Weird food in a weird world: revolting, gross, stinking, putrid or simply unconventional by general standards. Increasingly, the world is becoming smaller by the day. Intercontinental travel is no more the exclusive prerogative of the super-rich. We all travel and travel a lot. And, we need to eat during our sojourn. Don’t we? So, either you can choose from the menu, the most non-challenging item on your senses to barely survive; or you can be audacious and seize this opportunity to try out new things, enjoy and understand the local culture and often, history. Who knows? You might fall in love with it.
Weird food rather is more of a subjective term. Chances are, what may be outlandish to me may not be the same to you. Therefore, we should familiarise ourselves, as much as we can, with this wondrous world of polarising tastes and palates.
The age-old axiom that things are merely a matter of taste is perhaps most applicable to food and drinks. For instance, is a hardboiled fertilised duck egg really revolting- or is it just a matter of taste? We Indians have our fair share of unusual foods- Jadoh from Meghalaya (rice cooked with blood and entrails of pigs or chicken), Doh Khlieh also from Meghalaya (pork and onion salad garnished with steamed pig’s brain), Chaprah from Chhattisgarh (a spicy and pungent chutney made from red ants), Eri Polu from Assam (silkworm pupae), and many more. Kutti Pi Curry is a dish from Anglo-Indian cuisine, which is prepared from the flesh of an unborn foetus from a goat. It is a delicacy savoured by many people in southern India, as well as in some South-East Asian countries. But, most of us common folks would reel in disgust! Another is Kheeri, made from cow’s udder. This spicy dish is quite popular in the state of Uttar Pradesh and is one of my personal favourites, though others might think otherwise.
Ironically, our inquisitiveness about weird food or to put it mildly- unusual food, has no bounds and weirdly we find nothing weird about it. So much so that, the city of Malmö in Sweden has its own “Disgusting Food Museum” dedicated to the edible or arguably inedible foods around the world.
I have compiled a list of 20 such bizarre foods for you who have been bitten by the bug of wan·der·lust.
#1 Shirako, Japan
As the euphemisms go, Japanese shirako is a corker. Shirako means “white children”. These are the sperm sacs of cod or pufferfish or angler fish which look like white globules of slush- somewhat like sweetbreads or brain. Its texture is soft, creamy and buttery when raw. If cooked, it becomes a little more firm. Shirako is mainly available during the winters. Shirako is an acquired taste. If it bothers you, you may well look at it as the male version of caviar which is the epitome of snobbery.
#2 Hákarl, Iceland– Weird Food
Hákarl is Iceland’s national dish. Made from fermented Greenland shark, it is one of the most appallingly ghastly foodstuff humankind has ever invented. The fermented meat is served in bite-size cubes and is available even as a vacuum-packed ready-to-eat at supermarkets in Iceland. It has an extremely strong ammonia smell very much close to urine, or say a blue cheese, only a hundred times stronger. (Bengalis have their own version, though nowhere close to this Icelandic monstrosity)
Many stalwarts in the food business like Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay and Andrew Zimmern had been completely decimated after tasting hákarl.
#3 Century Egg, China– Weird Food
Century egg is an established delicacy in China. The egg is placed in a vat containing black tea, salt, lime, and wood ashes and left to rot anywhere between seven weeks to five months. Over the period the yolk becomes greenish-blackish in colour and stinks of sulphur. The outer layer develops into a translucent jelly-like texture. Not very appealing, I guess! That’s hard stuff! Eaten as a snack, you might just enjoy it while others might squirm.
#4 Balut, the Philippines– Weird Food
If you happen to be in the Philippines and in the mood to explore some indigenous gastronomy, you can opt for this weird food called balut. It is very popular with locals. Fertilised duck egg is boiled alive and then eaten from the shell accompanied with salt, chilli and vinegar – including the partly developed embryo inside. You need to tap a hole on the top of the shell, slurp the savoury fluid and then crunch down the rest of what’s inside – feathers, bones et al.
