Friday, December 18, 2009

On poison, fugu, pufferfish, and tetrodotoxin

An image of a porcupine fish used as a lantern at your humble scribe's abode, entitled 'Death incarnate. Or his cousin.'.Dear Gentle Reader,

You're back!

I wasn't sure you'd return.

Care for some wine?

A taste of the goodness in Borgia's cup, perhaps?

No, today there will be no drinking. We don't want to gag.

Only solid(ish) food, today.

And a tale from the field.

Monday's image was a close-up section of today's image which shows a lantern in your humble scribe and Heroine's home, made from a fish.

This fish is not the fabled fugu, the pufferfish.

This is its cousin, the porcupine fish, a blowfish.

Both fish blow or puff themselves up, but blowfish have huge, very conspicuous spines studding their body, whilst pufferfish have much smaller, more slender, delicate spines.

Both, mind you, are well-equipped, internally, with tetrodotoxin, sometimes known as TTX.

Tetrodotoxin, C
11H17N3O8, has a really fancy IUPAC name:
Image of tetrodotoxin, TTX, sourced from the Wikimedia Commons; in the public domain.Octahydro-12-(hydroxymethyl)-2-imino-5,9:7,10a-dimethano-10aH-[1,3]dioxocino[6,5-d]pyrimidine-4,7,10,11,12-pentol.

Try dropping that in conversation.

Just don't drop it in the wine. Or in the food.

Unless you want to best the Borgia's and their relatively tame cantarella, by comparison, at least.

There is no known antidote to TTX; no known cure. And the puffer fish, specifically Takifugu rubripes, the torafugu, is the second-most poisonous vertebrate on planet Earth.

What does tetrodotoxin do?

Well, it's a bit like that hemlock that Socrates drank.

TTX paralyzes you and then you drown in the fluid that accumulates in your lungs.

But, TTX does so much more than that. It shuts everything down, except that, usually, you are lucid right until the end. Although you might feel a floaty sensation and a few other tricks of the mind.

TTX is a neurotoxin which blocks sodium transport channels for your nerves--it stops your nerves from working.

People with multiple sclerosis, for example, have damaged myelin sheathes, the insulation around the electrical lines in our bodies that we call nerves.

When the myelin sheath is damaged the electrical differential across the nerve diminish and there no longer is enough of a differential to reliably push signals around the body.

So, people in later stages of multiple sclerosis find that their body stutters around like a car engine trying to start with a dead battery.

The neurotoxin TTX doesn't just diminish the electrical differential, however, it stops it.

If there is only a little bit of toxin, your body might process it before you die.

You have 24 hours to live. Live that long and you keep on living.

If not... you don't need to worry about whether you left the lights on; your's will be out.

And not much TTX is needed. Based upon the Sigma-Aldrich (a chemical supply company) Material Safety Data Sheet for TTX it can be calculated that 25 milligrams (0.000881 oz) of tetrodotoxin would be enough to kill a 75 kg (170 lb) person who consumed that much TTX orally.

If TTX was injected into you, say via a pufferfish or blowfish spine, then around half a milligram (0.00002 oz) of TTX would likely do you in.

If you're lucky. though, and survive 24 hours, then you are fine.

Some researchers think that the poison accumulates in pufferfish and blowfish due to a bacteria which they harbour. Others think that TTX is generated by the fish themselves.

An engineer would say... who cares? The fish kills.

The gourmet, however, says... I wonder what it tastes like?

Which was my reaction, years and years ago, on my first encounter, on a two week canoe trip in the Northern reaches of Saskatchewan, on seeing poisonous hemlock. The stuff that killed Socrates.

"I wonder what it tastes like?" I said as I reached out to touch the stuff that had killed Socrates.

And then I reached back to hold my head where the guide, who was in my canoe, had walloped the back of my head with his paddle. (The square root of 64....7?)

I still don't know what hemlock tastes like... nor what the square root of 64 is...

You have no idea how curious I am, too... regarding the taste...

Anyway, back to the pufferfish and to the blowfish.

Handling those fish is tricky.

Filleting one of those fish is also tricky.

Most of the poison is in the organs on the inside, especially in the liver.

One slip of the knife, into an organ, and the poison comes, with the knife, back through the flesh.

Then the eater will likely be dead.

And the chef will be out a job.

My lantern is from the body of a porcupine fish, a blowfish--the one with the bigger spines; it's easier to handle than a pufferfish.

Not only that, but there is slightly less poison in a blowfish than in a pufferfish.

