By Bikram Vohra
You have heard of the phrase ‘snakes alive.’ In 2014, it got a whole new meaning. Well-known Chinese chef Peng Fan from Foshan, Guangdong province, southern China, had been preparing a special dish made from the Indochinese spitting cobra, a rare delicacy. He had cut off the head 20 minutes earlier and flung it into the trash. That is the body part which contains the venom but reptiles can survive for as long as 60 minutes even after they have been decapitated and cut into pieces.
It was as he went too close to the cobra’s head in the bin that it bit him, injecting Mr Peng with its flesh-killing, neurotoxic venom. The length of the snake was being diced up to be made into snake soup, a much sought after dish in the province’s high-end restaurants.
Without realising it, the chef placed his hand near the bin to throw something else in, and the dying snake’s head bit him, injecting the dose of poison. Before help could arrive or an antidote be injected, he died.
‘We did not know what was happening but could hear screams coming from the kitchen,’ said one diner. Out of respect, everyone who had come for dinner, called it a day.
Why do they take the risk? It seems absurd to take on food that promises to kill you, and however exotic the ritual, it scarcely justifies the risk. The same sort of danger lurks in the famous Japanese pufferfish called fugu.
It has to be cut just so right as to remove the sac which contains lethal toxins, and if it goes wrong, well, leave the fish and cash in your chips.
I was at a Japanese restaurant once and was asked if I would like to give it a try. After all, the odds were in my favour because only about 70 to 100 people per year keel over from a badly cut fish. That’s the part that contains tetrodotoxin, which is so deadly and is 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide. There is enough toxin in one pufferfish to kill 30 adults. This data is scarcely conducive to working up an appetite, and I have no idea how to wrap my head around these figures. Like, would it be safer if it was only ten times more toxic than cyanide? Aand so, like a solider ready to battle another day, I run away from the dish, stick to plain old loveable cod in lemon butter and others tuck in. No one goes aaaahh and clutches their throats. Mildly disappointing. But then again, I might have been stuck with the bill.
Think of it. Life is risky enough crossing the street. Why would you sit there and opt for a fish that could kill you? If that’s your idea of a high, why not go for a swim in shark-infested waters and really churn the ocean?
You could have trout, salmon, sole, kingfish, red snapper, a dozen different safe fish — and French fries on the side — that have no relationship with cyanide, but what do you do? You, smart guy, you, you say, I’ll go for the fugu, and here’s hoping the chef is on the cutting edge of a good mood. I mean what if he just had a fight with his wife or is suffering a hangover… oops, missed the poison sac?
I get nervous over mushrooms. I once read of a person who turned beetroot red then purple after a ‘bad’ mushroom kicked in and did the dirty. Now, if there is a mushroom on my plate, I get nervous, very nervous and I sort of push it around and camouflage it, and if no one is looking, drop it in the flowerpot.
We all know folks who have reactions to certain foods. I know people who swell up like little balloons if they are near shellfish. Allergies are scary enough. Peanuts, for those who cannot ingest them, can be life threatening. With rhubarb leaves capable of poisoning you and even half a dozen raw bitter almonds listed as potentially dangerous, it makes little sense to not just go looking for trouble but actually pay good money for ‘enjoying’ the risk factor.
The other day I was reading a magazine that said even more poisonous than snakes are cone snails, and not that I get to eat escargot every few days, but I have knocked them off my menu as I have potatoes with a greenish tinge, which have something called glycoalkaloids and these are supposedly deadly… there go my mashed ’taters.
It is interesting how the human race has a death wish that will be fulfilled in time, but to rush it seems pointless. And yet, the poisoning is now hitting us from safe sources. At least the puffer fish tells you it’s going for you. But the livestock we eat today is being infected with chemicals. Livestock, poultry even farmed fish have mercury and other such goodies in very high quantity. Unpasteurised cheeses like camembert and Roquefort and blue cheese are banned in the US and probably will be banished from the global cheese board because they are suspected of spreading bacterial diseases. With all this on the menu, what the heck, maybe that puffer fish is safe after all.
Bikram is former editor of KT. Everyday humour is his forte