BEIJING – Chinese diners are being wooed by a new delicacy these days, a non-poisonous version of the Pufferfish.
The poisonous fish – that contains a toxin which is lethal for humans – was banned in the country in 1990 and firms who bred the fish could only market it abroad.
However, Chinese farmers were able to breed non-poisonous varieties of the fish – known as fugu in Japan – allowing the government to lift the ban three years ago.
“Half of the production is for export, and the other half, more or less, for restaurants in China,” said Yang Yong, in charge of the 25-year-old Dalian Tianzhen Caofeidian fish farm, located some three hours east of Beijing.
The farm exports half of its produce to Japan and South Korea, while the rest is sold in the domestic market.
This fish farm provides around 200 kilograms of pufferfish to Beijing restaurants every day.
It imports the fish eggs from Japan, where the fish is considered to be a delicacy, traditionally compared to a gastronomical Russian roulette, and breed them for another two years to minimize the risk of poisoning.
Pufferfish, which can weigh up to a kilo at the time of being taken out of the water, has a tendency to inflate if they feel threatened, and several of them inflate as soon as they are loaded into the boats by Yang’s men.
From the water to the buckets and later to boxes with special separators, they are delivered to restaurants in Beijing, where they are turned into luxury casserole dishes by specially trained chefs.
Tiger Puffer, a restaurant specializing in pufferfish, serves the fish in soup, in pies, as sashimi or simply fried.
To serve the fish, however, a restaurant requires a special license.
“The fish is now bred without poison. But we treat them as if they are poisonous,” said Tiger Puffer’s chef, Li Zhaze.
Li had to study theory and practical for a year and a half with a Japanese maestro before he could cook the fish, something which he has been doing for 12 years now.
“After my studies, I now know very well the parts which has poison and which don’t. The eyes, blood and the organs are poisonous. Once we take them out it is safe for consumption,” he added.
“Yes, I know that it is poisonous, but only some parts. Moreover, I am not the first person to eat it,” said Huang, a diner at the restaurant.
In Wang’s restaurant, the busiest restaurant of the chain in Beijing, groups of friends could get together to share platters of pufferfish for around 200 Yuan ($30) per person.
A luxury delicacy, for sure, in a country where one can eat for one tenth of this price.