What does that information tell you?

It tells you that if you are going to go to the effort to find and eat one of these fishes, make sure you eat the pufferfish. It's more dangerous and more deadly.

Go for Takifugu rubripes, the torafugu; it's the deadliest and the most expensive.

Only specially trained chefs can prepare and serve fugu in Japan. And it can be quite expensive.

Even when your humble scribe lived in Japan, he never ate it. His girlfriend at the time was against it.

But, like the hemlock, he always wanted to know what it tasted like.

When I lived in Taiwan, I went on an expedition to Penghu (澎湖群島), the archipelago of Taiwanese fishing islands far off the west coast of Northern Taiwan, and very close to Mainland China.

The Portugese called these islands the Pescadores because of the fisherman there and the Portugese found this to be a good place to revictual their ships on their way to the Spice Islands.

The Pescadores were well named; they are excellent for fish and for fishermen.

And, it turns out, for fishermens' daughters.

I found myself in the village headmaster and headfisherman's home.

His daughter had dragged me there and I quite happily went; I knew the food would be fresh.

An aside, I never learned any Taiwanese, besides "I'm full", when I lived in Taiwan.

I could understand some Mandarin, but Taiwanese was completely outside my linguistic abilities.

So, while the girl I was with spoke Mandarin, it never occurred to me that her family would not speak Mandarin.

They only spoke Taiwanese.

The father had invited me, I think, to go out onto the boat all day, that morning.

One look at the choppy waves out the window and I knew that fishing was not in the cards. This girl was great, but she was not the one, and I was not about to slam up and down on that surf.

I wanted to enjoy future dinners, not relive past ones.

Besides, this was my opportunity to hang out in the kitchen with a woman who had cooked seafood her entire life. There would be much I could learn, even if it was all delivered in rapid Taiwanese by someone who still looked astonished that a man would want to hang out in her kitchen.

So be it.

The room had concrete walls, low, squat, snug, and capable of keeping howling typhoons out when typhoons would blow over the island.

The windows were small and shuttered; the light was poor and particles of fat from the morning's cooking hung in the air as they oh-so-slowly coalesced on every surface.

The floor was concrete covered in a peeling linoleum that was curling at the edges. It would have been good for quick cleaning of fish guts with a bucket of water, once.

A small, chipped formica table was the centrepiece of the room, and a hefty round of wood was on that table.

That wood, with deep grooves from countless passes of the knife, was the cutting stump--board or block would be totally unacceptable descriptions for this chunk of tree.

At a glance you could tell where, on the surface, various cutting operations had taken place over the years which was good because direct observation was impossible.

The cooking knife, one singular knife, a fairly hefty cleaver with rust on its thick spine but a wickedly glittering cutting edge, sharpened daily, moved like the wind.

Watching this woman was watching an artisan with decades of experience and generations of learning, but I had no idea what she was doing, or even what she had just done, at any given moment. My knowledge of the knife and its purpose was Heisenbergian at best.

Her craft was one to be learned from the crib, by osmosis.

Nothing was explained; she just had a conversation with me the whole morning. Or, really, with herself.

I never had a clue what she was saying or asking. I just smiled and, eventually, had my own conversation with myself, out loud, in return.

At some point in time the girl woke up and sauntered into the room, surprised that I hadn't left with her Pa on the boat.

But, I'd seen his gaffing stick.

I knew where it was safe, although I would never say that.

Shortly afterwards, she obviously knew the rhythm of the home, her Pa came home. It hadn't been a long trip; I would have been fine. But, how was I to know?

Anyway, Pa strolled into the kitchen, with his rolling gait, and dropped a big bucket of fish, still alive and swimming, onto the table for his wife to prepare, presumably for lunch.

If I hadn't thought his daughter was 'the one' for me, before, it was also obvious that he didn't think I was 'the one', either. But, appearances had to be preserved.

I looked inside the bucket.

Baby octopi filled it.

And little pufferfish.

Pufferfish that looked a lot like Takifugu rubripes, the torafugu.


This was going to be great.

Then the preparation began.

First, the mother dipped her hands into the bucket of sea water, pulled up most of the octopi, and dropped them onto the chopping block.

Then she turned and started talking to her husband.

It sounded like she was arguing, but Chinese can sound that way.

The baby octopi, unhappy at finding themselves out of water, were squiggling to the edge of the block, then falling onto the formica table, and spreading out on a mistaken theory that she couldn't get all of them and that some of them would escape.

