Honestly, you can’t trust anyone but yourself to make sure your food is safe when you’re traveling. If you’re in a foreign country with unfamiliar dishes, it’s best to educate yourself about foods so that you don’t eat anything dangerous.
But don’t panic! And don’t pack granola bars to last for every meal on your vacation. Eating new foods is an essential travel experience… you just have to learn how to do it safely. You can start by avoiding the world’s most dangerous foods. So without further ado, and in no particular order, here’s an avoid-at-all-costs list of 11 foods you should never eat while traveling.
1. Puffer Fish, Japan
Okay, we all know this one. Short story: Don’t eat the puffer fish in Japan, or you might die. It’s as simple as that. Fugu, or puffer fish, is an almost mythical delicacy but, unless the chef is an expert, you’re risking your life for a pretty ordinary-tasting fish. Chefs in Japan must have served a ten year apprenticeship before they’re even allowed to try to prepare this deadly dish.
The poison in puffer fish, tetrodotoxin, causes paralysis and asphyxiation. Best case scenario if you ingest a some of this is being sustained on a breathing machine until the poison wears off. But, you’re more likely to die.
For many people, this risky meal is a bucket list item. You might be OK if you eat it, as long as it’s prepared carefully. But in my opinion, it’s better not to gamble with your life over a seafood dish.
2. Ackee, Jamaica
Threat: “Jamaican vomiting sickness”
This is one Caribbean fruit I never came across during my travels—probably because it’s most often associated with Jamaica and it’s illegal in some other places. It’s actually the national fruit of Jamaica. They also have something called “Jamaican Vomiting Sickness,” which is also associated with the ackee.
Unripe ackee contains the poison hypoglycin. Preparers must wait for the fruit to turn red and open up, signalling that it is ripe. Ackee has three components: a red skin, yellow fruit, and black seeds. Stick with the yellow fruit and you’ll be ok. The seeds are ALWAYS poisonous Get a bite of the skin or seeds, and your vomiting will make the flu look like a trip to Disneyland.
3. Maggoty Cheese, Italy
Well, duh, you say. Of course maggoty cheese is bad to eat. Yeah, well tell that to Sardinian shepherds. Believe it or not, some Italians enjoy dining on sheep’s milk cheese filled with maggots. There’s actually such a thing as a “cheese fly,” and the cheese is left exposed to these little bugs to aid its fermentation. Casu marzu is illegal in the EU, but you don’t have to look too hard to find it.
The maggots can reportedly jump six inches out of the cheese, but it gets worse. If you feel like having maggots burrow into the wall of your intestines, then by all means go hunt down some casu marzu next time you’re in Italy. Be prepared for pain, diarrhea, vomiting and cramps as you simply wait for the maggots to make their way out.
4. Live Octopus (Sannakji), Korea
Live things generally don’t want to be eaten, and dead things generally don’t care. That’s why vultures are a lot smarter than other animals, if you ask me. They know that their food won’t try to bite them, scratch their eyes out, or choke them to death.
Humans generally have it figured out, as well, but sometimes we like to get a little crazy and eat something like Sannakji, a Korean dish that consists of a tentacles from a fresh, wriggling, and very-much-alive octopus. The suction cups on the tentacles are so fresh that they still have reflexes. This means they’ll cling to the inside of your mouth and throat, which creates a huge choking hazard. Some Koreans take it a step further, eating the whole octopus raw.
5. Crab and Shellfish, Latin America
Crabs, oysters, and mussels can be contaminated with cholera from unclean water. Cooking these foods should protect you, but several tourists were stricken in the 1990’s after eating crabs that they swore were fully cooked.
Cholera flourishes in parts of Latin America and taking in contaminated water from any source can hit you with extreme diarrhea that can lead to dehydration. Tourists are unlikely to die from cholera because they will have better access to medical care, but it won’t be a pleasant vacation.
