World's Most Dangerous Foods
Plenty of people travel by their stomachs. Some people’s stomachs, however, have a death wish.
Take, for instance, the enticement of eating fugu. This puffer fish is infamous for its lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin, meaning possible death by asphyxiation for anyone who eats a sloppily prepared sample. In January 2009, seven men in northern Japan ordered fugu at an “unlicensed” restaurant and ended up in the hospital, battling respiratory failure. But they can still count themselves lucky. According to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 803 people were poisoned by fugu between 1989 and 2006, and 52 of them died.
For travelers with super-adventurous palates, sometimes “spicy” just isn’t enough. Fortunately, they don’t have to look too hard to find dishes whose appeal stems from their risky natures. Maybe it’s a bullfrog whose status as safe eating depends on when it was harvested during the rain and mating seasons. Or raw tentacles—pulled from a live octopus—that threaten to suffocate diners by clinging to their throats.
But fugu ratchets up the danger level, so you want a chef who knows a lot more about preparing fish than just how to make a good beer batter. In Japan, the fugu-chef certification process typically takes two to three years and has a high failure rate, leaving only a relative few to practice fugu magic. The San-Qi restaurant at the Four Seasons, Mumbai recently debuted its own fugu-certified chef, who serves his safe version of the infamous fish either lightly grilled with citrus soy ($20) or as Fugu Sushi ($14). Other skilled chefs prepare it with just a tiny amount of poison—enough to make diners feel a little tipsy, or numb and prickly around the lips.
Some say that even on culinary grounds the fishy delicacy isn’t worth the risk. “Honestly, it tastes like a normal fish,” says Eric McLaughlin, a Tucson-based travel doctor and self-avowed daring eater who has tried fugu elsewhere. “It’s kind of soft and creamy—some people like it, but I can take it or leave it.”
But let’s face it: taste is often not the issue here, just as skydiving is usually not about getting some fresh air. Consider casu marzu, a black-market cheese made in Sardinia. It starts off as pecorino, and its overall taste is compared to a mild Gorgonzola in flavor. The zing comes from its preparation: it’s cultivated using flies that produce live maggots in the cheese, which may then set up housekeeping in your digestive tract.
Dangerous foods, however, aren’t always intentionally ingested. Even the most innocuous dishes can make us sick, depending on how the meat or fish is caught, stored, or cooked, says McLaughlin.
In fact, the most common food-borne threat to travelers comes from pretty mundane sources. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 10 million people—or between 20 and 50 percent of international travelers—get hit annually by a type of Montezuma’s revenge. The main culprits: food or water tainted with germs that locals have usually become immune to.
Sure enough, McLaughlin says that tap water from a third-world country is probably the riskiest thing an American traveler can ingest. While most nondaring travelers are savvy enough to avoid drinking water straight from the tap, they all too often gloss over other glaring risks—like, say, food from street carts, or drinks on the rocks—and shoot themselves in the foot (or, perhaps more accurately, lower intestine). “I’ve watched tourists in Mexico and other places,” he says, “take out bottled water but pour it over foreign ice.”
The fugu, also known as the puffer fish or blowfish, can kill you within hours if not prepared properly, by removing the liver and reproductive organs. Learning how to make it involves an apprenticeship of up to three years. The largest wholesale market for fugu in Japan is in Shimonoseki, and these days you can even buy it in supermarkets; just be sure to look for paperwork attesting to its safety. The Four Seasons, Mumbai just debuted its fugu-trained chef, who serves it either grilled or as sushi. Some Japanese producers, meanwhile, have now bred nontoxic fugu, which some might argue takes the fun out of it.
Prognosis: Not great. A poorly prepared fugu contains the poison tetrodotoxin, which paralyzes your muscles and eventually causes asphyxiation. There is no antidote, but victims can survive if they are assisted with respiration until the poison wears off. If you can make it through the first 24 hours, you’re likely out of the woods.
Crab, Latin America
While cholera is a long shot these days, it’s a good reminder to follow the “Cook it, boil it, peel it, or forget it” rule when it comes to shellfish—with a big emphasis on the cooking part. In the early 1990s, a handful of U.S. travelers picked up cholera from crab they’d bought (and supposedly even cooked) before packing it in their bags to bring home from Latin America (they survived, but perhaps not their luggage). Shrimp, clams, mussels, and oysters can also carry it.
Prognosis: You probably won’t die, even if you feel like you might. It causes, as one source put it, “voluminous” diarrhea. “Cholera doesn’t kill people, but the dehydration does,” says Eric McLaughlin, a Tucson-based travel doctor. “Anytime you ingest water from an unknown source, you run the risk of cholera, and it’s a devastating illness without good medical care.”
Casu Marzu, Sardinia
Threat: “Enteric myiasis,” a nasty gastric ailment
It may not be lethal, but this cheese is intimidating enough to scare away many a foodie. At first blush, it’s just an Italian sheep’s-milk pecorino cheese, which some liken to Gorgonzola in taste. But look closer: the cheese is also alive…with maggots. Part of the cheese-making process here involves leaving the early-stage cheese exposed, so that cheese flies can land and hatch eggs, which act as a catalyst for fermentation. The EU has banned the cheese for—well, why wouldn’t you ban it? But fans insist that it’s fine as long as the maggots are still squirming, and that the cheese has only “gone bad” if the little guys are dead. Even though it’s illegal, you can reportedly still buy casu marzu on the sly from shepherds in Sardinia. Locals have been known to trot out the cheesy delicacy for parties and special occasions (or even as an aphrodisiac)—with perhaps the precaution of donning eye wear, since the maggots reportedly can jump up to six inches out of the cheese. Pass the crackers!
