Summertime is vacation time … tropical isles, Europe, Asia … and being adventurous. Perhaps you might like to try some of the foods the locals eat. But beware: Poisonous cuisines can be lurking in plain sight, some of them lethal.
Jamaica is a popular Caribbean island getaway, and its national fruit is the ackee. Since it’s their national fruit, you might want to taste it. It is related to the Asian longan and lychee, which you might be familiar with. The fruit is a native of West Africa and arrived in Jamaica via a slave ship.
Unfortunately, this fruit can cause severe vomiting, known as Jamaica vomiting sickness. And if you eat it before it is completely ripe, it can cause coma and death. The poison it contains is called hypoglycin. The black seeds are always poisonous, but the fruit is OK to eat if it is completely ripe. The red fruit is ripe when it bursts open, and the flesh is a bright yellow. I’ve eaten it. I survived. I recommend you avoid it. Welcome to Jamaica.
So perhaps you want to go to Korea and see where all of those Kias are coming from. You might want to take the recommendation from the chef on the sannakji. It’s raw baby octopus. Well, we eat octopus here sometimes in Japanese restaurants. You might want to go for it. But give it some deep thought before you say, “OK.” Just before this dish is served, the tentacles are hacked into pieces and sprinkled with sesame oil to help them go down.
The “exciting” factors for connoisseurs of this delicacy are the tentacles that remain active long after they are chopped up. The suction cups can still grab on; the legs will still wiggle. While this fact may be exciting to some, the danger comes when the tentacles grab on to the back of the throat or the back of the mouth and won’t let go. This is a real choking hazard. And unless you chew it to the consistency of mush, it will wiggle all the way down and continue to squirm in your belly. Who’s in?
While we’re in Asia, let’s hop over to Japan. I’ve traveled up and down Japan, enjoying much of the sashimi, sushi, tempura and most of the delicious fish they have to offer, including the Japanese delicacy called fugu, which is also highly lethal. I bravely sat down to a meal of fugu sashimi. The fugu fish is the Japanese name for the familiar pufferfish. Fugu chefs are required to have years of experience and training to prepare fugu properly so their guests won’t drop over dead. They actually have to have a license to be able to prepare it.
Fugu fish is thousands of times more deadly that cyanide. The poison is in the liver, intestines, skin and ovaries. The liver is considered to be the most delicious and delicate part of the fish, but it was outlawed in 1984. The poison is tetrodotoxin. The chef must carefully prepare the fish so as not to contaminate the meat during preparation. It is said the emperor of Japan is forbidden to eat it. Domestic preparation leads to more deaths than those from a chef. Even with all the training and precautions, death still occurs in Japan from fugu. I was lucky. It was delicious. But I was young and stupid then. I suggest you try other forms of sushi and buy souvenirs with the money you’d spend to taste fugu.
While we’re still in Asia, we might as well talk about akagai or blood clams. Blood clams can also be found in New England. But my contact with these miserable critters was also in Japan. They can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Unlike the clams you are accustomed to eating, blood clams can ingest and carry viruses and bacteria and are known for carrying hepatitis-A, typhoid and dysentery.
The greatest danger are clams that come from Chinese waters, as they are known to carry hepatitis. They are charming-looking creatures with pretty shells and bright orange to red flesh. Are you ready for some akagai sushi? Neither am I. If at any time you change your mind, I suggest that you try them in New England.
Let’s leave Asia and head up to Iceland.
Iceland is a gorgeous country. The topography, the volcanic flows, the spring flowers and the Nordic lights are spectacular. I never had a problem with any of the food I was served until I was offered a delicacy called casu marzu. This is a sheep’s milk cheese from local sheep. Sounds good, I thought. I love sheep’s milk cheese and eat it regularly in the United States and Europe. They told me it was also prized as an aphrodisiac. No problem there. I was intrigued. Then they produced their fine, fermented cheese for my pleasure.
Once the cheese is made, it is put outside where the flies sit on it and lay their eggs. The maggots hatch and feed on the cheese. The cheese ferments. You eat the cheese with the maggots, which survive in your intestinal walls and cause major havoc in your system. Currently it is banned throughout Europe. However, the local shepherds continue to make it and sell it on the black market. So not only are you eating deadly, rotten maggot cheese, but it is recommended that you eat it wearing goggles. And why is that? you might ask … because the maggots can jump up to six inches and bore into your eyeballs. I’m outta Iceland.
Let’s go to nearby Greenland. I have not spent much time in Greenland. I was actually on a flight that took the old polar route from Spain to Los Angeles. The engine caught fire and we ended up spending the night in Greenland. So of course, I had to check out the local cuisine. I found something called hákarl. This has a reputation for being the worst-tasting food on earth. It is a rotten-smelling shark from the waters off of Greenland. It’s so smelly because it does not have kidneys or a urinary tract. The toxins and all that waste, which would normally be processed and eliminated, are instead stored in the meat and skin of the fish. The skin is extremely toxic. In order to eliminate enough of the toxins to make it safe to eat, it must ferment and hang out to dry for at least six months. It’s still foul-smelling. I guess if you live in Greenland and are raised with this particular delicacy, you might like it. I smelled it and could not bring myself to taste it. If you decide to try it, let me know what you think. Even at my young and tender age, I had enough brains just to run.
