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Taste or Tenacity: Why Daredevils Dish on Extreme Foods

By Wesley Fenlon

Foods like the pufferfish can be lethal when prepared incorrectly. Do diners go after extreme foods just for the thrill, or are there dangerous delicacies out there worth dying for?

Centrifuges, rotary evaporators, freeze dryers--when it comes to equipment, the Modernist Cuisine kitchens are a little more extreme than the average restaurant's. Modernist Cuisine's craft represents the fusion of high-tech science and traditionally low-tech food, like treating french fries to an ultrasonic bath or freezing a perfectly cooked steak with liquid nitrogen. The methods may be extreme, but the dishes usually aren't.

Extreme food isn't about the scientific deconstruction of pea butter or the technology behind the ultimate hamburger. Here's what makes a food really extreme: the possibility it might be the last thing you ever eat. There aren't many foods out there that fit the bill. After all, we make a habit of eating things that sustain the body, not destroy it.

Except, well, when we don't. Daredevils and connoisseurs can't resist the allure of foods like the Fugu, a deadly pufferfish, or the Moruga Scorpoion, currently the hottest chili pepper in the world. Why, exactly? Sometimes it's all about prestige. Everyone has that friend who would gladly chomp on a pepper for the bragging rights, even if it meant enduring hours of unquenchable, fiery pain.

Photo Credit: Flickr user selva via Creative Commons.

But that's not the only reason some of us seek out dangerous foods. For all the digestive discomfort chili peppers can bring, that raw heat holds its own addictive quality. And fugu, deadly poisonous if not prepared with the utmost care, is considered a delicacy worth paying $200 a meal for. What's the appeal? Behind the danger of every extreme food lies the simplest allure: a culinary experience like nothing else.

Let's take a look at three of the world's wildest dishes, why they're dangerous, and why we eat them anyway.

Fugu

When it comes to dangerous foods, there's no more famous dish in all the world. Fugu, the Japanese word for pufferfish, has become synonymous with the meal cooked from over 100 members of the Tetraodontidae family. They can kill you dead.

The poison of the pufferfish, a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, is one of the most powerful natural toxins--10,000 times more potent than cyanide and 10-100 times more powerful than a black widow spider bite. Consuming something like 25 milligrams of tetrodotoxin could be enough to cause lethal respiratory failure. There is no antidote.

Because so many parts of the pufferfish's body contains concentrations of the neurotoxin, chefs in Japan train for years to obtain a fugu license. At several points in Japan's history, fugu was banned for being too dangerous to eat. Fugu is the king of extreme dishes--famous, prestigious, and proven to be deadly. But when fugu is prepared by a trained chef, odds are low--astronomically low--that you'll end up on the receiving end of a bad tetrodotoxin trip.

According to the Tokyo Burea of Social Welfare and Public Health, only a single fugu incident occurred in a Tokyo restaurant between 1993 and 2006. Those who die from eating fugu are almost never restaurant diners and almost always poor fishermen or clueless souls who don't know they're eating a deadly fish. At a restaurant, dining on fugu is a price paid in dollars or yen, not in life. And it's not cheap--several courses of fugu, ranging from the raw, wafer-thin sashimi to stew and fugu fin sake can run $200.

So here's the question: do people eat fugu for the thrill, or for the taste? Does the pufferfish hold a flavor so unique it's worth risking life and limb for? By all accounts, flavor is not fugu's strong suit. New York Magazine's food critic Adam Platt writes raw fugu "a certain clean sashimi quality to it, and a resilient chewiness, but otherwise it’s a letdown. It tastes flavorless and gummy, like a cross between Reichl’s fluke and day-old squid." He describes sperm sac, the height of fugu delicacy, as an almost flavorless dish.

