Stinky shark meat in Iceland, a vomit-inducing Jamaican fruit, a Japanese fish deadlier than cyanide, and in Korea, a live baby octopus, whose tentacles might choke you—how elastic is your palate when it comes to trying dishes which, when not cooked right, can leave you sick or poisoned? Here’s our compilation of some deadly dishes. Dig in. Bon Appétit, or maybe not.
Remember the Simpsons’ episode where Homer and Marge stroll into a sushi bar, Homer orders fugu, and is accidentally served up the fish’s toxic innards instead of its edible meat? You might die in 24 hours, the doctor declares. Luckily, Homer survives. Not everybody does. This is because the ovaries, liver and intestines of a fugu contain a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin. It is believed to be more dangerous than cyanide. The grey stubby fish’s edible parts must therefore be separated with precision. Only a certified chef can tear into it. Still, dangerous as it might be, sushi-lovers in Tokyo happily navigate their way through translucent, wafer-thin Fugu slivers. In taste, say some reviews, it’s like chicken.
This slightly bitter tropical fruit from the lychee family is Jamaica’s national fruit. Cooked ackee and saltfish is also the country’s national dish. With saltfish and ackee being the main ingredients, the sauce is flavoured with bell peppers, onion and garlic. The combination is served with steamed white rice. Ackee, though, can’t be eaten raw, and not all of it is edible. It grows in pods in clusters that populate evergreen trees in this Caribbean island nation. The pods, and the black glossy seeds nestled inside them, are highly toxic. They contain hypotoxin, a poison that propels the self-explanatory Jamaican vomiting sickness, which, if not treated in time, may result in the patient going into a coma. So what really is edible then? The yellowish-white fluffy portion inside each pod, called arillus, is what’s cooked. It is served alongside fried plantain and dumplings.
Escamoles are ant larvae. Soft and squishy, they have a nutty-buttery taste, and are popularly referred to as the caviar of Mexico. While the eggs themselves are edible, the Liometopum ants, who produce them, are an aggressive species. They are known to bite more than they can chew, or suck. Only expert chefs are, therefore, advised to handle them. In texture, the eggs are close to cottage cheese. Pan-fried with veggies, butter and spices, escamoles are usually eaten with tacos, tortilla chips and omelettes.
It is sabudana-like, but these squishy, starchy balls constitute a fundamental part of the Brazilian diet. Tapioca is obtained from the root of a rather deadly plant called Cassava, which has a tendency to produce cyanide. Once harvested, it therefore needs to undergo a meticulously-supervised processing regime. In the Brazilian market tapioca is also available in the flour form and as flakes. Brazilians love tapioca desserts and use it to prepare crepes, puddings and custards. One of Brazil’s popular tapioca desserts is Sagu—tapioca pearls cooked with cinnamon and cloves in red wine. Served chilled, say some food blogs, Sagu is like eating wine.
San NakJi is food in motion, or, in other words, it’s raw octopus, chopped and served while it’s still alive and kicking. Beneath the mild salt-and-pepper seasoning, and sesame oil dressing, its tentacles squirm even after the dish arrives at your table. For those who’d still like to give this Korean delicacy a shot, bear one thing in mind—chew every morsel long enough, or else its tentacles’ active suction cups might choke you. As for its flavour, this otherwise bland dish is often spruced up with hot chilli sauce.
Hákarl, which is fermented shark meat, tastes so rotten that American chef and author, Anthony Bourdain, said “never again”, in a Time magazine interview. The Icelandic people take pride in their ancestral Vikings tradition of putrefying sharks and hanging them to dry; sometimes for up to three months. Since the shark species that’s used to make hákarl has no kidney, it contains high-levels of urea and chemicals like trimethylamine oxide. If uncured, this chemical can be quite lethal. But if you do decide to be adventurous then, pair your hákarl with a glass of Brennivín, or Black Death, an unsweetened schnapps made out of potato mash, and flavoured with local aromatic herbs.
Egyptians bring in Sham el-Nessim, their annual spring festival, with this slimy fish dish made out of fermented grey mullet. Ironically, when translated from Arabic, Sham el-Nessim means “smelling the fresh breeze”. The mullets sure raise a stink. Found in both the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, this saltwater fish is soaked in a salt solution for about a month. Some lime juice and bread is all it needs. So what’s the health risk? Fesikh can trigger botulism, a kind of poisoning caused by a bacteria present in the fish, if it is not cured properly. And yet, despite government warnings, Fesikh continues to reign over Egyptian hearts and appetites.