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Japan Hour

It's Lunch Time

Join us in our food investigation journey this week. First up is a trip to Yamaguchi Prefecture’s Shimonoseki City, which is known for its puffer fish.

Join us in our food investigation journey this week. First up is a trip to Yamaguchi Prefecture’s Shimonoseki City, which is known for its puffer fish. We begin by visiting the Haedomari Market - the only market in Japan which has exclusive auctions for puffer fish - at 2am. Different types of puffer fish caught nationwide are auctioned here. The season for puffer fish lasts from late September to the end of April. So puffer fish auctions are held during this time. In Shimonoseki, puffer fish is referred to as “fugu”, which means “good fortune”. The highest grade of puffer fish is the tiger puffer. 

We meet Hirotada Matsuura, who has been an auctioneer for 15 years. He shows us some wild puffer fish from Miyazaki. They sell for 10,000 yen to 20,000 yen per kilogramme. We find out that one needs to have a puffer fish processing licence to prepare the fish. It is regulated by each prefecture, which conducts the required tests. Different types of puffer fish have different parts which are poisonous. To prevent people from being poisoned, it is forbidden by law for a common person to sell a whole puffer fish. Furthermore, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, one needs do work related to puffer fish for three years in order to qualify to take the exam. The exam includes a subject test and a practical skills test, which involves being able to remove the fish’s deadly poison.

People who buy puffer fish at the auctions are mostly wholesalers, who sell them to shops or people who can process them. There are some who also run fish shops.  The auction begins at about 3am and can sometimes last for just five minutes. We speak to Mr Michinaka, who bought six farmed puffer fish for 2,300 yen at the auction. He agrees to show us how puffer fish is prepared. He drives us to his shop in Karato Market, 15 minutes away from Haedomari Market. He sells puffer fish and other kinds of fish. He tells us there are designated places to prepare puffer fish and they need to be registered. Information such as where the puffer fish is prepared and which company disposes the poison must be submitted to the Public Health Department.

We observe how puffer fish is prepared. Since the skin of the puffer fish is considered to be a delicacy to gourmets, it is removed gently. It is difficult to cut between the skin and the meat; if the meat is damaged, it can’t be sold. After the puffer fish is prepared, the poisonous parts, such as the liver, are thrown away and the rest is used for cooking. The skin is parboiled and eaten with ponzu sauce, while the meat around the bones is used to make soup stock. According to Mr Michinaka, the meat is most delicious when it is deep fried.

We visit Mr Michinaka’s house to see what he is eating for breakfast. His wife, Takako, makes a variety of dishes such as tiger puffer fish miso soup, puffer fish sashimi and even grilled horse mackerel with rice.

Our next food investigation takes place in Minami Uonuma City in Niigata Prefecture. This time, our focus is on Uonuma’s Koshihikari rice, which has been given a "Special A" grade by the Japan Grain Inspection Association. We head to a rice field and talk to someone who is using a combine harvester on rice stalks which have fallen due to the wind and rain. We learn that Koshihikari means “shining rice across the country".  Rice farmer Masatoshi Kobayashi from the prefecture’s agricultural experiment centre first created and planted Koshihikari rice. When he was 23, Mr Kobayashi started experimenting with various fertilisers and growing methods. It took 13 years for him to successfully create Koshihikari rice. We are keen to meet the famous Mr Kobayashi but later find out from his son Toshie that his father had passed away last March at the age of 87.  

The whole Kobayashi family is now involved in planting Koshihikari rice. They also grow about 20 different vegetables in their garden. These include eggplant, cucumbers, sweet potatoes and green shiso. We are invited to their house to see their lunch. Besides Koshihikari rice, dishes prepared are stir-fried eggplant with miso, hot pepper and green shiso; chopped vegetables cooked in sugar and soy sauce; lotus root kinpira; fermented soy beans with pickled radish; and homemade pickled cucumber.

1) Puffer fish auctions are held in Shimonoseki’s City’s Haedomari Market from end-September till end-April
2) A must-try item in Minami Uonuma City is Koshihikari rice


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