous episode of confusion.  I was seated in a cosy wooden room, and I went for the fugu sashimi, the sperm sacks, and Hoshuku sake from the Nara prefecture served warm.  They brought out the sake first in a petite flask with an even tiner cup.  It was smaller than the cups I used to drink with my Kindergarteners.  However, it was a smooth, warm elixer with a bit of an acidic, alcohol-tinged bite to the end of each sip.  Eventually, my sashimi came out complete with a sumptuous presentation of each translucent slice arranged around sliced fugu skin, wasabi, green onions,  and a perrilla leaf. IMG_1767IMG_1768 The waitress motioned for me to squeeze the lime to coat all of the fugu pieces which I subsequently did.  She then imitated making mini fugu tacos and dipping them in the soy sauce on the side.  I summoned all of my chopstick skills which was a bit hard since the pieces were sticking to the plate and were extremely delicate.IMG_1769  Eventually I got the wee concoction into my mouth, and it was glorious.  The lime with the subtle richness of the fugu went well with the bolder wasabi and onions.  After eating most of the dish, I noticed my lips were slightly tingling which made me brace myself to hit the floor while being asphixiated, compliments of the poison, but it never happened.  The sake was also a nice palate cleanser to segue into the plat du jour:  the fugu sperm sacks.  IMG_1770They were served in a small porcelain bowl which I uncovered to find four golf ball-sized orbs that seem to have been roasted based on the char marks.IMG_1771  I decided to just take a bite out of one of them, and I was greeted with a piping hot stream of fugu semen.  Even though I was semi-injured due to my tongue being burned and quasi-violated based on what I was eating, I soldiered on after letting the sacks cool off.  I used the spoon that was provided to actually taste the semen, and strangely enough, like Hiromi told me before, it tasted like cheese.  I’d liken it to a cheddar flavor.  When the last drop of sake left the cup and my bowl was empty, I didn’t feel like I was full, but the meal amazingly kept me satiated for the rest of the night.  I guess the danger factor fed my adventurous soul along with my adventurous stomach.  I’d recommend it for anyone in Tokyo looking for a twist on your typical sushi experience.

Food Porn and Cheating Death

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Hello and welcome to a summer edition of Mastication Monologues!  I just got back from a short weekend jaunt to Busan in the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula.  I definitely enjoyed my time there as it was filled with plenty of sun, surf, and super people we met along the way.  However, the main point of this post is that I crossed off two more of my Korean food challenges while seeing a new place.  One of the biggest tourist attractions in Busan is the Jagalchi Fish Market, and it was the first thing we visited since it was right next to our hostel.

The biggest fish market in Korea.

The biggest fish market in Korea.

Not only is it the biggest fish market in Korea, but it was probably one of the least smelliest fish markets I’ve ever been in.  I was quickly face to face with one of the more notorious types of “fish” in Korea:   개불 or gaebul or penis fish.  It’s quite an apt name when you see them in person.

Anyway, so I was looking at them in the basket just chilling out there, and very quickly one of the fishmongers asked me if I wanted to look at one.

It's like a nude beach.

It’s like a nude beach.

I replied in the affirmative, and she quickly pulled one out and almost shoved it in my face.  However, she then proceeded to squeeze it, and the “fish” literally began to start peeing out water.

Yep, it's really peeing.

Someone needs to get their prostate checked.

This was getting a bit too real for me, and she proceeded to throw it back in with the other members in the basket.  However, I signaled that I wanted to eat it, and she smiled and yelled out, “Sashimi!” to her friends.  What that meant for those not familiar with sushi terms or the Korean version, “Hoe“, it meant that I was going to eat it raw.  It was only 2,000 Won for one gaebul.  I saw that the fish quickly shrunk, and it was full of blood while she was slicing through the flesh.  She brought it out to me awash in a devilishly red gojuchang chili sauce, and I found the taste to be surprisingly delightful.IMG_1940  I never thought I would be saying that after eating something named after a male sexual organ.  Texture-wise it was quite firm yet slightly rubbery, and taste-wise it kind of had a neutral taste even though I was expecting some sort of briny wave of flavor.

No homo, bro.

No homo, bro.

Overall, it was better than the second fish dish I had that didn’t quite live up to the hype.

Now if you know me, I’m one of the biggest Simpsons fans, so I was naturally intrigued by the episode where Homer eats fugu (literally meaning “river pig”) or poisonous blowfish.  The danger lies in the organs like the liver and eyes, and if not prepared correctly, a diner will slowly become paralyzed while still conscious.  Eventually the person will die of asphyxiation, and there is no antidote for the poison once ingested.  Sounds like a tasty meal, right?

No sweat for kitchen prep.

No sweat for kitchen prep.

After taking down my sexually suggestive snack, we wandered about the Jagalchi area and ended up finding a restaurant that specialized in 복국 or bokguk  which is a blowfish soup. IMG_1991 When I walked in there was only one man going to town on a bowl of fish soup, but the owners were surprised when I asked him for a bowl of pufferfish soup (10,000 won).  While I was waiting at the table, the ladies in the back were just staring at me like I was a madman.  While they set out the side dishes, they warily approached me like I was some sort of superhuman being.  Eventually they set it out for me, and I just saw a clear broth filled with bean sprouts.

Below the surface lurks the poison

Below the surface lurks the poison

I slowly began to eat the crispy veggies along with the occasional peppery perilla leaf, but the clear broth was quite bland.  Once diving beneath the layer of semi-mediocrity, I was face to face with three big pieces of pufferfish.  Most of the pieces were bones unfortunately.  I was somewhat freaked out since I could see the black and white skin along with the eye sockets (one of most poisonous areas), but thankfully the skin is safe.  I took a couple bites of the tender white flesh that was hanging off the bones, and in the back of my head I was somewhat freaking out thinking whether or not it was going to be my last.

Going in for the kill (hopefully not me).

Going in for the kill (hopefully not me).

The flesh of the pufferfish was actually disappointing.  Although the flesh was quite delicate in terms of texture, it was devoid of any sort of flavor.  So if this was going to be my last meal, I’d definitely ask for a refund.  However, in the end, I could proudly say that I survived eating a potentially life-threatening animal regardless of my crestfallen state after consuming it.  Plus, it was just another highlight of a great weekend trip to my new favorite city in Korea.

In the end, if you were to try one of the two, I would suggest trying the penis fish over the blowfish soup.  It’s more than a mouthful of culinary pleasure ;).

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