NEWARK, N.J. – Those who think flowers and chocolate are insufficient for their sweetie on Valentine's Day might try something a little more worldly — like a rhinoceros tusk or poisonous fish.
From the protein-packed Turkish "sultan's paste" to the "bring me love" bubble baths and essential oils sold at Latin American botanicas, almost every culture boasts its own kind of aphrodisiac.
"You name it, someone has come up with something they hope is an aphrodisiac, because if you come up with the right formula, you win so big — you get the girl, or get the boy," said Susan Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and the author of several books on love, chemistry and relationships.
And love potions like rhinoceros tusks popular in Africa or sea cucumbers believed to have aphrodisiac powers in Asia make our American customs look tame, Fisher said.
"I think we're on the low end; we're not killing large animals to get their tusks," Fisher said. "But we believe in chocolate, we believe in liquor, we somehow believe in flowers and we believe in candlelight."
Logically, those beliefs might not make sense, but Fisher said they can get results because the excitement that comes with gift-giving can increase dopamine, a chemical associated with romantic love.
In some cultures, there is a fine line between poison and pleasure when it comes to aphrodisiacs.
In Japan, the blowfish is revered for what believers call its aphrodisiac powers. But it can be prepared only by specially licensed chefs trained in slicing it so precisely that the right cut releases just enough toxic stimulant to please, but not enough to kill.
Federal health officials warn that many substances billed as aphrodisiacs are at best ineffective and, at worst, lethal, illegal or made from parts of endangered animals. Nevertheless, the aphrodisiac market continues to thrive, and items claiming to have aphrodisiac properties can be found at ethnic shops across the United States.
The well-known "Spanish fly" aphrodisiac, made from blister beetle carcasses, is also potentially lethal, as are other potions popular in various cultures, like toad venom.
Last year, New York City poison control officials issued a warning about toad venom after reports that a 35-year-old man died from ingesting it. Several other deaths have been reported from its use.
Sandra Santana, who travels around the Amazon region in several South American countries to purchase medicinal herbs to sell at her popular shop in Newark's Brazilian neighborhood, said love remedies are among her most requested items.
Most of the items she sells to improve sex drive are essentially energy boosters that contain vitamins, minerals and other elements to improve overall health, she said.
"Love is something created by God," she said in Portuguese, "but these are little things that can help."
A popular item at many Turkish stores is "sultan's paste" — also known as Turkish Viagra — a honey-based mixture infused with nuts, herbs and spices including ginger, cloves, mustard seeds, grape seeds and cinnamon that is ingested by mixing a teaspoon of it in hot water.
AK Market in Paterson can barely keep it on the shelves. Mehmet Saricicek, who works there, said the recipe dates to the Ottoman Empire and is rumored to increase stamina, energy and sexual prowess to levels once attributed to the sultans who kept harems.
"They didn't have Red Bull back then," Saricicek said. "It's basically, if you're buying that, it means you're going to be naughty."