Eating fugu is more thrill-seeker's badge of honor than delicious food. But there is something about it--perhaps the result of tiny traces of neurotoxin, perhaps an imaginary creation of the human mind--that no other food can offer. This excerpt from Platt's fugu article sums it up:

By now Hashimoto is aware that I’m a restaurant critic from New York, and he’s hovering over the table, looking on in his fish-stained coat. Shibireru is the Japanese word for “to become numb,” and within fugu circles its presence, during the course of the meal, is a matter of debate. In his book, Parker Bowles writes that a fugu chef’s skill lies in removing the liver and ovaries intact while “leaving the slightest trace of poison to gently numb the lips.” He goes on to say, however, that “many gourmands disagree, arguing that the numbing of the lips is urban myth.” Hashimoto favors the urban-myth theory. He suggests that in my excitement, I am probably experiencing a kind of phantom shibireru. Because of the intensity of the fugu’s poison, if I were feeling real numbness, my situation would be dire indeed. “It is your mind playing tricks,” the chef says. “If your lips are really numb, then nobody can save you. If your lips are really numb, Mr. Platt, then you are already dead.”

Fiery Chili Peppers

The hottest peppers on Earth probably won't kill you, but 30 minutes after eating one you may yearn for the fugu's numbing paralysis. Chilis, hot sauces and powders derive their hotness from the compound Capsaicin, which creates a burning sensation when it comes in contact with human tissue. Pure, unadulterated capsaicin measures around 16 million on the Scoville hotness scale. Pepper spray, which derives its searing heat from capsaicin, measures between two and five million on the Scoville scale. And pepper spray can truly be dangerous, especially when it's inhaled and inflames the respiratory system.

Thankfully, real peppers are nowhere near as hot as pepper spray, and nowhere near as dangerous. Right? Right.

Well, mostly. The trusty habanero, a mouth-searing pepper for the lesser mortals among us, tops out at a mere 350,000 on the Scoville scale. But there are some monstrous chilis out there that bump up against the low-end of the pepper scale heat range: the Moruga Scorpion, currently the hottest in the world, peaks at over two million Scoville heat units. Here's what happens when people eat the bhut jalakia, which measures one million SHU.

Hot chili peppers aren't deadly, but they can turn your mouth into an unholy hell and leave lingering stomach pain for hours. Interestingly, we can actually build up tolerance to those peppers through repeated consumption:

"In 1997, for instance, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco discovered that the “hot” sensation of habeneros and their ilk was caused by capsaicin binding directly to proteins in the membranes of pain and heat sensing neurons. Capsaicins can activate these neurons at below body temperature, leading to a startling sensation of heat. Repeated exposure can wear the system down, depleting neurotransmitters, reducing the sensation of the pain. This knowledge has led to a number of medical treatments using capsaicins to manage pain."

Like fugu's subtle numbness, the burn of a hot pepper (or something made with chili powder) offers an experience you won't find with regular food. But more importantly, pepper fans really do eat them for flavor. Daredevils willing to cry and sweat in agony make up only a small portion of the people eager and willing to feel the burn.

The Hot Pepper forum is full of fans who review and discuss peppers and hot sauces. Sauces, especially, are critiqued for how they blend hotness with flavorful spices. Additionally, the feel of the burn differs from chili to chili. The forum's regulars discuss growing, cross-breeding, and cooking with peppers. It's a whole world of extreme flavor you'd never get from plain ol' tabasco sauce--just remember to work your way up to the million-Scoville peppers if you want a shot at tasting anything other than all-consuming fire.

Casu Marzu

On a list of "Gross things found on the Internet," Casu Marzu keeps good company with the likes of classic shockers. It's just about the nastiest looking food you could possibly dream up. Casu Marzu starts life as a sheep milk cheese that is left exposed; flies lay eggs in the cheese, and those eggs hatch into maggots that begin eating the cheese. Gross? Oh yeah. But that's not what makes Casu Marzu extreme.

The maggots are allowed to eat the cheese for a reason: their digestive enzymes help the cheese ferment, creating a very soft, rotten cheese with a powerful flavor.

Eating Casu Marzu, maggots and all, is a regional delicacy in Italy much like fugu is a delicacy in Japan. Goat farmers have been making the cheese for centuries. It also offers a unique flavor (and texture) unlike any other cheese. But is it dangerous?

Like fugu, casu marzu's danger seems overblown, and it's easy to understand why: eating maggots makes people squeamish. Supposedly, the maggots could survive a trip through the human stomach and cause havoc in the intestines. The EU banned sales of Casu Marzu, but it's still made just the same--and you probably can't find proof of a single death at the hands of casu marzu.