History Stories

These days, barely a week goes by without some new food-related horror story popping up in the media. Horsemeat in your taco? Check. E. coli in your hamburger? Got it. From mercury in fish to salmonella in chicken, it can seem like we’re living in a golden age for unsafe foods. But what about foods that are naturally dangerous? Between maggot-infested cheese and the exotic puffer fish, adventurous eaters have their pick of risky delicacies.

Let’s start with perhaps the most well-known danger food: Japan’s puffer fish, or fugu. Fugu contains a deadly dose of the poison tetrodotoxin in all its organs, the liver being the most toxic. Tetrodotoxin kills by paralyzing victims’ muscles and asphyxiating them—all while they remain fully conscious. There is no known antidote. But that hasn’t stopped legions of Japanese from dining on fugu sashimi for centuries. Fugu chefs must be trained and certified to handle the fish, keeping special fugu-only knives stored separately from the rest of their equipment.

Fugu is not the only potentially lethal fish to make appearances on dinner tables. If you don’t remove the liver and reproductive organs of the silverstripe blaasop, an Indian Ocean native, your fresh-caught meal could kill you. And Koreans enjoy eating nakji, a small octopus whose tentacles are served still raw and gently wriggling. It’s not poisonous, but about six South Koreans a year choke to death when the suction cups stick on their cheeks or inside their throats. Nakji experts recommend chewing the tentacles thoroughly and drinking lots of liquids to make sure they go down quickly.

Killer fish seem terrifying enough, but what about killer cheese? Casu marzu, a traditional Sardinian delicacy, is created by cutting sections of the rind from whole wheels of Pecorino cheese. Cheese flies enter the wheel and lay eggs that turn into larvae, which then eat the cheese. This produces a buildup of acid in the wheel, transforming the once-hard cheese into a soft, fermented mass. Casu marzu lovers insist that the cheese becomes unsafe to eat once the larvae inside have died—so tasting this peculiar treat means getting a mouthful of live maggots. The creatures can survive the trip through the digestive track and take up residence in the large intestine, causing stomach ailments. Even though medical attention is rarely needed for the maggot infestation, the price of this cheese course might still be too high for most people.

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