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Japan Hours

Posted: March 16, 2011

Whenever I arrive in Japan, my strategy is simple: No tourist spots, no taxis and no traipsing around. We were there to eat, relax, eat and explore small neighborhoods. I make sure to arrange every meal carefully and maximize all days with meals from breakfast to supper. The ultimate culinary exploration is not always expensive and fine dining, but narrow alleys lined with inscrutable bars and one-counter eateries which are often the right place to truly fulfill your gastronomic experience to satisfaction.

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Japanese food strives for harmony with nature, and cooking styles emphasize the freshest of ingredients as well as spontaneity and sincerity. The food is as healthy as it is delicious.

During my recent trip to Japan, it was winter and the season for tiger fugu (blowfish)! During the winter the toxins are at a minimum, and the flesh becomes firmer and more appetizing. To this day it is still illegal to serve fugu to the emperor.

The center of the country’s blowfish industry is Shimonoseki, known as Fugu City. Most of the country’s live catch comes through there, and many more fish are aqua-farms off the coast. Only licensed chefs are allowed to prepare and sell fugu. The famous “fugu licensing exam” is typically given in the summer months, when the fish are small, contain the most toxin and is harder to identify. The chefs who pass the exam are given a certificate that must be displayed at their restaurants.

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Because people have died foraging in garbage cans behind fugu restaurants, and because fugu innards can be used as a poison, chefs must, by law, keep the fish entrails in a container at their restaurant, under lock and key. In Tokyo, the containers are taken to fish markets, where city authorities incinerate them.

There is an old saying in Japan: “poisonous fish are delicious”. And I can’t wait to try them.

The best way to enjoy fugu is sashimi style, which is usually thinly sliced so it becomes almost transparent, but I do not like it too thin and prefer it a little thicker for more substantial texture. It’s served with ponzu sauce, finely chopped asatsuki scallions and grated daikon.

Those who dare, dig in to this delicious specialty.

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