Blowfish. Just reading the word set off a panic alarm.
"Aren't blowfish potentially lethal?" I asked the fishmonger with genuine concern and a frisson of excitement.
"No" he said, "You're thinking of the kind they serve in Japan. These are from Long Island. They're harmless."
He picked one up and offered to eat it— raw and all— as proof. His comical heroics only slightly allayed my fear. I wanted to ask more questions but there was a long line behind me, so I bought a pound out of curiosity.
Back home, I examined the blowfish tails. They looked innocuous enough. In fact, they looked like they would be pretty tasty. The only thing preventing me from cooking and eating them was a piece of information: were they safe? Certainly, I trusted the fishmonger, but I needed to know what made his blowfish different from the deadly delicacy that I had only read about. I thought the answer would be easy to find.
Blowfish belong to the Tetraodontidae family, of which there are 19 genera and at least 189 species. Fugu is the notorious genus whose preparation is rigorously controlled in Japan and only allowed by licensed chefs who train for 11 years. The culprit toxin: tetrodotoxin, is concentrated in the liver and ovaries (the sale of fugu liver has been banned in Japan since 1983). Tetrodotoxin is a powerful neurotoxin— 1200 times deadlier than cyanide(!)— and when ingested, it paralyzes the diaphragm muscles and produces a pseudo-coma for which there is no antidote. (Interestingly, the toxin is used in Voodoo to induce these symptoms in creating zombies— sounds like fodder for a CSI plot).
Blowfish, or puffers, as they are commonly known, are accused of being the second-most poisonous vertabrate in existence, but by many accounts, their levels of toxicity vary wildly according to species, sex, part of body, season, and location. Puffers are not thought to produce tetrodotoxin themselves— it is believed that they manufacture it from specific precursor bacteria in their prey. Thus, puffers that are raised in farms are free of the toxin.
That was all well and good until I remembered that my fish was labeled "wild-caught".
The internet is both a blessing and a curse . On the one hand, it instantly provides us with a mind-numbing wealth of information. On the other, the uncensored glut often turns up contradictions, and I hit those in spades. For instance, one article in Wiki (whose content I take with a grain of salt) singled out Takifugu oblongus as being non-poisonous, yet another stated that all species of Takifugu were suspect. Other sources unequivocally stated that ALL species were toxic, while others claimed that some were not, but didn't bother to list them. Which to believe? I knew that I had to identify the species of my puffers and the fish monger had given me a valuable clue— they were caught on Long Island. Puffers are warm water fish, there is only one species that venture into the waters north of Florida: Sphoeroides maculatus
Most of what I found about S. maculatus were idyllic accounts by fishermen and childhood reminiscences of summers on the mid-Atlantic coast. Apparently, in the 1960's, northern puffers "were so plentiful that you could practically kick them up on the shore". Amateur fishermen loved them because they could "catch more in an afternoon than they could eat in a week" but professionals who were after the bigger catch found them a nuisance and would "beat them off the side of the boat as we reeled them in". Children were endlessly entertained by their cartoonish spherical bodies. It seems that for most of the decade, the eastern seaboard— from Long Island to the Chesapeake Bay— was teeming with northern puffers. And then they suddenly disappeared. To this day, no one can explain why.
The more I learned about blowfish, the more enigmatic they became, but I was at least encouraged by the memories of those that were familiar with the northern puffer and the casualness with which they caught and prepared the fish. They were eaten with abandon and never with concern of safety— and they all lived to tell about it.
But that was a long time ago and I needed solid facts about the safety of the fish that I was determined to consume. It was then that I realized that if there was any questionable food being sold in the US that the FDA would have a report. On their website I found the answer that I was searching for:
"The only safe sources for imported puffer fish are fish that have been processed and prepared by specially trained and certified fish cutters in the city of Shimonoseki, Japan. Additionally, puffer fish caught in the mid-Atlantic coastal waters of the United States, typically between Virginia and New York, are safe to consume. Puffer fish from all other sources can either naturally contain deadly toxins or become toxic because of environmental factors and therefore are not considered safe."
Finally, I no longer felt like I'd be playing Russian roulette by serving them to my family. When my husband and son asked what they were, I simply said "blowfish tails" and was only mildly surprised by their lack of alarm. I wanted to tell them more, but I just let them enjoy it, uninhibited, as did I.
And we all lived to tell.
I couldn't resist the alliteration of making puffed puffers, and I'm glad I didn't. The crunchy shell was a perfect foil for the sweet fish and a visual reference to its spines. The texture of the meat reminded me of the fried eels that my mother used to make. To get the broken, dehydrated spaghetti to cling to the tails, they were first dipped in a light tempura batter. The sauce is a wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) aioli, plated to look like red ribbon sorrel (Rumex sanguineus) leaves. A quenelle of beet and fennel salad completes the dish.