Shark Fin Soup Aint Nothing


This evening we had our regular monthly meeting of the photographic society. As usual, four of us headed for Taisho (大将) afterwards for some dining. Crowds of cute young ladies were occupying all the tables, so we had to be satisfied with seats at the counter.

On top of the sashimi case there was a large platter with fins on it. Always willing to try something new, I asked what they were. Blowfish fins was the answer. It wasn’t until much later that it became clear why they were on the counter: we don’t eat them; we drink them. Yes, you heard right. Actually we can drink them multiple times.

We ordered hirezake (鰭酒). Could you read the kanji? Hire means fin and zake is the kanji for sake, which means alcohol and by itself often refers to the traditional Japanese brewed rice alcohol. I couldn’t clearly see what happened in the kitchen, but I think the fins and sake were put in a pan and ignited before being poured into cups.

The fins were slightly charred and gave the drink a lovely fragrance of blowfish. After finishing the drink it is possible to order tsugishu (次酒), which is basically a refill. Kind of like making two cups of tea from one bag, you can get the flavor from the fins without having to buy more.

I’m sure most readers have heard stories about blowfish being poisonous and might be curious about the chances of being poisoned by drinking alcohol with fins steeping in it. First, there are many varieties of blowfish, of which only one is poisonous. Second, only the ovaries contain the poison (making the female of yet another species more fearsome than the male.) Eating male blowfish is quite safe.

That said, I was told that some shops will serve hirezake with some of the poison included. Reportedly, the poison will give the tongue a (desired) tingly or numb feeling. I don’t imagine I will be reporting on this anytime soon. (Perhaps we can convince roaf to try it, since he’s tried everything else.)

19 Responses to “Shark Fin Soup Aint Nothing”

  1. fightingwindmills Says:

    Oh I bet you are right about roaf being willing to try that. He’s such a trip.

    Shark-fin sake. That sounds interesting. You are so much more integrated into the Japanese culture than I ever was. I love reading your stories!

  2. びっくり Says:

    Not shark fin, blowfish fin. 🙂 I am a member of the All-Japan Photographic Federation. This group is probably my deepest point of integration. Every month I get to spend time with the chapter head, teacher, and one of the best photographers. They give me advice on many things and take good care of me.

    I’ll try to keep writing interesting stories. I’m also supposed to integrate the recovered files from my original blog (from a server that crashed.) Some of those stories are intriguing, but also, I am worried that I probably had a very immature and naive view of things at that time. We’ll see…

  3. fightingwindmills Says:

    Oh, sorry. You’re right. Blowfish fin sake. Why are there not more photos on this blog then?

  4. びっくり Says:

    Ah-hah – sharp wit is OK on my blog so long as it isn’t pointed at me. I think I will have to block your comments. 😉 Indeed I should be taking more photos for the blog AND for our photo contests. I will try to work on that. I actually have several photos I took in November and December for posts, but haven’t gotten around to that yet. Partly this is from technical difficulties and partly from laziness.

    I think you could search my blog for things like: wind tunnel; motorcycle license; and venice, if you want to see some photos.

  5. Sylvia Says:

    I don’t have very good feelings about Japan’s penchant for exotic seafood. They are driving sharks to extinction all over the world, and continue to slaughter whales by the hundreds. They’re also responsible for the blowing up and poisoning of coral reefs (which is the quickest way to collect exotic fish). Shame on them.

  6. fightingwindmills Says:

    Noooooooooooooo. Please don’t block my comments. *grovel grovel*

    I just meant to request that, as a photographer, you share more of your visual experience when you have the time. 🙂

  7. simaldeff Says:

    Sake that taste like fish? That’s … something I wouldn’t drink alone. I guess you drinked it on some sashimi plate right?

    btw … to Sylvia -> The exotic seafood, might be exotic for you, but for japanese Blowfish is as common as sardines for italians and tuna or salmon for you. It’s not exotic for them.
    to bikkuri -> have you read the article about whale meat on dragonlife’s gourmet blog?

  8. Sylvia Says:

    Quite right. Strike “exotic.” And add long-lining for blowfish to the list of unconscionable fishing practices.

  9. Sylvia Says:


  10. びっくり Says:

    Windmill – of course I was just joking. You are more than welcome to poke at me. I will try to get more photos up. Oh, I remembered another post with photos. Searching Google for “tatami oshiire fusuma” pops me up on the first page. I wrote about traditional Japanese rooms, with photos.

