Some of the most common food items that we take for granted can be harmful if not prepared or consumed properly, writes Megan Jane de Paulo.
IT WAS WITH some trepidation that I lifted the chopsticks with the white, semi-translucent sliver of fish upon it to my lips, trusting in that the chef who had prepared it was having a good day. Fortified by the several glasses of warm sake flavoured with the baked tail fin, I gingerly chew and swallow.
I was eating fugu sashimi, a dish famous for being potentially lethal. One fish has enough of the poison tetrodotoxin to kill 30 adults, mostly concentrated within the liver, the ovaries, eyes and skin, which are all removed skilfully (one hopes) by the well-trained chef preparing it.
Tetrodotoxin is a sodium channel blocker — it will paralyse the muscles of the fully conscious victim until they die of asphyxiation. Most modern deaths are a result of unskilled anglers tucking into their haul, but one is still careful to choose an old establishment with a history of living customers.
My tongue tingled by the fifth slice, but since I’m still here tapping this story out on a keyboard, I’ll put that down to the warm sake courage rather than a near-death poisoning experience.
You’d think that experience would’ve been didactical enough, but I went on to try it on other occasions since, not to mention sipping sake with a venomous mamushi snake marinated in it, centipede makkoli, or scorpion special fried rice.,
Near-death food experiences needn’t be so far-flung. However, incorrectly prepared, there are several toxic offerings at your local store. While most won’t have you consciously aware of fatally losing the ability to breathe, several will make you feel very unwell indeed.
Red kidney beans
Beans are healthy, right? Yes, they are. But even just 3-4 raw or undercooked red kidney beans will put you in severe physical distress with nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Many beans have the toxic lectin phytohemagglutinin, but these beans have the highest concentration of it.
Canned beans have already been treated and can be eaten safely hot or cold. When cooking from scratch, the beans must be soaked in water overnight and then cooked at 100ºC for at least ten minutes in fresh water. Adding raw beans to slow cookers will not cook them properly enough to reduce the toxin and you’ll still end up unwell.
These beans contain a toxin called limarin which breaks down into cyanide. Even a couple raw will make you feel very ill.
Lima beans must be cooked for 15 minutes at 100ºC to neutralise the toxin. Like red kidney beans, these can’t be cooked in a slow cooker since the temperature doesn’t reach high enough the affect it. Canned lima beans are fine.
Asparagus is delicious! You can eat the whole thing — except for the tempting red berries that appear when you grow them. Do not eat the tempting berries unless you really enjoy vomiting.
Tomato leaves and vines
Their nickname was the “poison apple”, they do belong to the deadly nightshade family, Solanaceae, but this fruit which almost all of us consume daily was falsely accused. It was the lead leaching out of pewter plates, released by the acid in tomatoes, which led to many aristocratic deaths — not the tomato itself.
The leaves and vines however contain the toxin tomatine, which can make you unwell.
Uncooked potatoes due to the uncooked starch can give you a bad case of gas, but then when they are green as well, it means they are full of solanine. They turn green if exposed to too much light, or too old.
Chuck them. High levels of solanine can be quite serious when consumed. You can’t cook them to the level of being okay at this point.
Like potatoes, eggplants have glycoalkaloid compound solanine and must be cooked. Not a problem as undercooked eggplant is revolting in both taste and texture.
You can consume them in a syrup or dried, but the raw berries contain lectin and cyanide and both of those are very bad for you.
I’ve discussed mushrooms before — unless you are an experienced forager, do not consume any mushrooms you find lying around.
Also, be careful of eating any served to you by a relative who has purchased them at a random store of which they can’t remember the name when other members of the family have been previously hospitalised for food poisoning.
Commercially bought cashews are sold as “raw”, but they’ve been treated first by removing urushiol from the shells. Urushiol is the same toxin in poison ivy, so untreated cashews would be incredibly uncomfortable to eat.
All meats have minimum internal temperatures at which they must be cooked for safety:
- beef, pork, lamb — 63ºC (sausages or burgers — 75°C);
- chicken, duck — 75°C; and
- fish — 63ºC.
- duck breast — rare can be at 55ºC;
- steak tartare — the meat must be cut fresh before serving to prevent contamination, also can be quickly blanched for ten seconds in boiling water;
- sashimi/sushi/ceviche — other ingredients “cook” the fish somewhat; and
- torisashi (chicken sashimi) — chicken for this dish in Japan has to come from special suppliers. The treatment of the chicken makes it delicious.
While raw broccoli won’t kill you, steaming these types of vegetables helps to break down the fibres and prevent digestive issues that may arise from eating raw.
Most food-related deaths are due to complications from food poisoning, or choking, but having awareness about proper handling and preparation of ingredients certainly improves your chances of culinary survival.
Oh and if you catch a puffer fish? THROW IT BACK INTO THE WATER!
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