Despite being full of toxins, puffer fish remains daily delicacy for Spaoh folks

Dr Richard Rapu and the statue of the puffer fish of Spaoh. (photo courtesy of Betong District Council).

By Lian Cheng

KUCHING, March 31: Following the death of a 83-year-old woman in Johor who passed away due to the consumption of puffer fish, the Health Ministry has issued a warning, reminding the public that the fish contains tetrodotoxin which attacks the nerve system and can cause death.

In the statement, the ministry said almost all types of puffers contain potent toxins which can lead to fatal poisoning when incorrectly prepared.

The public is advised to seek immediate treatment if there are symptoms of poisoning such as muscle weakness, nausea and vomiting within 30 minutes to two hours after consuming the fish.

Meanwhile, in Sarawak, Spaoh town has adopted the puffer fish as its symbol and has been holding an annual event called the ‘Festival of the Puffers’ or Pesta Buntal.

According to Betong MP Dr Richard Rapu, two of the main highlights of the festival are the puffer fish catching competition and puffer fish cooking competition.

There is no doubt that the locals of Spaoh know the way to prepare and cook puffers with Dr Richard as a living testimony. For locals in Betong division like him, the fish has been part of their diet.

“I have been eating it for the past 40 to 50 years. Just now when I was in Betong, we had our lunch at Pasar Betong and had preserved puffer fish.

“For us in Betong division which comprises Spaoh, Debak and Saratok, our local fishermen there know how to process it. It is toxic, no doubt, but the toxin is in the stomach, protecting the roe.

“The fishermen know which part to be removed. We consume the meat, the roe and the liver of ikan buntal (buffer fish),” Dr Richard told DayakDaily when contacted.

He said fresh puffers used to be sold at RM5 per kilogramme, but nowadays, the price has gone up to about RM15 per kilogramme.

Being seasonal, the puffers are only available during certain months of the year, mostly during the dry season from April to September. But the fishermen will preserve it by salting and turning them into another delicacy which is available all year round.

On the case in Johor, Dr Richard said he would not be able to comment as he has no details on the species of puffer fish that was consumed. One thing he noticed however was that, the one consumed by the victim was grey, while the species found in Betong is bright yellow in colour.

Spaoh and its puffer fish perhaps is more famous than most Sarawakians would have imagined.

American biker Jaime Dempsey, in her latest trip to Sarawak on the television show “Ride N’ Seek: Borneo” visited Spaoh and tried the poisonous fish.

She was first shown by the villagers on how to remove the toxins from the fish, where she actually removed some herself.

“There was enough poison in that fish to kill 30 people but I was sure it’s safe to eat if the toxins were delicately removed with surgical accuracy.”

She said the locals’ technique had been passed down from generation to generation and there has been no deaths reported relating to consuming the fish in the town.

Still a bit skeptical about eating a poisonous fish, she was again convinced by the villagers which put her mind at ease.

“Putting her life in the villagers’ hands, she took a bite of the fish which was cooked in garlic, chilli and other spices.

To her surprise, she said the fish tasted good as it was “fried to perfection” and “moist and flaky on the inside”. — DayakDaily