    Sylvia – Japan has definitely had a heavy impact on the environment, but I think it is more related to population and economics than need for exotics. Perhaps it is good that the population is dropping and the diet is shifting toward western breads, pastas, burgers, etc. 😉 In Japan’s defense, I would point out that they actually make better use of what they take from the sea than western countries. We eat flesh, organs, eyes, eggs, etc. The heads get used in soups. And sometimes even the fins get used. Other than the steaks/fillets the rest becomes waste or bait in the west. I often find these kinds of contradictions in Japan. A country that is damaging the environment, yet making extremely efficient use of the resources. I am curious about the shark comment because I have never heard of people eating shark here. China does consider shark fin soup a delicacy (even though it isn’t tasty).

    Simaldeff – We did eat some sashimi at the beginning of the meal, but we were drinking the sake at the end. At that point we were eating some grilled fish, stir fried veggies, and rice. I checked out dragonlife’s post. I think he was overselling the availability of whale meat. We can only get it from the small number of internationally approved “research” whales. Japan gets a lot of criticism because they eat the whales after the research is done, which brings their intent into question. Do they research in order to eat some whale or do they eat them to avoid waste?

    Wow, I didn’t expect this post would get so many comments.

  11. dragonlife Says:

    Great posting about blow fish, hirezake and the lot. I’m sure a lot of expats will appreciate the excellent explanations!
    I so agree that we should have roaf try it, with the poison, the beer and the semi-naked yankee-girl he is so fond of! LOL
    As for shark fin, it should be regulated (like whals) as the Chinese usually throw the fish back into the sea after severing their fins.

  12. びっくり Says:

    Roaf agreed to hunt for the poisoned hirezake!

  13. dragonlife Says:

    Holy Macaroni!
    Now, we are in deep trouble as we will have to chase his remnants for an interesting posting!

  14. Sylvia Says:

    Yes, apparently shark fin soup is a delicacy in Japan as well as China, and popular with Japanese expats elsewhere in Asia. On the other hand, there is a Japanese company manufacturing fake shark fin, in reponse to the “falling supply” (i.e. impending commercial extinction) of sharks worldwide.

    You’re quite right that overpopulation is an issue, not just overconsumption and destructive fishing techniques. Falling birth rates are a good thing for everyone.

  15. びっくり Says:

    The government here is actually very worried about the declining population. Our market-based economies create a need for an ever increasing population. Unless we change how we handle the economy, a decreasing population could be disastrous. Kind of like building a tolerance to an addictive drug. You need more and more until it kills you. If you try to stop, it kills you. The number of seniors is growing fast, but the young folks don’t want to have kids. The government doesn’t want to allow foreign immigrants because foreigners are dangerous. It’s quite a mix-up. If they find a way to keep the economy stable with the decreasing population, then the rest of the world needs to take notes.

    If I hear anyone here looking for shark fin soup, I’ll discourage them. 🙂

  16. Stefanie Says:

    I’m a vegetarian so the idea of eating any animals makes me cringe, but fins in sake doesn’t sound appealing even if I did eat animals. And then to be able to get the drink with some blowfish poison in it! Why would anyone want to purposely drink poison? Crazy!

  17. simaldeff Says:

    Stefanie -> Look people do eat at McDonalds, I’d pick a whole plate of fugu ovaries rather than eat a bigMac … for the fugu I’d at least die before puking.
    More seriously : maybe if the poison is tasty, having just bit to have a taste isn’t a bad idea … maybe?
    About eating poison : look at the ingredient list on each things you eat you might be surprised.
    IMHO I’d rather have 100 whales killed and use everything of them, than kill 100 and just use them for oil and cosmetics, unfortunately Japan is the only country that always used EVERYTHING that came from the whale, while western countries decimated the whales, with greater efficiency, for oil only. You know what other species is being killed for oil right now? … Iraqis people and young American soldiers.

  18. Sylvia Says:

    I’ve often wondered what a steady-state economy would look like. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work, but people are just so brainwashed into thinking that “growth” is the only way to make money that they won’t even consider alternatives. It works fine in nature–just look at the incredible diversity and sheer biomass that has accumulated on this finite planet.

  19. びっくり Says:

    Stefanie – clearly a vegetarian wouldn’t have much interest in adding fish parts to drinks. You are right, it would be crazy to drink poison, that’s why I suggested roaf try it. Some people think I’m crazy, but I’m actually just eccentric; I’ll leave the poison drinking to others. 🙂

    Sylvia – once we convince people to think about reducing growth, maybe we can talk to them about consumption as well. I think it is odd that people need to buy more than one new purse every year. After all, a quality purse should last for decades. For awhile I was wearing a jacket of my father’s which was 50 years old. (It has been retired finally.) If we buy less stuff, it means we are spending less money and supporting fewer businesses. I think it is possible, but we need to change how stocks are traded and – more importantly – how people think and feel about business, the future, etc.

    The just look at nature comment is good. Global economists probably need to read some Emerson and Thoreau. 🙂

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