In Japan, not only can you play an aquatic version of roulette by eating deadly fugu––the notoriously poisonous fish we know as puffer fish or blowfish––but a popular wintertime beverage little known outside the country offers yet another opportunity to take a risk. Rich in umami, hirezake (“fin sake” in Japanese) is an ancient drink made from blowfish tail doused in hot sake. It’s popular in Japan during the cool months, and now a small collection of American restaurants are serving the drink.
Yuta Suzuki began selling fugu-infused sake to guests around eight years ago at Sushi Zen, the longstanding New York fish-focused Japanese restaurant he ran with his father, Toshio Suzuki. While the duo shuttered Sushi Zen in 2016, they relocated last year to a new Manhattan location, opening Suzuki, a kaiseki restaurant with a 10-seat omakase sushi counter. Last winter, they once again commenced hirezake service.
Because consuming fugu that hasn’t been properly cleaned can kill you (the fish contains toxins hundreds of times more poisonous than cyanide), it’s highly controlled in Japan and the U.S. In Japan, a chef must have a license to clean the fish before serving it; in the U.S., any fugu that’s imported has already had its toxic organs removed. The fish is checked in Japan to ensure that it’s poison-free, and it’s then further evaluated in the U.S. by the FDA.
Taking it one step further, restaurants that sell fugu domestically, like Masa in New York City and Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington, D.C., must have a specific license verifying that it’s safe to consume.
Yuta follows a pretty traditional method in preparing hirezake. He dehydrates the fins for one to two days until they are bone-dry. He then grills them slowly over fire, making sure they don’t burn. When a guest orders hirezake, he places the fin in the bottom of a cup, adds hot sake––typically a bolder junmai-style sake––and puts a lid on the cup to capture the beverage’s aroma. He lets the mixture steep for a minute or so before serving. He notes that some choose to quickly light the mixture on fire to enhance the drink’s smell, but he omits this step.
Sakura Yagi, whose family is responsible for helping form New York’s East Village neighborhood into the Japanese-centric area it is today with 13 restaurants and bars, has been serving hirezake for more than a decade at Sake Bar Decibel, her subterranean rice wine dive. Here, bartenders build the drink with Hakkaisan honjozo sake, following the same procedure as Yuta but lighting the drink on fire after removing its lid “to improve flavor,” says Yagi.
“It tastes like fishy sake soup with lots of umami and is very tasty,” says Chizuko Niikawa, the founder of New York–based sake public relations and event firm Sake Discoveries.
A fan of hot sake, Niikawa ran a two-year-long pop-up in New York under the moniker Sake Caliente to educate the public about drinking high-quality warm sake. When the New York engagement ended in March of last year, she brought the concept to Kyoto for six months, where she introduced her own riff on hirezaki, made with fresh slices of black truffle.
Truffle-kan incorporates Urbani Truffles in place of charred fugu fin, and the mushrooms infuse into a bath of warm rice wine. Niikawa says the drink was a big hit and hopes to bring it to the U.S. next winter.