Offal good. It’s the pun that has to be made at the start of an article on weird foods from around the world, because the majority of what we label as "weird", assuming it won’t taste nice, are the less choice cuts of meat, the by-products of animals that are a bit too anatomically-intriguing for our taste.
This article will try to focus on dishes that are even considered odd, acquired tastes in their native lands - something that a reasonable percentage of locals would giggle at as much as a foreign visitor. This list will also leave aside eating insects, which are the most frequent guests in articles like this one. This is its own new realm of edibles, and one that could be poised to help curb world hunger (there are a lot of bugs out there for the eating) and is already a part of fine dining (ants are a not-infrequent feature on fine dining menus).
So tuck in and enjoy the weird, whether or not you’ve got the stomach to taste these… uh… delights.
Chinese Century Egg
Rotten foods generally seem like a bad idea to eat, but they can be eaten, and some people actually develop a taste for the ammoniac pungency. Burying an egg in ash, clay or (and this doesn’t sound advisable) quicklime for a period of months will transform the yolk into a black squidge of funk, while the egg white devolves into a brown gelatin (see the picture on the top of the article). While it smells vile and devilish (think sulfur), supposedly it tastes…like a hardboiled egg. Maybe, given this information, it would be better to just eat a hardboiled egg?
Vegetarians and those of a sensitive disposition, please skip this paragraph. A most repulsive treat in the Philippines involves the boiled egg of a duck that has been allowed to grow to the point of being an embryo, not a yolk. It’s meant to be feathery and boney and bill-y and sounds perfectly horrible, from both a taste and a moral perspective. No thank you.
You say “lunch,” and I think of “rotting shark carcass.” Sound right? I didn’t think so, but over in Iceland, you can munch on an ancient food preservation technique. Sharks swimming in freezing waters contain fluids that can make humans sick if eaten, so a technique was developed in which sharks were buried in pits, covered in stones to squeeze out those naughty fluids and make the meat edible. It is then hung in barns, resembling a cluster of giant bats, partly rotten, but no longer liable to poison the consumer. That doesn’t mean it tastes good, however, as Anthony Bourdain called this “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’d ever tasted.
American Rocky Mountain Oysters
Every bit of the animal counts, right? Even the naughty bits? That’s where this dish comes in. Deep-fried testicles are actually pretty good, though thoroughly repulsive to cook (I tried it once, and getting the thick, chewy membrane off those balls is a most unpleasant task). Some salesman surely got a raise for coming up with this innocuous euphemistic name for a product few would otherwise buy.
Slovenian Sour Milk
On Velika Planina, a vast, verdant mesa at the foot of the Alps, farmers leave milk out for a precise amount of time, so that it begins to curdle into a yogurt-crossed-with-sour-cream-like treat. It’s actually delicious and refreshing, either topped with sugar or with zganci, buckwheat crumble and pork cracklings. Just the right amount of souring, fermenting, and rotting can both preserve food and increase its taste.
Haggis is so well-known in the pantheon of weird foods that it’s not so weird anymore. It’s a rite of passage for anyone traveling to Scotland, and there’s little fear that you won’t like it if you try it, because everyone knows that it is delicious. Still, stuffing a sheep’s stomach with its minced lungs, heart and liver, with a dash of seasoning, onions and oatmeal, sounds like a medieval form of capital punishment.
Singaporean Bird’s Nest Soup
How many species of birds were deprived of their nests for culinary purposes before it was determine that the swiftlet has the finest tasting domicile? Swiftlets make their nests out of their own saliva, which hardens like glue when exposed to the air. They nest on precipitous cliff faces, which means that the nests are dangerous to gather. Softened into a soup of bird saliva, it sure sounds worth the risk, doesn’t it?
“Tastes best with your eyes closed” might be the slogan for many dishes on this list. Of course meat around the bone is known to be the tastiest, and there is a lot of bone around the skull. Beef cheeks doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Well, when your lunch is staring back at you, it can be disconcerting, no matter how delicious. A cow’s stewed head (and often also feet) perched on a plate requires a strong drive to dive into, but the meat itself is, of course, a treat.
As a general rule, I try to steer clear of sperm. But cod sperm? Well, I think I’ll steer clear of that, too, but there are many who order it, voluntarily, at sushi restaurants. It can be deep-fried, to add a reproductive crunch to your lunch, or steamed and draped over seaweed and rice. Still…really?
Italian Casu Marzu
You’ve got to be careful with this one, because there’s a fine line between living the films Babette’s Feast and Alien. The Casu Marsu Sardinian cheese, made of sheep’s milk, is meant to contain live insect larvae. They, I am told, offer an added “tang” to the cheesy delight. They also, if consumed live, can survive the acids of your digestive system and burrow into your intestines. And what’s wrong with a nice slice of Cheddar?
Yunnan Hairy Tofu
I don’t even like tofu when it’s not hairy, so I’m not sure this will be my thing. But if you swing by Kunming, you might like to try it (or possibly not). Intentionally age and moldy, this tofu grows mold that looks like hair. When cooked, preferably fried, the hair crisps into tendrils that some people enjoy. One praising article about this dish said that, and I quote, “it does not taste like farts,” which I believe is what they call “damning with faint praise.”
S.Pellegrino and Food for Soul, the non-profit organisation founded by Lara Gilmore and chef Massimo Bottura, form a new global partnership to drive social and environmental change and promote a sustainable food culture.