Psychedelic toad slime may be all the rage these days, but it’s thought that people have been tripping on fish since Roman times. In particular, a species of sea bream called salema porgy has gained a reputation for its fishy side-effects, and is known in Arabic as “the fish that makes dreams”.
Found throughout the Mediterranean and along the east coast of Africa, salema porgy – or Sarpa salpa – is often served in restaurants along France’s Côte d'Azur, and while most diners experience no ill effects, some unlucky punters end up tripping balls for up to three days. Brings new meaning to the phrase "one man’s fish is another man’s poison."
Hallucinations caused by eating fish are denoted by the suitably mind-boggling term ichthyoallyeinotoxism. Weirdly, though, scientists don’t actually know how eating salema porgy triggers these piscine delusions. Moreover, only some parts of the fish seem to have the power to generate the nightmarish deliriums, with the head the most common culprit.
Only a few case reports of salema porgy-induced ichthyoallyeinotoxism can be found in the annals of scientific literature, although a quick read is enough to put you off seafood for life. For example, the earliest case documented in Marseille concerns a family who ate barbecued porgies in 1982 without first removing the fish’s organs.
Before long, the diners found themselves plagued by visions of aggressive animals, but got off lightly as the apparitions subsided after a mere 10 hours.
A second case was then reported in 1994 after a tourist in the French Riviera ordered the fish at a restaurant. The following day, the 40-year-old man began suffering from blurred vision, nausea and muscle weakness, so decided the best thing was to get in his car and go for a drive.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get very far because his vehicle was set upon by “giant arthropods”. At this point, the man wisely checked himself into hospital and eventually recovered after 36 hours, but had no memory of anything that had happened. Presumably, then, he didn’t remember not to order salema porgy again.
The final case involved a 90-year-old man who cooked and ate the fish at his home in St Tropez in 2002. Within a couple of hours, he found himself being harassed by screeching winged animals, before later reporting that the ordeal lasted for three days.
While the head of fish is considered the most hallucinogenic part, one study found that the liver and internal organs are highly toxic. Strangely, toxicity levels seem to fluctuate throughout the year, with the highest number of poisonings occurring in the autumn.
Another study revealed that an algae that the fish feeds on contains toxins that accumulate in the animal’s liver, providing yet another reason to avoid eating this organ and suggesting that the source of the hallucinations may be found in the creature’s diet. In spite of this, researchers still haven’t identified the actual compounds responsible for ichthyoallyeinotoxism, and can’t say if the trips are caused by molecules similar to DMT or indoles that mirror the effects of LSD.
For all of these reasons, people are advised to proceed with extreme caution when eating salema porgy, although some historical sources suggest that the Romans may have sought out the fish with the specific intention of getting high. But then the Romans aren’t here anymore, are they?