An aside. If you scuba dive you know that octopi are actually quite shy.

Like a family dog.

They remember you.

I've always had dogs.

I've always remembered my dogs and they've always remembered me.

And I don't eat them.

I eat octopi, but not the ones that I play with when scuba diving.

Watching the octopi kaleidescope themselves around the table was a bit like playing with them.

Except that they were fleeing for their lives.

I was trying to figure out how many I could save and release.

Then the mother turned around, picked up the knife, and decimated the class of octopi as they pirouetted away.

(If fish form schools then the more intelligent octopi must be in classes. You heard it here, first.)

Now I knew why the formica table was so pitted and gashed.

She pointed to the site of the octopi massacre and handed me a plate. I put the grey limbs of the octopi onto the plate as I surreptiously picked out a few bits of formica.

Interestingly, for those who don't live by the sea, octopi are a healthy pinky purpley colour. Until you chop a bit off of them. The second you chop a tentacle off that tentacle becomes grey. Instantly.

I tried to work out the rate of change and the mechanism by watching the main body of each octopi change to grey more slowly in contrast to the instantly grey limbs. Then I realized that the limbs were instantly 'dead' whereas the little baby bodies were dying more slowly of blood loss and oxygen deprivation.

Great. There goes the appetite.

And I can see that Pa brought extra octopi after my capacious belly display of the previous evening.


As I was doing this, I was thinking about the pufferfish. Or, rather, of the fish that looked like pufferfish.

I know that nobody handles pufferfish in Japan with their bare hands.

People use very thick, special gloves.

And this lady had just dipped her hands in amongst the startled, puffed up pufferfish to grab the octopi.


These might not be the real things.

Then, to prove a point, she started to grab pufferfish from the bucket, clean them on that formica table, and fillet them on that big uneven block. With her bare hands. Without looking.

That vorpal blade went snicker-snack. She left them dead, and, with their head, she went galumphing back.

And that lady looked at me the whole time, and carried on her conversation.

So these definitely were not 'real' pufferfish.

Shortly afterwards, her husband and both daughters came into the kitchen.

We all crowded around the table eating fresh octopi dipped in some sauce she had made earlier, and slices of raw not-real-pufferfish.

I tried desperately to follow the dynamics, figure out what was expected of me, figure out which sauce was to go where, and to keep the wandering hand of the daughter at bay as her frankly terrifying father glared at me and sharpened a fearsome fishing blade between using his chopsticks to eat the fish.

I was getting pretty apprehensive about her Pa; he was really giving me the willies.

That knife was giving me the willies, too.

Pa took very few octopi, indicating that there were more for me and that, as the honoured guest, I should be eating up. Or was I trying to let him know that this was not good enough for me?

I don't speak Taiwanese, but some things you just figure out.


Come here boy.




Puppy octopi.

...This was really starting to get to me.

Throughout all this I kept eating the faux pufferfish, trying to make sense of everything going on around me.

I was feeling a bit light-headed from everything going on, not quite dizzy, but almost floaty.

And then I poked the back of my mouth with my chopsticks--hard.

Which is something that you really shouldn't do.

It would be like jabbing the tines of your fork into the back of your throat; bad form.

What type of barbarian can't even use eating utensils?

And then I realized that I couldn't feel my lips.

Or my mouth.

Or my tongue.

Or my neck or shoulders.

And there was a fast, slick, creeping sensation, like a swift slug sliding up towards my eyes, and wiping out my ability to sense anything or feel anything.

That's when I realized that the pufferfish was real.

I also realized that I had a chunk of fish somewhere right beside my trachea, although I couldn't feel a thing.

Like a bit of a madman I forced my lungs to exhale and sent a chunk of fish flying.

Onto Pa.

Who was in mid-stroke of sharpening that blade.

And I gesticulated, as best I could, as my anxiety rose while that invisible slug stole all sensations from me.


Well, obviously I survived.

And my paranoia and apprehension, it turns out, were side symptoms of the early stages of pufferfish/TTX poisoning.

And the whole family, apparently, all liked me a lot, especially how attentive I seemed to be to everything, even if our ability to communicate was nil, and even if I was a wimp for sitting in the kitchen rather than going onto the boat.

As to what fugu tastes like? That special Takifugu rubripes, the torafugu?

I haven't a clue.

I didn't think it was real fugu--I was trying to figure out what was going on.

And my tongue and nasal cavity were the first things to be affected.

...Next time...


And the music for today is...


Teresa said...

