The Deadliest Dishes in the World
February 14, 2019
From fugu to monkey brains, these meals can actually kill you
Many travelers seek the thrill of a dangerous destination. Few things get your adrenaline pumping faster than a risky cliff-dive or a leap from an airplane, all set to a backdrop of a breathtaking view. You know landscapes can be deadly. An arid desert or frozen tundra can absolutely put your life at risk. Even some roads could come with a threat if you choose to drive down them. But what if the food put on your plate was equally as tantalizing a thrill during your travels?
Some dishes served around the world can be deadly — and not because of a risk of food poisoning. Eating these foods could kill you for various reasons — ranging from parasites or diseases in some animal flesh to certain chemicals in plants that are toxic to humans.
But if you do ever get the chance to try these foods, try not to gawk at them. The history and culture behind these dishes deserve respect; they’re more than just a test of bravery. Some of these foods are important traditions in the places where they’re served. Other exotic dishes were born out of necessity rather than for flavor or intrigue, and remain important symbols of past and present culinary histories.
Some dishes are safe when prepared correctly but become deadly after a cooking error; while other foods are just flat-out risky to eat, no matter the preparation. We strongly recommend against putting yourself at serious risk through your choice of food, but in case you’re just curious, here are the deadliest dishes in the world.
Akee and Saltfish
This traditional Jamaican dish, actually the national dish of Jamaica, is prepared with salt cod and sautéed onion, scotch bonnet peppers, tomatoes, and boiled ackee fruit. When prepared properly, the dish is perfectly safe to consume and enjoyed by many. However, the chef must know what he or she is doing. These ingredients seem harmless, but if the ackee fruit is picked before it is ripe or prepared improperly, it can be deadly. The soft, spongy fruit contains hypoglycin alkaloid toxins, which can cause seizures, vomiting, coma and even death. Luckily, if you stick to the canned akee imported to the U.S., this closely monitored import isn’t likely to lead to any trouble.
You might have heard of eating frog legs as a snack. But did you know that in some parts of the world, they eat large baked bullfrogs? In Namibia, a country near the southern tip of Africa, giant bullfrogs are a national specialty. Normally this dish is perfectly safe, but if a young, premature bullfrog is selected, it may carry a toxin that leads to kidney failure. Leave the bullfrog prep to the pros; if you want to try eating frogs closer to home, you could always try the recipe for these deep-fried frog legs.
Blood clams, a type of clam of the species Tegillarca granosa, got their name because they have red hemoglobin liquid inside their soft tissues. These clams are found throughout the Indo-Pacific region and are largely considered a delicacy, but they’re actually dangerous if you eat them in certain spots in Shanghai. The style of preparation in Shanghai involves quick-boiling them, which can leave behind deadly viruses and bacteria, including hepatitis, typhoid, and dysentery.
Cassava, also referred to as yuca or manioc, has become a popular flour alternative for making gluten-free breads. Sometimes, the food is eaten similarly to a potato. But don’t eat cassava unless it’s been prepared properly. Cassava is a starchy root that flourishes in the tropical climates of Central and South America, the Caribbean, and West Africa, but it is more familiar to Americans in its dried and powdered form: tapioca. The plant is dangerously toxic when consumed raw because it contains cyanogenic glucosides, which trigger the release of hydrogen cyanide. Cassava should be soaked and fermented for at least a day before it’s cooked, but some sweet varieties of cassava inherently contain less cyanogenic glucosides and are safe to eat after simply cooking them thoroughly.
Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh mozzarella are a few of the popular Italian-style cheeses that have made their way around the world, but in Sardinia, casu marzu is a celebrated cheese that you might be less thrilled to find on your cheese board. Also known as maggot cheese, casu marzu is made by not only fermenting sheep’s milk, but also infecting a block of pecorino with live maggot larvae. If that isn’t horrifying enough, you’re supposed to eat this cheese while the maggots are living. Sardinian tradition holds that once the maggots are dead, the cheese is unsafe to eat. But the risk of eating maggots alive is that they may burrowing into your stomach (seriously!), which can cause a condition called enteric myiasis that involves severe stomach cramps and nausea.
Served during the Egyptian holiday of Sham el-Nessim, mullet (a saltwater fish) is sun-dried and cured through an elaborate process that’s been passed down for generations. But when the dish is not prepared correctly, diners may suffer from botulism and paralysis due to contamination with Clostridium botulinum bacteria. Experts suggest bathing the fish in vinegar before it is served to reduce the risk of infection.
Fugu (Blowfish) Sashimi
With so many delectable types of seafood available, it’s curious why anyone would pay hundreds of dollars to eat a fish that’s so dangerous. There are several species of pufferfish, but portions of all of them — especially the livers — contain tetrodotoxin, a toxin 1,200 times more deadly than cyanide. In order to be certified to prepare pufferfish (known as fugu in Japan, where it’s most often served), chefs must go through special training that can last up to three years. Despite the care that it takes to properly prepare pufferfish, there were still 23 deaths linked to its consumption recorded in Japan between 2000 and 2009.
Shark meat is a surprisingly popular food item, but hákarl, a traditional Icelandic dish, promises more than a dinner date with Jaws. This cured fish is pungent and potentially deadly. The shark is fermented and dried for four to five months as part of a special fermentation process; however, the uric acid and trimethylamine oxide that build up in the fish can cause dangerous health effects similar to what you might experience after drinking way, way too much alcohol.
Inky Cap Mushroom Soup
The soup is harmless when prepared with shaggy inky cap mushrooms, but if the common inky cap mushroom is used by mistake, this soup will quickly turn toxic when consumed alongside alcohol. The combination can cause disulfiram syndrome, which can result in vomiting and heart palpitations. The more alcohol you drink, the worse your symptoms will be. Avoid the confusion altogether by making one of these safer soup dishes.
Larb is thought of as the unofficial national dish of Laos; it’s a meat salad that, when prepared raw, can cause serious health complications. Raw larb has caused multiple cases of Streptococcus suis infection in Thailand, some of which ended up being deadly. In 2016, larb made with raw wild boar meat sickened 12 people in California with trichinellosis. Eating raw meat has the potential to cause other deadly infections as well, including rabies.
Eating monkey brains can actually give you monkey brains — in the form of a fatal, degenerative brain disease. Consuming the nerve tissues of mammals can be a health hazard, but eating the brain is especially dangerous because it can lead to transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, also known as prion diseases. These diseases can progress rapidly and are often deadly. Fortunately, despite some prominent urban legends and gory films, any actual documentation of people eating the brains of primates is quite rare.
It’s one thing to slurp down a freshly shucked oyster, but to consume still-squirming live octopus — that takes some tentacles. Oysters — some of which are still alive when you eat them — can make you sick. But san-nakji can actually kill you. San-nakji is a Korean specialty of live, diced octopus tentacles seasoned with sesame oil and seeds. This dish is particularly treacherous because the suction cups on the tentacles are still active and can stick to the mouth or throat when swallowed. Instead of these rare, deadly international dishes, you might want to try some safer local street food during your travels. Many top destinations are known for the delectable street foods you can’t find anywhere else.
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