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updated 12/17/2010 7:35:00 PM ET 2010-12-18T00:35:00

Tetrodotoxin is a powerful nerve toxin 100 times more poisonous than cyanide. When consumed it can shut down organs in the human body, leading to a zombie-like state of paralysis and eventual death by asphyxiation.

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It's also found in one of the most famous foods in Japanese cuisine: The puffer fish, served as fugu, an expensive sashimi dish.

Slideshow: World's most deadly delicacies

Sometimes called the "Russian roulette of sushi," and once featured on an episode of "The Simpsons," fugu requires delicate preparation for its edible meat to be separated from its toxic internal organs. Before they're licensed to serve fugu, Japanese chefs undergo months of training and a rigorous exam, which only 30 percent of applicants pass.

Even when properly prepared fugu's toxicity is a critical part of its appeal. The flavor is so subtle it's nearly nonexistent, but eating it numbs the lips and creates an alcohol-like buzz for the diner. Popular in Japan, it's banned in Europe and offered in a small number of restaurants in the U.S. and Korea.

But while it's the most notorious toxic fish, fugu is neither the most powerful nor the most commonly served. Around the world there are many foods with deadliness equaling their deliciousness — and many diners who travel far and wide to just to consume them.

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Fish present the most clear and present danger. There are hundreds of species of toxic fish, and many find their ways to dinner plates.

"People would definitely be surprised at how venomous fish are," says Dr. Leo Smith, assistant fish curator at the Field Museum in Chicago. Smith is a leading researcher of poisonous and venomous fish, and says that, while snakes are more often associated with venom, there are far more poisonous species of fish. "Because humans live on land, they don't think of fish as venomous."

The world's most venomous fish is the stonefish, a fixture of Asian and tropic cuisine; its potentially fatal sting has been described as the worst pain a human can feel. However, human death from eating stonefish is rare to nonexistent.

"There's an important distinction you have to make between poisonous and venomous," Smith says. Venom is commonly deployed when a fish bites its prey, but certain fish are poisonous due to their diet and environment.

When stonefish venom is cooked, it loses its potency. And when served raw — as in the sashimi dish Okoze — its venomous dorsal fins are simply removed. The body meat that remains is delicious and nontoxic. On the other hand, puffer fish and the silver-striped blaasop do not deploy venom, but are nonetheless toxic to humans because of bacteria in their diets.

Hence, puffer fish farmers in Japan have been able to breed nonpoisonous puffer fish by restricting the fish's diet. The newly safe (but still legally suspect) puffer fish liver, where Tetrodotoxin is most concentrated, has reportedly become a sought-after underground delicacy in parts of Japan.

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Of course you need not look to the ocean to provide dangerous delicacies; a number of poisonous plants serve as side dishes and garnishes around the world. Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica. This bulbous-looking plant has the look and taste of scrambled eggs when cooked, and is often paired with salted cod as a breakfast dish. But pray that breakfast comes at the right time — ackee can cause extreme nausea if served when under-ripe, which occurs often enough for the condition to have acquired the nickname "Jamaican vomiting sickness." It can be even fatal in children.

Like ackee, cassava is a dietary staple in the tropics. In Brazil, Peru, Cuba and other countries, it's used to make breads, ground into pastes and fried into cakes. Also like ackee, it can have undesirable consequences if not washed and prepared properly: The root vegetable contains enough cyanide to kill. Cassava is found in Africa, too, where it's at home with the Namibian bullfrog, a nasty-looking specimen that grows to the size of a house cat and contains enough poison to be lethal.

The fans of these foods argue that deliciousness outweighs the danger. And anyway, a simple chicken dinner isn't guaranteed to be safe. According to the Center for Disease Control, an average of 600 Americans die from poultry-borne bacterial disease Salmonella every year. On the other hand, annual deaths from fugu worldwide number just a small fraction of that.

James Briscione, chef and instructor at Manhattan's Institute of Culinary Education, speculates that it takes a certain mindset to seek out a dish with a lethal reputation. "I think it gets back to when a kid eats worms in the playground. It's an adventurous thing to do, and you're going to have a story to tell."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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