The fish that gives people who eat it an acid trip

The fish that gives people who eat it an acid trip

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Most people have a clear idea of what’s involved with psychedelic food. Say “Magic Mushrooms” and the majority of the population will have at least a rough idea of what you’re talking about. However, mushrooms are by no means the only foodstuff that can turn tea-time into a trip.

Magic mushrooms in a field Credit: Pixabay/Meditations

All over the world, cultures old and new have used different animals and ingredients to elicit unusual reactions in willing subjects. Though many may be aware of the consequences of toad licking and nutmeg snorting, one of the most potent psychedelic substances out there comes from a surprising source.

Known in Arabic as “the fish that makes dreams”, sarpa salpa is a small, nondescript creature that packs one hell of a punch. An inhabitant of the warm waters off East Africa and the Mediterranean, the salema porgy, as it is also known, is renowned for the psychedelic qualities of its flesh.

Salema Porgy fish underwater Credit: Flickr/Joachim S. Muller

Used by the Romans as a rudimentary recreational drug, the potent side-effects of eating the fish have been known about for centuries. However, the fish really earned a reputation for itself when two cases from a 2006 study detailed the horrific experiences of two men on the French Riviera, who had each consumed the fish at separate restaurants. In both cases, the men affected experienced traumatising hallucinations that continued for 36 hours after the meal. One described auditory delusions of “human and animal screaming”, whilst the other was “not able to drive any more as he was seeing giant arthropods around his car”.

Despite the legendary effects that this fish can produce, the scientific explanation for the phenomenon is still relatively unclear. The technical term for the psychedelic reaction is the impossible to pronounce ichthyoallyeinotoxism. The prevailing theory is that there is something in the phytoplankton they eat, which is their main food source, that causes them to become so potent.

Shoal of salema porgy Credit: Flickr/James

However, this explanation does not account for several other curious clues in the salema porgy mystery. According to the same study that revealed the horrific experiences of the two Frenchmen, the highest levels of the toxin are recorded in autumn, yet the majority of poisonings take place in spring. Even more puzzling is that the vast majority of salema porgy have no hallucinatory powers whatsoever. The fish is eaten throughout the Mediterranean, often by clueless diners, with no negative side effects. The apparent randomness of reaction is deeply puzzling.

Perhaps even more shocking is that salema porgy are not the only fish to exhibit ichthyoallyeinotoxism. All over the world, several different species demonstrate similar abilities. In Hawaii, a species of goatfish is goes by the name “the chief of ghosts”, while the little spinefoot is known by inhabitants of Reunion Island as “the fish that inebriates”. That these species are distributed across the world just deepens the mystery of the salema porgy.

Goatfish above coral Credit: Flickr/Charlene-SJ

Salema porgy are readily available in restaurants and markets across the mediterranean. Whilst they may represent a tempting meal for the more daring traveller, those of us who are more circumspect should take note. If you want to avoid this particular gill trip, maybe just settle for the steak.