Friday Night: Blowfish and Ballantine

One of my favourite chapters in the Berlitz teaching material is the chapter on strange food. After all, what more pleasurable way can there be to earn money than long, winding discussions with high level English students about all of the oddest things you’ve managed to digest over the years. Silkworm Larvae, live Octopus, fried Insects, sheep heads and blowfish are all frequent topics of conversation. In the course of one such lesson last week, it became apparent to my students that I have never tried Blowfish – a real delicacy in the far East, but also, of course, notoriously expensive. I guess when a badly cooked dish can kill you it makes sense to pay a little more!

Being a really exceptionally nice bunch of people – and knowing that my time in Korea is coming to a close – our odd food conversation led to an invitation from my Google students to go out and sample the toxic beasties this Friday. Obviously far too good to turn down! After finishing up work with three over energetic nine year olds, I met the guys outside their office and we wondered round the corner to a hugely upmarket restaurant district tucked away in the bckstreets of Gangnam that I didn’t even no existed. My class had pre booked, and we were quickly whisked past the cramped outdoor fish tanks into a neat little private room, complete with chandeliers, art décor design and a strange country-house style of furnishing.

The dishes started appearing almost immediately. First a sweet pumpkin soup served in a bowl no bigger than an eggcup. Then the first of the blowfish arrived: served Korean style, strips of raw Blowfish in a spicy Kimchi salad. This was swiftly followed by a Spring Onion based Blowfish Sushi, a softer boiled fish, battered catfish and a selection of vegetable dishes. The Blowfish has a strange effect – heady and intoxicating, and accompanied by a slight numbing of the mouth and tingling lips. More adventurous diners in Japan challenge each other to eat ever more of the poisonous eggs, knowing that even for experienced blowfish diners more than 3 or 4 eggs is a certain death sentence. Korean’s fortunately, are a little more conservative about dicing with death.

This was all spectacularly impressive, but the best was still to come. The ‘main course’ (if this meal could be said to have courses we reached at least 10), and final dish: Blowfish soup. The blowfish spine was boiled on the table in a wicker basket lined with oiled paper. After somehow not boiling it’s way through it’s fragile lining, the white flesh was served with Caviar, mints and onion leaves.  The taste is actually very similar to any normal white-fleshed fish, though the strange tingle in the lips and unstable feeling on standing up let you know you’re trying something a little special.

The final touch was an unusual aperitif: Persimmon vinegar on the rocks. This tastes far more like a sweet ice tea than vinegar, though with a distinctly acidic aftertaste – a great contrast to the equally sweet but kick-free Plum Wine that accompanied the meal.

When you arrive home after an evening like that I nightcap feels necessary. I was lucky enough to get a bottle of extremely old Balantine Scotch for Chuseok (Korean thanksgiving) from another class, so Mark and I relaxed in our living room while I washed it all down with a couple of glasses of the heavy stuff: it just wouldn’t be right to follow blowfish with beer! It’ll be a long time before I have a night as unique and high class as this again, and in true Korean fashion my attempts to contribute to the bill were waved away dismissively.

Thanks guys, I’ve never done anything quite like that! I live to tell the tale, and it’s one I’ll be telling for a long time. Bottoms up!

J x

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