Prognosis: When the maggots are eaten alive, they can actually survive the trip through your stomach and set up camp in your intestines, burrowing into the lining and causing vomiting, diarrhea, and serious cramps before they make their way out on the other side. The good news: they almost always make it out all on their own, without any medical intervention.
Monkey Brains, Asia
Threat: Mad cow disease
This one is often the stuff of urban legend, with preparation purportedly involving harvesting the meat while the monkey is still alive. Princess Diana’s former butler says that he and Her Majesty were served the dish once in China, and pop star Jesse McCartney suffered the wrath of PETA this past spring after saying he ate it in Asia (he said he found it to be bland). Rumors persist that you can get it in China, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Prognosis: While it’s a slim chance, you could contract Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, also known as mad cow, which causes dementia and progressive neurological deterioration before death. “The disease is transmitted through neural tissue, and the brain is the neural tissue,” says McLaughlin. “So if you’re eating that, that’s where the virus is.”
Sannakji (Wriggling Octopus), Korea
This mild-tasting, lightly seasoned dish likely won’t hurt you once it’s in your stomach—but getting it there can be dicey. Nakji is a kind of small octopus served in Korean restaurants and spots such as Seoul’s Noryangjin Fish Market. The octopus’s legs are removed while the critter is still alive, so that its little limbs are still wriggling on your plate like a pile of worms. The kicker: the tentacles’ suction cups can stick like crazy to your cheeks or inside your throat, so choking is a very real threat. In South Korea, about six people per year reportedly die from eating it.
Prognosis: Chew it well, and drink lots of liquids while eating it, to keep those little suckers moving to your stomach. Also, while it’s hard to imagine eating this stuff sober, experts say that dining on nakji while tipsy only makes matters worse.
Giant Bullfrog, Namibia
Threat: Kidney failure or death
There’s a reason the French love frog’s legs, and only the legs: the rest of a frog can be a minefield of toxins, with the skin and organs being particularly dangerous to eat. Even so, the entire frog (minus a few, particularly toxic organs) is considered a delicacy in Namibia, where the arguably endangered frog is usually eaten on the sly, perhaps sold off the backs of trucks. (These froggies are big boys too, sometimes measuring more than 20 centimeters across.) They’re considered safe to eat if harvested after mating season and the “third rain,” when their levels of toxins have mellowed out.
Prognosis: If you get the wrong frog parts, or eat preseason, you could be stricken with Oshiketakata, a temporary (or hopefully temporary) kidney failure, requiring immediate medical attention.
Ackee Plant, Jamaica
Threat: “Jamaican vomiting sickness”
This red, pearlike fruit looks lovely on a platter, but make sure it’s been peeled and cut up correctly before you take a bite. Only the inner, yellow parts are safe to eat, while the red parts and little black bits can actually be deadly. Luckily, that’s pretty rare—Jamaicans eat this fruit a lot, and it’s often sold canned (you can even find cans in some parts of the U.S.). On the bright side, the safe parts of the ackee are high in protein, essential fatty acids, and vitamin A. It’s part of the national dish of ackee and saltfish, in which the fruit is sautéed with onions.
Prognosis: Eating the entire ackee can result in what is known as “Jamaican vomiting sickness,” which can also include seizures or even fatal hypoglycemia. “It bottoms out your blood sugars,” says McLaughlin. Patients may get treated with activated charcoal, IV fluids, and maybe even a breathing machine.
Unpasteurized Milk, Europe and Asia
Threat: Nasty flu-like symptoms
This menace comes from the most benign-seeming source: a glass of milk, cream in your coffee, or a little artisan cheese. Much of Asia doesn’t require pasteurization of milk, and plenty of places in rural England and France don’t do it, leaving anyone who consumes that milk at risk of contracting illnesses that come from consuming the bacteria often found in raw milk: E. coli, listeria, salmonella. Another culprit: queso fresco, which tops many dishes in Mexico.
Prognosis: Getting sick from raw milk is known as brucellosis, which can manifest itself with flu-like symptoms such as fever, aches, and the sweats—and sometimes even liver enlargement. The strangest thing, though, is that it can incubate for up to 20 weeks, leaving victims unlikely to connect the dots between a sudden illness and that nice cheese plate last summer in the French countryside. “It’s the great mimic,” says McLaughlin. “Nobody looks for it, and so most people are assumed to have something else.” The good news: a round of antibiotics (which your doctor will likely give you anyway) knocks it out.
The Silver-Stripe Blaasop, Mediterranean Countries
Fishermen in the Indian Ocean have long loved this black-spotted, silvery fish, which can reach about three feet in length. The problem: if you don’t take out its liver and reproductive organs, you’ll be in trouble. Thanks to the Suez Canal, these little guys have migrated to the eastern Mediterranean, where unsavvy fishermen have eaten it and died (in early 2007, there were 10 deaths attributed to it in Egypt and Israel).
Prognosis: Grim. The toxins can case paralysis, breathing problems, and even death.
Threat: Anything between a headache and death
Wild-mushroom picking is a great tradition in various fungus-friendly parts of the world, but beware: toxic mushrooms can look almost exactly like safe ones. Your best bet is to go with a “hunting” club or any expert-led group. “There is always the danger of a poisonous mushroom getting mixed in with the edible ones,” says Harry Cashy, a specialist for the travel assistance and security company MEDEX Global Group. Two notorious mushrooms—the pale or white Amanita phalloides, known as the “death cap,” and the Amanita ocreata—look deceptively benign. Weekend mushroom hunters in France have also been known to take their harvests to the local pharmacy for inspection.
Prognosis: Depends on what kind you eat and how many—even “safe” mushrooms can become toxic if you binge on them. Symptoms can range from stomach cramps or a headache to liver failure and death. Poisoning is treated with activated charcoal, fluids, and sometimes dialysis.