I had some great fun Thursday — I joined a crew of about 35 fishermen and divers, organized by Noroeste Sustentable (“NOS”), who are moving “callos de hacha” from a marina channel that is scheduled to be re-dredged shortly, part of the group’s larger mission of restoring and preserving the estuary at the backwater end of La Paz Bay. These scallops had been widespread, but years of careless pollution in a rapidly-growing city have drastically reduced their numbers. They are transplanting 60,000 of these shellfish — one-at-a-time, by hand, by divers using “hookah pumps” (no air tanks, just an air hose run by a small motor and compressor on the boat). They gently detach them, bring them up in baskets, motor across the bay, then “replant” them.
The fishermen are an amazing group. “Going down to the sea in a boat” is a dangerous calling, but it can be beautiful way of life. By necessity, these men are respectful of nature’s rules and are generally conservationists. During a short lull after the first batch of callos came aboard on Thursday, the captain of the panga I was in found one of the callos to be broken badly enough that it would not be expected to survive transplanting. He dug it out of its shell, cut it up, and baited a hook. (The hook was at the end of a length of line that was simply wrapped around a flat board about six inches long.) He tossed it in the water and started pulling out fish, getting 4 or 5 in the span of about 15 minutes.
He showed me one that I thought I recognized as a pufferfish — an ugly thing with crazy big and eerily human-like teeth. These fish have the ability to puff themselves up as a defense mechanism against being eaten by bigger fish. They’re covered in little spines, too. Mi capitán had pulled in two of them.
At a later lull, the guy dipped a whetstone into the water and started sharpening his knife. He cleaned all the fish he had brought in, and pulled out some baggies of minced onion, tomato, and peppers, and about two dozen limes. I could see we were gonna have ceviche!
He started mixing the veggies and the diced fish all together in a large plastic bottle that had had its top cut off. I have no idea what was in it originally, but in this way of life, nothing that can be reused is thrown away. Lime after lime was sliced in two, the pips dutifully flicked into the bay, and the juice got squeezed into the mix.
After it had all been stirred together and allowed some time to steep, out came the classic “Saladitas” crackers and our favorite hot sauce, Salsa Huichol. I was invited to join them and enjoyed several crackers topped with this can’t-get-any-fresher ceviche. The gallon or so of ceviche disappeared in about 15 minutes.
My Spanish is still pretty terrible, so there had not been a lot of conversation during the day, but once we got ashore, I made a point of thanking my hosts in the best phrases I could manage, and especially to thank the capitán for sharing the ceviche. He was gracious, but repeatedly corrected my wording, emphasizing “botete” every time I said “ceviche.”
So the next day I decided to look it up. “Botete” is the pufferfish, and it has a special reputation in Japanese sushi culture, where it is known as “fugu.” From Wikipedia:
Pufferfish are generally believed to be the second-most poisonous vertebrates in the world… Fugu can be lethally poisonous due to its tetrodotoxin; therefore, it must be carefully prepared to remove toxic parts and to avoid contaminating the meat. The restaurant preparation of fugu is strictly controlled by law in Japan and several other countries, and only chefs who have qualified after three or more years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare the fish.Domestic preparation occasionally leads to accidental death.
It was delicious. And in hindsight, if I trust my life to this guy manning the outboard motor, I figure I can trust him to not kill us all with pufferfish tetrodotoxin ceviche!
By Russ Ham
Note: Author, John Steinbeck encounters the botete during his 1940 visit to La Paz. He describes the fish, and then questions the motive for the poison, “Botete is sluggish, fairly slow, unarmored, and not very celver at either concealment, escape, or attack…Did he develop poison in his flesh as a protection in lieu of speed and cleverness, or being poisonous and quite unattractive, was he able to ‘let himself go,’ abandon speed and cleverness?” He finds, at the time, paceños use the fish only to poison cats.