Well, I got the puffer fish right, just the wrong heroine. That's what happens when you play the field and don't speak the language. Silly Canadian.

Glad to know you survived to write another day!!

Richard said...

Now that's a food (fish) story! And you're a braver man than I am, Gunga Din.

Teresa said...

I think that you probably needed to have read "The Isle of Wang'an" by Zhong Ling (found in translation in the book "Running Wild" edited by David Der-Wei Wang) before you got involved with anyone from Penghu. Penghunese mothers-in-law are supposedly the worst of the Chinese mother-in-law breed; it stands to reason that Penghunese fathers-in-law (or potential fathers-in-law or overprotective fathers of Penghunese daughters) would be equally murderous...

And I'm just quoting from a scholarly book... I was not so foolish as to do anything more than play and sightsee in Penghu.

Cloudia said...

if there IS a next NUT!!!

Aloha, Friend!

Comfort Spiral

Fireblossom said...

Mercy. I'm going to go read some blog about cute kittens or something, now.

The United Statesian said...

Did you try puffer fish again?

What did the puffer fish say to Tom Waits.

"Hey, I'm big in Japan! I'm big in Japan"

Mama Zen said...

I've always wondered if I would have the nerve to try it if I had the chance . . .

Steady-as-rain said...

Well, that was interesting. I think I will get us both drunk some day and get you to tell this story again, with hand signals and stuff.


murat11 said...

Mercy, what a breakfast treat. I think there's a whole post missing in that post-puffer / pre-survival ellipsis. I've twice (before I was officially declared allergic to shellfish) had the "lovely" throat-closing, map-of-Africa-rash-on-left-facial-cheeking that came with some errant lobster, but that seems a relative walk in the park compared to your being fugu'd, real or not.

Good to see that You're back!

deepteshpoetry said...

Ah!reminded of my Chemistry classes....those formulae!!happy New Year...hope u r doing well.Chk out my latest post on my blog as well

Merisi said...

I hope you made it safely into the new decade!
Best wishes,

Candace said...

Dear Chris,
I may be the only person to like the taste of bitter lemon -- esp on ice and in the summer -- which has been said to be not unlike quinine... mmm. Poisons and plagues are among my most favourite topics, just because they slip a bit towards the naughty side of Nature.

I am really enjoying these scratchings and really like the chemical equations you are giving us. Keep it up... and watch out for those puffers!
Candace, Still in Athens.

Felicity said...


Loved the post - so much that it actually inspired this poem -
Thank you so much for blogging about your entirely ENTIRELY fascinating life.

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Teresa,

Silly Canadian is right. Of course, speaking of danger, at least I didn't play with serpents in jungles... they seem more dangerous than father-in-laws (whom, I note, I avoided. I did NOT go out in his boat with him...)

Dear Richard,

Though you've belted me and flayed me (through superior po-e-tree), by the livin' Gawd that made me, still YOU'RE a better man than I am, Gunga Din!)

Dear Cloudia,

It is true. I am a nut. But I wish I knew what that fugu tasted like... I'm such a nut I'd try it again.

Dear Fireblossom,

Reading about eating octopi/puppies, and other new foods, makes you think of kittens?



Dear United Statesian,

Not yet...

Dear Mama Zen,

I am sure that you would try it if the opportunity arose. It's fugu! Come visit, we can try it together...

...Taste death, live life...

Dear Steady-as-rain.

Done. Come.

Dear Murat,

I know the feeling. I used to have rather traumatic asthma and was rushed to the hospital more than a few times.

...Taste death, live life... (encore une fois)

Dear Deeptesh,

Formula, Formulae
Swirl and whirl before my eye
If I drink more ether
This poem will die

Dear Merisi,

The new decade has welcomed me to her bosom and promises to be more fun than the last (decade, not bosom). I wish you all the best in your adopted Wiens and in Venice, too. Will you be at Carnivale this year?

Dear Candace,

I am delighted that you enjoy them. Bitter I like, sometimes, but have never managed to wrap my tongue around Campari, for example... well, I have, but my tongue unwinds with alacrity.

I wish you all the best, and hope that the copperheads leave well enough alone so that both your dogs, and the copperheads, can remain safe, this year.

(I am still touched by that little tale you revealed.)

Dear Felicity,

What a treat your poem is.

I really enjoyed and thank you for this compliment.

Here is the link, folks (although it is also at the bottom of the page...)

Toxin, by Felicity.


Felicity said...

Dear Chris,
Thanks again for the inspiration.
And also, for sharing the link here. :)