Thai food has recently become one of the most popular cuisines in the world. In fact, there are very few places in the world that have not achieved the magical combination of sweet, spicy, and sour that is Thai cuisine. In addition, in the traditional cuisine of this Southeast Asian country, we can find recipes for the most adventurous palates and taste worms, grasshoppers, crickets, and up to two hundred species of insects included in traditional Thai recipes.
However, there is one dish that we definitely do not recommend tasting. This is Koi Pla, a traditional Thai recipe consisting of raw and minced fish, aromatic herbs, lime juice, and live red ants. Although it sounds counterintuitive, it’s not the ants but the fish that’s dangerous about this dish. This raw fish often contains a dangerous parasite that settles in the body and can cause the development of a very aggressive type of cancer.
A tradition that would be better left behind
The parasite of this fish is found in other countries in the region, such as Taiwan, China, and Japan. However, it is particularly deadly in the waters of the Mekong Basin. Unfortunately, the acidity of the citrus fruits that Koi Pla is flavored with is not enough to kill it. So just try the recipe once so that the parasite enters the body and settles in the liver.
After ingestion, it can remain unnoticed in the patient’s liver for years. But at some point, the parasite causes liver inflammation, which very often leads to cancer. In particular, it leads to liver cholangiocarcinoma or bile duct cancer, an extremely silent disease, and if not detected in time, the chance of survival is remarkably low, especially in the most humble areas of Thailand where the Koi Pla is traditional and where access to health care is quite limited.
The person who may have the most to do with the Koi Pla problem is liver surgeon Narong Khuntikeo. His parents died after eating this traditional dish. This tragedy led him to study medicine and dedicate himself to saving his compatriots from this terrible disease that kills 20,000 Thais every year.
According to the investigations by Dr. Khuntikeo, which include specialists and researchers in various fields, up to 80% of the population of the Isan region northeast of Thailand had ingested the parasite. Scientists have been monitoring the development of the disease for years in this region, where the tradition is well established, and found that of the total number of people who had ingested the parasite, almost a third had altered liver function, and a quarter began to suffer the first symptoms of cancer.
The Thai government has introduced several educational programs to teach children to avoid raw fish and respect minimum food safety conditions, and they seem to be satisfied with the results achieved among the younger ones. However, older people are more reserved. Koi Pla is a recipe with a strong folkloric and traditional character, which is why there are many people who are resistant to change.