If you are what you eat, as the saying goes, then some of us would be Danger Man, while others of us would remain Mr. Rogers. I’m solidly in the Mr. Rogers camp myself, and after you see this list of exotic and dangerous foods you’ll understand why. Fortunately for those of us unadventurous types, it’s fairly easy to avoid all five.
We’ll start with the least life-threatening dainty on the list: casu marzu cheese. Never heard of it? That’s because it’s not sold in the U.S. because of its, um, unique processing method. A specialty of Sardinia, the name translates roughly to rotten cheese.
While there are many cheeses that are aged with molds, this one ups the ante by using maggots. Yes, you read that correctly: maggots. Specifically, this sheep-milk cheese is cut open and left out so the cheese fly can lay its eggs on it and the processing can begin. Cheese that is aged for an extended period of time harden, but the larvae create an extra soft texture as they digest and then excrete the fats, sugars, and proteins of the cheese. When fermentation is complete, the cheese is served with flatbread and strong red wine, usually with maggots intact; in fact, the cheese is considered to have gone bad if the maggots die and the whole thing is thrown out.
Be careful as you eat it, though, because the maggots don’t like to be disturbed and will actually jump–up to 6 inches, onto whatever is nearby, which might mean you. If you’re wondering why this food is on the list (aside from the gross-out factor some of us are feeling right now), here’s the really bad part: if you don’t chew your food well, the little larvae can end up in your stomach, and in true hardy insect style, they can survive the stomach acids and burrow into your intestines. Thankfully, they usually come back out on their own, but only after ensuring that the diner has sever cramps, vomiting and other intestinal distress. By the way, this is not the only cheese made in this fashion, and it is banned by the European Union. If you’re Danger Man and want to try it be careful or you might become Wanted Man also.
If you weren’t disgusted by the first dish, this next one might make you think twice. Attributed to Chinese and Indonesian cultures, the eating of monkey brains is a questionable practice due to the possibility of contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
I’ve placed it second on the list because the threat is a gamble–you may contract the disease, but you may not. The illness is a neurodegenerative disease, which means the brain begins to deteriorate rapidly, starting with memory loss and hallucinations, and moving to physical impairment and seizures, until the patient dies, typically about six months later. Similar to mad cow disease, it can also be contracted through blood transfusions, organ transplants, and cannibalism. Enough said.
Next up is a food that fights back. Sannakji is popular in Korean cuisine. What is it? Live octopus, cut into small pieces, but still wriggling. (I’m trying not to think of Gollum here.) Some people who partake enjoy the flavor (and the texture, I would imagine), while others enjoy the added sensation of the suction cups on the still squiggling arms clinging to their lips and cheeks. The problem for diners occurs if they don’t chew completely, and the suction cups cling to the throat and cause choking. About six people die from eating this food every year. It is recommended that diners drink lots of liquid while eating, but not alcohol beverages. Oh, and chew well. With your mouth closed…
The last two foods have something in common: they are loaded with poison. First up is the African bullfrog, which is considered a dainty in Namibia. But only in the right season–if you eat it while immature you risk kidney failure from the toxins the bullfrog secretes. Instead, Namibians wait to capture and consume the frog until after it has begun its mating call cycle after the third rains. At this time the toxins have abated. They also boil the frog with small sticks from one of two specific trees which are supposed to mitigate the toxins further. On a separate note, if you do an internet search for eating African bullfrogs, you can find quite a number of videos of these frogs eating other creatures. Just in case you missed the African bullfrog episode of National Geographic or something. Watching African bullfrogs is Mr. Rogers; eating African Bullfrogs is Danger Man.
Last on the list is probably the most famous hazardous meal: fugu, commonly called the pufferfish. A delicacy in Japan, this fish is notorious for being one of the most poisonous menu items on the planet. The pufferfish produces a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin in its skin, liver, and internal organs which causes paralysis in anyone who consumes it. For this reason, restaurants that serve this dish are highly regulated in Japan (and the 15 or so places in the U.S. that serve the fish).
Chefs who prepare fugu spend years training in preparation and must pass a final test that involves partaking of their own carefully prepared meal. If any part of the fish that contains the toxin is punctured, sliced, or ruptured, the whole fish becomes polluted, and the diner can expect a highly unpleasant, if not fatal, experience. The toxin is quite potent, with one fish having the ability to poison more than 30 people. Tetrodotoxin paralyzes the muscles, which can lead to asphyxiation if not treated immediately. There is no antidote, but if proper medical treatment is given, survival is possible. Out of 20-45 poisonings each year, only around six people die. Most incidents happen when people buy fugu from someone who is not trained in its preparation or from fisherman who try cleaning the fish themselves. If you’re Danger Man and want to try this tidbit, make sure to do it from a reputable restaurant.
While these foods may seem fantastic, I promise that this list is no April Fool’s joke. It also leaves off a number of potentially lethal foods that are far more common and doesn’t even begin to deal with the hazards of food-bourne illnesses. This list looks at the more exotic offerings in the world, and if you’re a Mr. Rogers like me, it’s fairly easy to not face the dangers described. Danger Man will have to travel, but here’s a tip before you go: button your cardigan–it might be cold outside.