6. Unpasteurized Milk,Europe and Asia
Threat: Nasty flu-like symptoms
Speaking of things you shouldn’t drink overseas, milk is hardly any better than water. While I’ll admit I have sipped unpasteurized goats’ milk and lived to tell about it, it’s not something I’d probably do again. You can drink up salmonella and a host of other parasites in a glass of unpasteurized milk, which will leave you violently ill.
Unpasteurized milk can be found throughout Asia and in rural areas of France, England, and Mexico. The raw milk movement in the US has made this an issue within the States as well. The culprit can also be incorporated in cream and cheese, so avoiding just milk won’t keep you safe. Brucellosis, illness caused by ingesting unpasteurized milk can take up to twenty weeks to manifest, but antibiotics will normally take care of it
7. Monkey Brains, Asia
Threat: Mad cow disease
Yep, just like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But with Mad Cow Disease as a potential added ingredient. The virus that causes Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is found in neural tissue, and that’s exactly what you’ll be eating if you go for this exotic food. Not to mention that PETA will be all over you, especially since the brains are rumored to be collected from living monkeys. As if it wasn’t disgusting enough already. If you’re determined to partake, China and Malaysia are the most likely places to find monkey brains being served.
8. Raw Cassava, Latin America and Africa
Threat: Vertigo, vomiting, and collapse
This plant is a staple in Latin America and Africa. It’s also the base for tapioca. If you eat locally while you’re there (and I recommend you do), you will likely find a host of cassava-based dishes. Eating it cooked is fine. Eating it raw or incorrectly prepared can release cyanide into your body.
Cassava contains linamarin, which is chemically similar to sugar but which the human digestive system converts to cyanide, causing cyanide poisoning. Japan considers it so dangerous that it is banned for human consumption
9. Wild Mushrooms
Threat: Anything between a headache and death
Unless you’re a global plant expert, it’s probably best to skip the mushrooms. Only a few kinds are edible, and some can kill you. And it’s notoriously difficult to determine the difference if you’re a casual gatherer. If you want to gather your own, it’s recommended to go with an experienced group or tour to reduce the risk. The effects of eating mushrooms can range from mild headache to kidney failure to death. So unless you know for sure which mushrooms are safe and which aren’t, just pass on the fungus.
10. Giant Bullfrogs, Namibia
Threat: Kidney failure or death
Many people can’t even bring themselves to eat cooked frog legs, despite the fact that they really do taste like chicken. However, there are those on the opposite end of the spectrum who are willing to eat an entire frog. If that sounds like you, beware—bullfrogs are loaded with poison!
These endangered giant bullfrogs are considered a true delicacy in Namibia, but are eaten after mating season when their poison has mellowed out a little. The poison is called “Oshiketakata” and can cause kidney failure and even death. It takes a good chef to prepare it safely. And that guy who’s illegally selling them from the bed of his pick-up probably isn’t a good chef.
11. Silver-Stripe Blaasop, Mediterranean Countries
This native of the Indian Ocean has slipped through the Suez Canal, bringing its potentially deadly toxins to the Mediterranean. Unsuspecting fishermen in the eastern Mediterranean have died because they have eaten the whole fish. Its skin, liver and reproductive organs carry a toxin that can cause paralysis, breathing issue, and even death.
While living in the Caribbean, I learned a lot about what I could and could not eat when traveling through the islands. As the tourists ate lobster, fish, French croissants and all kinds of other things that I would define as edible, the local kids I knew would pick unfamiliar fruits off trees or walk around sucking on poisonous-looking seeds. With some encouragement, I finally tried foods I never saw in North American supermarkets: tamarind, kinip, leaves from the trees, and many other things I never learned the names of.
As I soon learned, the locals’ strange foods were safe and healthy. The tourists’ food wasn’t always as good. The reefs around the island are contaminated with ciguatera toxin, and if you eat a carnivorous fish over a certain weight, you can get very sick. For about a year. It’s not common, but it happens sometimes.
Travel is all about adventure, but there’s a line between adventure and flat-out danger. When it comes to your food, it’s essential to know the difference! What dangerous foods have you encountered on your travels? Let us know in the comments!