When Edward Bachner was arrested in July for buying enough poison to kill about 100 people, he inadvertently implicated sushi chefs as potential bioterrorists. The 35-year-old Chicagoan ordered 98 milligrams of Tetrodotoxin, a nerve toxin found in the Japanese puffer fish served as fugu, an expensive sashimi dish. 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 United States and Korea.
But while it's the most notorious toxic fish, fugu is neither the most powerful nor the most commonly served. And beyond fish, there are scores of other foods whose deadliness equals their deliciousness, including commonly served fruits and vegetables that come with a sickening (and maybe lethal) kick. While the dangers can usually be avoided through proper preparation, this association with danger is irresistible to adventurous diners.
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."
In nature, the most venomous fish is the stonefish, a fixture of Asian and tropic cuisine whose 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 is 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 they are nonetheless toxic to humans because of bacteria in their diet.
As a result, puffer fish farmers in Japan have been able to breed non-poisonous 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.
Of course, you needn't rely on the ocean to provide dangerous delicacies; a number of poison 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 and eaten as breakfast. But pray that breakfast comes at the right time—ackee can cause extreme nausea if served when it's not ripe enough, which occurs often enough for the condition to acquire the nickname "Jamaican vomiting sickness." It can be even fatal to 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 housecat—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 the chicken-borne bacterial disease Salmonella every year. On the other hand, annual worldwide deaths by fugu amount are just a small fraction of that.
Of course, Salmonella poisoning occurs if the chicken is undercooked or dirty—the chicken itself isn't inherently poisonous. James Briscione, chef and instructor at Manhattan's Institute of Culinary Education, speculates that it takes a certain mindset to order 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."