When you think about perilous ingredients, it isn't the first to spring to mind. Wild mushrooms maybe, a plate of blowfish with their poisonous venom, certainly. But an artichoke? Really? Yet a restaurant in America is being sued by a customer who required medical attention after consuming a globe artichoke in its entirety. Arturo Carvajal, a doctor from Miami, is claiming that it was negligent of restaurant staff not to explain to him exactly how the vegetable should be eaten. In the absence of advice, it seems he ploughed on and polished off the whole thing.
Now, a quick explanation for anyone confused as to why this is an impressive feat: the pointy leaves of this vegetable are very tough. They are designed to act as a protective shell, enclosing the heart, and are, as Carvajal discovered, indigestible. The choke, meanwhile, tastes as unappetizing as it sounds (fuzzy and fibrous) and needs to be removed. The tender heart is, unsurprisingly, the prized part of this vegetable.
Carvajal's experience and subsequent action has prompted suggestions that restaurants should issue written warnings with some dishes, explaining how best to go about eating them. This seems rather ludicrous and begs the question: just how far do you go? Note to customer: peel the shell from the king prawns first? Remove plastic wrapping covering this sandwich, before tucking in? Please note, the cutlery is not suitable for consumption? But absurdities aside, what the artichoke incident does highlight is that when dining in a restaurant there is huge potential for things to go wrong.
The sight of a table laden with cutlery and glasses can be a rather daunting one. These days, it's unlikely you'll find yourself having to contend with oyster mallets, shellfish knives and demitasse spoons all in one sitting. However, if you are confronted with an artillery of knives and forks, then the general advice is to work your way from the outside in and avoid sipping from the finger bowl at all costs. Simple enough, but being presented with a tome of a menu provides more opportunities for embarrassment.
The menu isn't supposed to confuse, befuddle or intimidate you. If it does, then it is absolutely acceptable (in fact, encouraged) to ask the waiter or waitress for an explanation. If they are unable to oblige, then it should be them feeling embarrassed, not you. Don't be afraid to ask for recommendations and if you don't know what an ingredient is, then it really is best to ask rather than ordering blind. Take heed from the scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts' character valiantly orders escargot, only to be dismayed when a platter of snails arrives. If you're really feeling unsure, then it's advisable to err on the side of caution; now is not the time to throw back your first oyster, only to discover you are violently allergic.
There are certain foods that, like the artichoke, require a little technique. Lack of dexterity with a pair of chopsticks can cause red faces, as can the fiddly business of devouring a whole lobster. In this instance, it's best to first gently remove the claws by pulling them down and away from the body before cracking open the shell (ideally at the joint) to reveal the tasty morsels of meat. Although they don't yield as much flesh, it's still worth repeating this process for the legs - a toothpick can be used to help you gain access to the crevices and ensure nothing is wasted. Cut incisions into the underside of the tail, peel off the shell and you should be able to remove the meat in one piece. Then simply discard the digestive tract and tuck in. It is advisable to avoid eating the mouth-parts, antennae and beak, although personal preference dictates whether or not you munch away on the red coral (roe) sometime found in female lobsters.
Picking the meat from a whole crab is also a finicky process, and it's worth swotting up on which parts are edible and which are best avoided - the dead man's fingers, which you'll find after you crack open the shell, attached to the main section of the crab body - are a definite no-no.
Discovering that underneath a layer of sauce the whole fish you ordered hasn't been filleted can be daunting, particularly if it's the first time you've encountered this type of presentation. Run a knife down each side of the spine, and then use spoon and fork to tease the meat from the bones. Quail and poussin are also often served roasted whole and make no mistake they are small, bony and a bit of a faff. In this case, you should be provided with a sharp knife, so use this to first take off the legs at the joint. Slice down the line of the breast bone, then keeping the knife close, use a sweeping motion to cut away at the breast so it can be removed whole. Repeat for the other side, and after all that effort, make sure you really enjoy it.
Then there are the meals which, while not necessarily confusing, are bad choices if you are trying to impress someone with your suave table manners. Spaghetti is the obvious one here, although chicken wings pose a challenge to anyone who wishes to eat with some finesse.
If, like Carvajal, you decide to take the plunge and order something with which you are unfamiliar, service is key. The person looking after you plays a pivotal role at this point; there's an oh-so-fine line between helpfulness and patronising overfamiliarity, after all. Ideally, you're looking for someone to be solicitous but not smarmy, friendly yet far from fawning, well-informed yet not intent on delivering a lecture. The overzealous waiter who practically pulls up a chair and delves into the bread basket while explaining the menu at length is sure to infuriate. Just as bad, though, is a supercilious waitress who's impatient with anyone displaying less than encyclopedic culinary knowledge.
