IT WAS our first time to see somebody prepare puffer fish, and so my friend and I rushed out of the sea to see the fisherman slice up the puffer fish skin to get into what he describes as the "pusod" (navel) where the deadly poison hides.

Every once in a while, news come out about somebody, sometimes even a family, being poisoned by puffer fish. Many suffer the dreaded symptoms of numbness, but recover after some medical intervention; others just die.

At the Sun.Star News Group website, a search for "puffer fish" will yield several results of such poisoning through the years, the latest of which is in Bantayan town in Northern Cebu just this month.

A fisherman, 39, and his eight-year-old son died, while the fisherman's wife and teenage son were rushed to the hospital after partaking of puffer fish for lunch last April 4. It was said in the report that the fisherman was an "expert" in preparing puffer fish...

"Lami man nang butete (Puffer fish is good)," said a girl we were playing in the beach in Sirawan, "lami pa sa manok (tastes better than chicken)."

"Sige lang, gusto pa man gud namo muuli (No thanks, we still want to go home alive)," my friend said in jest.

The girl's father was the one preparing the fish by the seashore and showed us what to take out of the fish to make it safe to eat. He said that part is called "palay-palay".

The man said only "Joloanos" like him really know how to remove the toxin. The fisherman is a Tausug from Jolo and is raising his family with five daughters in this predominantly Muslim barangay of Sirawan.

Most lethal

"Puffer fish are generally believed to be the second-most poisonous vertebrate in the world, after the Golden Poison Frog," an entry in the online wikipedia says.

The Tausug fisherman says as much.

"Dried and powdered, the poison sac from the fish's navel when mixed with food can kill even 20 people," he said in the vernacular.

The palay-palay is just as small as a rice grain taken from where two veins intersect beneath the fish's "pusod". Of course, a fish does not have a navel as they are hatched Since we are no experts in fish, we would assume that he was just using the word "pusod" to describe whatever it was at the center of the fish since fishes don't have bellybuttons, only mammals have. Looking at how he incised his way to the fish to get at the "pusod" would show that he was not going for the belly button but something there where veins and muscles and bones converge.

Information about puffer fish, which belongs to the family of tetradontidae, made up of 189 species in 19 genera of marine (sea) and estuarine (in between sea and river) fish.

Information online about the poisonous puffer fish say internal organs like liver and sometimes their skin are highly toxic.

The fisherman insists all the toxins are in this palay-palay and once the two palay-palays are removed, the fish becomes safe to eat.

What the fisherman had that day was the Arothron stellatus, which is distinguished by its black spots and luish black smudge on the corners of its mouth. It was just over a foot long but can grow to over a meter. It's among the biggest.

The palay-palay extracted is just the size of rice grain but is soft.

The fish's meat has the texture of chicken meat, smooth, firm, with defined muscles.

But we preferred to just believe the child when she said that the fish when made into adobo is better than chicken adobo instead of joining them for dinner that day. We can always say that there are five children to feed, there might not be enough for all of them, but of course, everyone around us knew we were plain scared.

Who wouldn't? As wikipedia states, "Puffer's (tetrodotoxin) poisoning deadens the tongue and lips, and induces dizziness and vomiting, followed by numbness and prickling over the body, rapid heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and muscle paralysis. The toxin paralyzes diaphragm muscles and stops the person who has ingested it from breathing. People who live longer than 24 hours typically survive, although possibly after a coma lasting several days."

Delicacy

While recognized as highly toxic, puffer is highly regarded in Japan, where apparently the expertise needed to prepare it has raised the consumption of the fish to a status symbol where only the brave survive.

The Japanese call them fugu, which means river pig where restaurant preparations are strictly controlled by law in Japan and only chefs who have undergone rigorous training in preparing the fish are allowed to handle the fish.

Fugu consumption in steeped with stories in Japan as it has been part of their cuisine for over centuries.

"Fugu bones have been found in several shell mounds, called kaizuka, from the Jomon period that date back more than 2,300 years," wikipedia reads.

The Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th and 18th centuries banned fugu consumption in Edo and surrounding areas, but when the shogunates weakened. It was also banned during the Meiji Era (1867-1912) in many areas, but again fugu consumption resumed when the Meiji era waned.

The Emperor of Japan is officially forbidden from eating fugu for his own safety.

While fugu meat consumption is already regarded as a play with death, even more toxic should be the liver, and still this is consumed by the braver among the braves since this is said to be the tastiest part.

Serving fugu liver in restaurants in Japan has been banned since 1984.

Out there in Sirawan, the fisherman professes that even the internal organs can be eaten for as long as the palay-palay has already been removed.

Once again, we said, thanks but no thanks. As my friend said that day, "We still want to go home alive."