Friday, July 20, 2012

Dangerously Delicious Food? Say it Ain't So!

Traditional Foods That Can Kill

I think most people are familiar with the Puffer Fish, or Fugu, the delicacy adored by many Japanese and yet so poisonous the Emperor of Japan is forbidden to eat it. While many of us may shake our heads at the thought of eating something that with improper preparation could be fatal, Fugu isn’t the only food that falls into the category of tasty-but-deadly.
I think, if you investigate, you’ll find many cultures consume potentially dangerous foods. In my own, Jamaican, culture there are not one but two traditional dishes that are prepared from poisonous plants. In fact, one of those two is part of the national dish, and no, I’m not talking about the salted cod…
The Ackee tree (Blighia Sapida) originated in West Africa and is thought to have been brought to the Caribbean on slave ships. Yes, the botanical name is in honor of Captain Bligh, but that’s because he introduced the tree to the Royal Botanical Society, rather than introducing the tree to the islands. In Jamaica the ackee is, for the most part, treated with the utmost respect, because everyone knows improper handling can be fatal. The fruit has to ripen on the tree, and shouldn’t be picked until it’s fully opened. The seeds and the red filaments must be removed before boiling, and the water it was cooked in must never be consumed.
The other perennial favorite in Jamaica made with a dangerous plant is bammy, which are flat, dry, savory cakes made from bitter cassava. All cassava has a certain amount of cyanide, but the bitter cassava has far more than the sweet. The cassava has to be processed in some way to eliminate the poison and, in the case of bammy the process involves grating the tubers and soaking the coarse meal repeatedly before straining, molding and pressing all the liquid out. Again, it’s the liquid that can do you in, but I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick from eating bammy, so I doubt there’s much danger involved.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case with ackee, as Jamaica sees a few cases each year of people getting ill or dying from the consumption of improperly prepared dishes. On my father’s side of the family very few members can eat ackee, even when properly cooked. My grandfather developed an allergy to it in his forties, my father and two of his siblings did too, but in their thirties. I developed it in my twenties and, as a result, I’ve never even considered giving it to my son. My allergy is so severe just lightly kissing my husband after he’s eaten some brings on a bad reaction.
This may sound as scary to the uninitiated as the Fugu does, but just a cursory search on the internet will show there are lots of potentially dangerous foods many of us are eating every day. They include some of my favorites, like nutmeg, potatoes, cherries, tomatoes and almonds. It’s almost enough to make a woman go on a starvation diet…
Nah, I’m willing to take the risk because, well, I love my food, and what a potentially delicious way to go!


  1. So... nutmeg, potatoes, cherries, tomatoes and almonds are all potentially dangerous? Those are five of my very favorite foods, so I'm going to pretend I didn't just read that. ;)

    Very interesting information!

  2. It's all in the details, Jayne! For instance, with cherries it's the pits that are poisonous. With potatoes it's when they're green (and that's something I didn't realize. Now that I know, those go into the garbage!). You'd have to consume the equivalent of an entire nutmeg pod to feel the effects and I think it's the leaves and stems of the tomatoes that are dangerous. So I don't think we're in any immanent danger. Thank goodness!!!