Ackee Plant, Jamaica
Threat: “Jamaican vomiting sickness”
This red, pearlike fruit looks lovely on a platter, but make sure it’s been peeled and cut up correctly before you take a bite. Only the inner, yellow parts are safe to eat, while the red parts and little black bits can actually be deadly. Luckily, that’s pretty rare—Jamaicans eat this fruit a lot, and it’s often sold canned (you can even find cans in some parts of the U.S.). On the bright side, the safe parts of the ackee are high in protein, essential fatty acids, and vitamin A. It’s part of the national dish of ackee and saltfish, in which the fruit is sautéed with onions.
Prognosis: Eating the entire ackee can result in what is known as “Jamaican vomiting sickness,” which can also include seizures or even fatal hypoglycemia. “It bottoms out your blood sugars,” says McLaughlin. Patients may get treated with activated charcoal, IV fluids, and maybe even a breathing machine.
Sannakji (Wriggling Octopus), Korea
This mild-tasting, lightly seasoned dish likely won’t hurt you once it’s in your stomach—but getting it there can be dicey. Nakji is a kind of small octopus served in Korean restaurants and spots such as Seoul’s Noryangjin Fish Market. The octopus’s legs are removed while the critter is still alive, so that its little limbs are still wriggling on your plate like a pile of worms. The kicker: the tentacles’ suction cups can stick like crazy to your cheeks or inside your throat, so choking is a very real threat. In South Korea, about six people per year reportedly die from eating it.
Prognosis: Chew it well, and drink lots of liquids while eating it, to keep those little suckers moving to your stomach. Also, while it’s hard to imagine eating this stuff sober, experts say that dining on nakji while tipsy only makes matters worse.
Casu Marzu, Sardinia
Threat: “Enteric myiasis,” a nasty gastric ailment
It may not be lethal, but this cheese is intimidating enough to scare away many a foodie. At first blush, it’s just an Italian sheep’s-milk pecorino cheese, which some liken to Gorgonzola in taste. But look closer: the cheese is also alive…with maggots. Part of the cheese-making process here involves leaving the early-stage cheese exposed, so that cheese flies can land and hatch eggs, which act as a catalyst for fermentation. The EU has banned the cheese for—well, why wouldn’t you ban it? But fans insist that it’s fine as long as the maggots are still squirming, and that the cheese has only “gone bad” if the little guys are dead. Even though it’s illegal, you can reportedly still buy casu marzu on the sly from shepherds in Sardinia. Locals have been known to trot out the cheesy delicacy for parties and special occasions (or even as an aphrodisiac)—with perhaps the precaution of donning eye wear, since the maggots reportedly can jump up to six inches out of the cheese. Pass the crackers!
Prognosis: When the maggots are eaten alive, they can actually survive the trip through your stomach and set up camp in your intestines, burrowing into the lining and causing vomiting, diarrhea, and serious cramps before they make their way out on the other side. The good news: they almost always make it out all on their own, without any medical intervention.
The fugu, also known as the puffer fish or blowfish, can kill you within hours if not prepared properly, by removing the liver and reproductive organs. Learning how to make it involves an apprenticeship of up to three years. The largest wholesale market for fugu in Japan is in Shimonoseki, and these days you can even buy it in supermarkets; just be sure to look for paperwork attesting to its safety. The Four Seasons, Mumbai just debuted its fugu-trained chef, who serves it either grilled or as sushi. Some Japanese producers, meanwhile, have now bred nontoxic fugu, which some might argue takes the fun out of it.
Prognosis: Not great. A poorly prepared fugu contains the poison tetrodotoxin, which paralyzes your muscles and eventually causes asphyxiation. There is no antidote, but victims can survive if they are assisted with respiration until the poison wears off. If you can make it through the first 24 hours, you’re likely out of the woods.
Monkey Brains, Asia
Threat: Mad cow disease
This one is often the stuff of urban legend, with preparation purportedly involving harvesting the meat while the monkey is still alive. Princess Diana’s former butler says that he and Her Majesty were served the dish once in China, and pop star Jesse McCartney suffered the wrath of PETA this past spring after saying he ate it in Asia (he said he found it to be bland). Rumors persist that you can get it in China, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Prognosis: While it’s a slim chance, you could contract Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, also known as mad cow, which causes dementia and progressive neurological deterioration before death. “The disease is transmitted through neural tissue, and the brain is the neural tissue,” says McLaughlin. “So if you’re eating that, that’s where the virus is.”