While it's not ideal if a plate of food is plonked down in front of you without even a cursory acknowledgment, this is preferable to having to endure the "menu monologue". The practice I'm referring to involves a waiter or waitress not only explaining the provenance of a dish, but talking you through each individual element in turn, often helpfully pointing out their whereabouts on the plate. If you're part of a table of four, with each person having ordered something different, then you can guarantee the food isn't going to be piping hot by the time you get round to enjoying it.
Heston Blumenthal might be able to get way with it, but in most cases, being instructed as to the order in which different parts of a dish should be eaten is seen as more a sign of pretension on the part of the chef than anything else. The general reaction to this tends to be a belligerent one, with the temptation always being to do the very opposite just to see what happens. No matter how upmarket the restaurant, remember that you're there to enjoy yourself and are paying for the privilege of doing so. There's a reason why the phrase "the customer's always right" was coined, after all. This doesn't make it acceptable to behave in an obnoxious fashion, but it does mean you shouldn't be intimidated by staff, or allow yourself to be coerced into ordering an expensive dish that you don't really fancy.
Of course, even once the palate cleansers have been supped and petit fours munched, there's still the final hurdle of any dining experience to be cleared: working out the correct amount to tip. This varies from country to country. In Japan, tipping is actively discouraged as a matter of pride, and in the US it's key to have small change to hand, but as a general rule here in the the UAE, service charges and tourism fees are already included in the bill. If you've been particularly impressed with the food or service it's nice to leave a little extra, though.
Dining in a restaurant should primarily be a pleasant experience, not a traumatic one. Relax, enjoy yourself, and providing you haven't consumed any artichoke leaves, the only lasting damage you're likely to feel is the bill.
Five risky foods
Tapioca: It may sound improbable for a pudding so often served to children, but chewy, gluey tapioca pearls are actually made from a plant laced with cyanide. The dessert's base material is cassava, a root native to South America that is popular across Africa and Asia despite being highly toxic in its untreated form. If it isn't ground, soaked and toasted before serving, cassava can induce goitres and paralysis – and actually does so at worrying levels in some remote areas of Africa. Happily, the forms in which cassava is sold commercially are all entirely safe.
Fugu: There's something of a macho cult around Fugu, a pufferfish that remains one of Japan's most coveted delicacies despite containing potentially lethal levels of the poison tetrodoxin. Carefully separating the most toxic parts of the fish from the rest of the flesh without contaminating them can make the fish safe to eat, and in Japan only highly trained chefs are permitted to handle the fish. Poison-free farmed Fugu has now been developed, though aficionados claim that without the lip-tingling sensation caused by tiny traces of tetrodoxin, safe Fugu just isn't to die for.
Ackee: Feel free to try Jamaica's national dish of Ackee and saltfish, but don't take the risk of cooking it from scratch yourself. The fruit of a tropical tree, the only edible part of Ackee are the yellow arils inside its reddish-pink pod, and even these should be long boiled for safety. Incorrectly prepared or unripe Ackee can induce sudden vomiting and occasionally even a coma followed by death. Despite the risk from careless cooks, cases of illness are rare, and with its arils packed with super-healthy fatty acids, the fruit is worth persevering with.
Hakarl: It's a tough nation that is prepared to eat something that not even seabirds will touch as it rots in the open. Icelanders have a traditional diet and no food is quite as extreme as hakarl, or fermented Greenland Shark. Packed with uric acid, the flesh is poisonous raw, so much so that scavenging animals and birds leave it alone. Motivated by hunger and limited choice, however, Icelanders managed to find a way to make this unlovely meat edible – they bury it in gravel for a few months until the rotting flesh discharges its toxic contents.
Rye: It's hard to imagine anything as wholesome as high-fibre, low-gluten rye doing anyone any harm, but the hardy northern grain has a long history of driving people mad. Rye is particularly susceptible to ergot, a fungus that grows on damp grain and can cause convulsions, miscarriage and powerful hallucinations. Probably used in prehistoric Europe as a sedative, ergot was most likely behind the many outbreaks of "dancing sickness" that gripped villages in mediaeval Europe. Today, a simple slice of rye bread is guaranteed to be free of ergot, but in France there have been outbreaks since the 1950s.