#5 Sheep Eyeball Juice, Mongolia– Weird Food
Having a bad hangover after that wild party at one of those cafes in Ulaanbaatar? Look no further. The hospitable Mongolians have a foolproof cure for you. Gulp down a glass of this so-called “Mongolian Bloody Mary”. The secret ingredient is not vodka, though. It is the sheep’s pickled eyeball floating on top of tomato juice and staring at you compassionately to help forget your sins. Mmm, interesting!
#6 Fried Tarantulas, Cambodia– Weird Food
This is too serious for my comfort zone, as I am certifiably arachnophobic. But even for most of the braver chaps out there, fried tarantulas for ‘lunch’ is stretching things too far, I guess. However, I have the utmost respect for the Cambodians, who have adopted these in their diet, more out of need than adventurous Epicureanism. Cambodians started eating these monsters to save themselves from starving during the Khmer Rouge regime. Strangely, over the years, this deep-fried snack has become quite popular all over Cambodia. Apparently, they taste like crab. So, perhaps, they look much worse than they taste.
#7 Jellied Moose Nose, Canada– Weird Food
When you go to the butcher, the nose of the animal is not exactly your choice cut. Is it? So, you do probably bat your eyelids a few times and look askance, if the butcher tries to sell you one. But some adventurous Canadians who thought otherwise began experimenting with nasal gastronomy of the moose. They boil the stuff with onions and spices, remove the hair and boil again. Then they slice it and fold it in a broth and set it into a jelly. How it tastes? Frankly, I don’t know. But it certainly looks as bad as it sounds.
#8 Huitlacoche, Mexico
Mexicans, as you know are obsessed with corns. From delectable dishes made from all kinds of corns to outright obnoxious fungus-infected cobs, they have it all and often with great delight. Huitlacoche is corn kernels turned into tumour-like growths covered in blue-black spores. In Mexico, it is a culinary speciality much to be desired for. The woody, earthy flavour of the fungus is what makes the Mexicans drool. Talk to a local before taking a bite.
#9 Casu Marzu, Italy
I heard about this “rotten cheese” long back and was quite fascinated. This rotten cheese from Sardinia is made from Pecorino cheese which has gone completely nuts, real bad I mean. The larvae of cheese flies are added to Pecorino and are allowed to do all kinds of things inside the cheese- hatching, burrowing around and digesting the fats. This produces a sharp, incendiary delicacy hard on your tongue. You can eat it with or without the maggots. This famous, or infamous cheese is definitely worth trying.
#10 Tuna Eyeballs, Japan
Tuna to the Japs is like fish to cats. It is almost sacrilegious to throw away any part of this superlative organism. Even the eyes are plucked out and sold in supermarkets. The eyeballs are pretty large and could be quite intimidatingly in-your-face. If you want to sample this weird food, you can find them on menus in izakayas and several restaurants all over the country. There are various recipes for tuna eyeballs. The simplest is to boil or steam them seasoned or served with garlic or soy sauce. They taste somewhat like squid.
#11 Airag, Mongolia
Horses had been the mainstay of Mongolia for centuries. Then, a glass of fermented horse milk is rather expected than not. They call it Airag. Mare’s milk is left to ferment into a fizzy sour and mildly alcoholic drink. It is traditionally served chilled in small bowls; dregs are supposed to be poured back into the larger container. Fresh horse milk is naturally sweet and delicious. Hence, this harmless milky beer is definitely a must-try.
#12 Stargazey Pie, England
The English are a sauve and debonair lot, or at least that is what they want the world to believe. And, an ethnic English delicacy that looks weird? Well, that’s kind of unthinkable. Isn’t it? Among all the world of English pies like Shepherd’s Pie and what not, one that stands out like a piece of thorn is Stargazey Pie. It is a pie with fish that stare at the sky. The Cornish village of Mousehole is the birthplace of stargazey. The heads of the fishes must not be severed. These poke out of the pie which gives the pie its unique name. But a delightful item, nonetheless.
#13 White Ant Eggs Soup, Laos
Gaeng Kai Mot Daeng– that is what they call in the local language of Laos. This is an unusual soup containing a mixture of ant eggs and partially developed embryos from the white ants. A few baby ants are thrown in to provide that extra zest of sourness. If you can handle it, go for it. The soup is supposed to be sharp and delicate at the same time and tastes a little like shrimps.
