Food & Dining

Dessert and Dread in Japanese Cuisine

Food should nourish, sustain and comfort, and everything’s alright with the world when it provides us with these things. But what if food may also result in people meeting their maker prematurely?

Each culture has two or more dishes that aren’t completely safe to eat and the Japanese have theirs – the fugu. Fortunately, there are also desserts that sweeten the deal, sort of, when putting your life on the line with fugu in your mouth.

Manjū

This is dense dessert made from a combination of rice powder, flour, and buckwheat, which are then shaped into unique shapes. In Hiroshima, for example, the manjū is shaped like a maple leaf, a pretty dessert indeed.

The dough is typically filled with red bean paste, or anko, and then steamed until cooked. There are also novelty flavors available, especially in grocery stores and gift shops, but red bean paste is the traditional – and arguably the most delicious – flavor.

While manjū can be eaten on its own, the Japanese like to pair it with bitter green tea. The contrast between the slightly bitter flavor of the tea with the sweet flavors of manjū make for a satisfying snack.

Manjū is also the most commonly served sweet during the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The pairing is called wagashi, a combination that may not be as filling as, say, eating several manjū at once but keep in mind that you’re in the ceremony for its beauty, not to be a glutton.

Mochi

This is also a treat made from rice but it has a different flavor, consistency and texture than manjū. Mochi is a time-intensive treat to prepare the traditional way so if you can express your appreciation for its maker, then better.

The process is simple, really, but the effort required isn’t. The rice has to be pounded over and over again, while small amounts of water are added to it; the process continues until the rice-and-water mix forms a sticky solid glob. The glob is then pulled apart, rolled into small balls, and eaten.

Mochi is a common food in Japan with grocery stores and convenience stores selling them at affordable prices.  But it’s also considered as a holiday food – during New Year, mochi cakes are made into artful displays. After a week or so, these are taken down and eaten by the families who made them.

The dessert is quite unassuming in its appearance but don’t be fooled by appearances! Every year, the Japanese authorities have to warn people about the risk that come with eating mochi, and it’s a fair warning for people getting a taste of their first mochi.

What’s the risk? You can actually choke and die from eating the gelatinous dessert! It can become stuck in your throat resulting in your difficulty to breathe well. You should then take small bites of mochi and savor its flavor before swallowing to reduce, if not eliminate, such risk.

Fugu

But if you want to up the ante, then take a bite of fugu! Even the previous Emperors of Japan who exercised absolute power were explicitly forbidden to eat fugu, a rule that still applies to the Japan’s royal household today.

Why? Fugu, a Japanese delicacy, is made from blowfish, a fish so poisonous that even the smallest mistake in its preparation can result in death for the diner.

This isn’t just an idle threat or hype because people have been known to die from eating ill-prepared fugu, no thanks to the fact that the poison has a quick-acting effect and there’s no cure. The poison, by the way, is tetrodotoxin, a powerful toxin.

Such is the danger associated with fugu consumption that only licensed and highly trained chefs are allowed to prepare the dish. The chefs have to train for years under the watchful eye of a master chef, as well as use special tools for preparing the blowfish. These tools include special knives with blades tempered to the sharpest edge possible by a swordsmith; the knives are carefully stored in a separate box and only used for fugu preparation.

Even for the masters, preparing fugu requires utmost concentration, caution and skill because a single mistake can mean the end of a customer’s life. There are only a handful of restaurants that are allowed to serve fugu and Benihana isn’t one of them. But since you have plenty of other choices from sashimi to odon, the absence of fugu on the menu isn’t such a loss.

Fugu is expensive, too, partly because of the chef’s mastery in its preparation. As for the taste, most people say that it has a delicate taste but it’s underwhelming overall, a letdown after all the hype about its dangers. But perhaps therein also lies the appeal of fugu – it isn’t so much the flavor but the taste of danger that attracts the Japanese and others to it.

Leave a Reply