Blowfish — China’s latest seafood luxury
Having lately fallen for oysters, Beijing’s conspicuous diners appear ready for the charms of blowfish, or pufferfish, one of the most notorious and treasured elements of Japanese seafood dining.
Next to a private hospital on Xinyuanli, a street in Beijing’s upmarket LiDu district, Tianzheng Hetun Restaurant is one of two restaurants opened in the past year by Dalian-based fish farming corporation of the same name. Known locally as hetun (and fugu in Japan) the fish are prepared by four chefs from Osaka.
Menu prices are on the high end — set menus range from RMB 480 to RMB 1,200, with sashimi included. A whole live fish can go for RMB 1,100 per kilogram (1 kilogram is the typical weight of a blowfish, according to staff manning the restaurant’s water tanks holding the fish). Tianzheng also serves sperm sacs, scorched or raw, with soy sauce, for RMB 160 a pair.
State-owned Tianzheng has been farming blowfish since 1993. Contacted by phone, a Tianzheng spokesperson explained the company has 10 breed bases along China’s east coast, including three “natural sea breeding bases” in Dalian, breeding a total of 5 million fish annually. The firm also processes the fish for export as fillets, though much of the export trade is live.
Tianzheng, whose chairman Meng Xuesong is praised by Dalian officials as “the father of puffer fish production in China,” claims to produce more than 2,000 tons of Fugo rubripes and other fishes, half of which are exported to Japan, South Korea and other Southeast Asian countries. Blowfish averaged USD 22 per kilogram in 2011, said the spokesperson. The company also specializes in turbot and halibut.
Tianzheng has yet to export to the United States or Europe, preferring to concentrate on its offices in Japan and South Korea to deal with the businesses there, said the spokesman. Tianzheng’s restaurant in Dalian runs a cooking training course to teach people how to cook blowfish.
The company’s state owned background appears to have it’s advantages — Dalian’s city government organized a Blowfish Gourmet Festival during the recent May Day holiday. An advertisement in the local press described blowfish meat as “very delicate and tasty. The main part of the blowfish at the Gourmet Festival will be fugu rubripes, which is eaten in variety ways, all of them approved by the National Ministry of Health. The blowfish is titled as the King of the Fishes having abundant nutrient as well as a delicious taste.”
Also known as pufferfish for its corpulent upper body, the Fugu (which translates from Japanese as “river pig”) can be lethally poisonous due to its tetrodotoxin; therefore, chefs in Japan are trained and licensed to be able to remove toxic parts while preventing any contamination of the meat. Serving the ultra-poisonous liver organ in restaurants was banned in Japan in 1984.
While it depends on exports to Japan and Korea for 90 percent of its blowfish output, Tianzheng is clearly betting on demand in China, where Japanese style restaurants have become popular as a sign of sophistication among the country’s new rich.