But I didn’t run far. I just headed farther south, into Africa. There I discovered things like warthog, antelope, crocodile and other strange game animals that the locals consumed. The one thing they ate that I didn’t expect to find were African bullfrogs.
Now, my mother tried to pass off frog’s legs on me as a kid. I loved them. She told me they were baby chicken wings. When I found out they were frog’s legs, well, that was the end of that. But if you’re considering eating an African bullfrog, you need to know they contain a whole list of toxins that will affect humans. Young bullfrogs are the most lethal. But even an older “seasoned” bullfrog can quickly cause you to have kidney failure. And there are no such trained “frog chef’s” in Africa. You’re really just at the mercy of the person who is preparing it that particular day. And cleanliness just isn’t a virtue over there. My suggestion is that you stay with the ungulates. At least they all eat organic grasses. The bullfrog loves to eat rodents, bugs, birds and reptiles. Whatever you do, don’t bring it here for a pet. We have enough non-native bullfrogs to try to get out of the ecosystem. Oh, and don’t pick it up. Several of the African bullfrogs have sharp teeth.
After that, you might want to head back to the United States and indulge in some good, old-fashioned American cuisine. Some homemade tapioca pudding might be a great place to start. I was raised eating tapioca puddings. My mother was an artist with the stuff. My favorite was vanilla tapioca with pineapple. I could have eaten it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My mother always used tapioca pearls to make the pudding. She also used it as a thickener for pies.
In England, the kids call pearl tapioca “frog spawn.” Tapioca comes from cassava. Cassava is also known as Brazillian arrowroot and manioc. It comes from the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae and is native to South America, although it is grown all over the world now. Cassava is a major staple food around the world. Nigeria produces most of the cassava roots, and Thailand is the largest exporter of dried cassava. Cassava contains anti-nutritional factors as well as toxins. If it is not properly prepared it can leave enough residual cyanide to cause cyanide intoxication, goiters and partial paralysis. I’ve eaten my share of cassava chips and tapioca, Thai boba tea and a few other cassava derivatives. Luckily, I’ve never gotten sick from it. I think I’ll keep eating it.
When I was recently in Costa Rica, I was able to see cashew trees in fruit. It was an amazing thing. The fruits were yellow and ready to harvest. The seed, which is the cashew nut, hangs outside the fruit, dangling from the bottom like a bell clanger. The fruit is edible right from the tree, and several of us gobbled it up. We wanted to eat the cashew nut, but we were told it was poisonous. Really? I eat cashew nuts all the time. I only buy raw cashew nuts. But I followed my guide’s advice and didn’t eat it.
Lucky for me, “raw” in the United States does not mean raw. The raw cashew nuts here are steamed to remove the toxins. The nuts contain urushiol, which is a poisonous oil. If you are a hiker, you know the urushiol oil is what gives poison oak leaves that shiny appearance and is what makes you develop that severe rash. Would you eat poison oak? So, raw cashew nuts can make you seriously ill, and if you eat enough of them, it can be fatal. So don’t buy “raw” nuts anywhere except the United States where they are not exactly raw.
I love to hike, and when I hike close to summer, I often look for elderberries that grow in our open spaces and canyons surrounding Santa Clarita. If I find some that are ripe enough, I will eat a few. If they are very ripe, a few will be safe to eat. Note that not all varieties are safe to eat, so you need to know what you are doing. If they are ripe and properly cooked, they will be safe to eat.
However, the elderberry plant is considered the most poisonous plant in California. The root, stems, leaves and seeds are extremely toxic. They contain a chemical closely related to cyanide. If you eat it, it can cause severe reactions like seizures, extreme diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Native Americans used the elderberry plant for medicinal purposes to treat wounds, skin irritation and sometimes colds. Instead of eating a pile of elderberries, buy raspberries, strawberries, cloudberries and boysenberries that are all in season at the same time. Bon appetit.
After summer, it’s time to start thinking about Thanksgiving. Apple pie is a great fall and winter kitchen staple for Americans. Ah … home for the holidays. “Mom and apple pie” sounds ideal. But, what mom probably doesn’t know is that the nutmeg she’s put in her famous apple pie could be toxic. That’s right: Nutmeg is toxic. Luckily a little tiny shake won’t kill you.
Myristica fragrans is the tree from Indonesia that produces this seed we call nutmeg. Mace, another spice, is the aril, a thin, net-like sheath that covers the nutmeg seed. It has been used to end pregnancies, to fight the Black Plague, to regulate menstruation, and it can also be credited for causing hallucinations. Malcolm X used nutmeg in prison and wrote that it had the effect of three or four reefers. Toxicologists say that statement is far from the truth. The symptoms would most likely be nausea, dizziness, dry mouth and abnormal brain function. Luckily, there have been only 32 cases of nutmeg poisoning within a 10-year period. So I will continue to use the occasional splash of nutmeg in my pies and on top of my cappuccinos without worry. But if someone hands me a nutmeg shake, I might begin to worry.
Continue to be adventurous at home and abroad, but watch out for those mysterious delicacies. Investigate before diving in. A little bit of caution goes a long way. Have a great, safe summer.
Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at email@example.com.
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