#14 Haggis, Scotland
Scottish Haggis is a savoury pudding made by stuffing a sheep’s stomach with offal, minced onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt and then cooked. It is an ancient recipe and very much in vogue in Scotland. Although not very appealing to look at, haggis has a beautiful nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour. It is traditionally served with boiled and mashed neeps and tatties and a glass of Scotch whisky. Now, that’s not bad at all.
#15 Menudo, Mexico
There seems to be hardly any difference between humans and hyena. Even the guts of a ruminant are not spared. Menudo is a traditional dish of Mexico and very common among the locals. It is a soupy preparation with a red chilli pepper base. The soup/gravy is made with chunks of cow stomach. Other ingredients which are typically added are onions, hominy, lime and oregano. This dish is also known as “pancita”, which means “little stomach” in Spanish.
#16 Kopi Luwak, Indonesia
Many of you have probably drunk this exquisite coffee; some of you being aware and some not, that the refreshing liquid which reached your gullet was made from coffee cherries that were fermented by animal shit. Yes, you heard me right…………. animal excrement. Yuck…….!! The thought itself is disgusting. A wild cat-like animal called Asian palm civet eats and partially digests indigenous coffee cherries, releasing the undigested matter through its faeces. The farmers collect these undigested cherries, wash and sell these to coffee producers for roasting. Kopi Luwak is also known as civet coffee and is one of the most expensive coffees in the world with retail prices reaching up to $100/kg for farmed and $1000/kg for wild-collected cherries.
#17 Fruit Bat Soup, Palau
This definitely stands out as one of the weirdest foods around the world. Many people do believe that fruit bat soup is out-of-this-world delicious, while others find the flavours underwhelming. The aesthetic appeal of this dish is not much to talk about, though. The broth is made by throwing in the washed bat in boiling water, fur and all included! After the bat is cooked and when tender enough, it is further cooked with ginger and coconut milk. Spices and vegetables can be added as per choice. Let me put in a good word for bats: although bats are reputedly the archetypal evil, fruit bats are much better-behaved. They are clean, sustain themselves only on fruits, flowers and nectar and hence their meat is wickedly sweet. Now, that’s exciting indeed!
#18 Su Callu Sardu, Italy
This is another weirdo from Sardinia. Su callu sardu or goat kid’s rennet cheese is a speciality of Sardinian cuisine. It is produced by using the stomach of a kid goat filled with its mother’s milk. The stomach opening is then tied with twine and left to age for four months. It is usually eaten as a spread on local flatbreads or sliced and fried. But, according to me, it’s not so bizarre after all. Many kinds of blue cheeses are produced in exotic ways. So why not su callu sardu?
#19 Kale Pache, Middle East & Mediterranean
Kale Pache is a stew quite common in the Middle Eastern countries and also the Mediterranean. Another name of the dish is “Khash”. It is prepared by boiling sheep and cow parts like the head, stomach and feet on low flame overnight till the liquid turns into a thick broth-like consistency and the meat is separated from the bones. Usually, salt is not added during the stewing process. You can add salt, garlic or vinegar according to your taste while consuming. This particular delicacy is however not at all revolting to me. Being settled in the northern part of India during most of my work-life I am quite familiar with a similar dish called “Siri” which is prepared by stewing goat head. Served piping hot in a bowl, siri is extremely heart-warming and prevalent during the harsh winter months of northern India.
#20 Mouse Wine, China and Korea
Boy!! This takes the cake! No amount of campaigning can ever push me to such extremities. Little two-day-old live mice which are still struggling to open their eyes are stuffed into a bottle containing rice wine. It is then left to ferment for a year and then sold to the locals as a health tonic. Mouse wine apparently tastes like gasoline. I am not so certain, though, since I have never had a good fortune (pun intended) of drinking even a single spoonful of gasoline. This is one out-and-out notorious food (or drink?), the animal rights activists should never ignore and must shriek their hearts out.
Many such exotic items did not appear on this list which can be equally outrageous to the conformist folks. But, as I said earlier, ‘outrageous’ is a relative term. Those who have an open mind and are not bound by the constrictions of conventions may well find a meal of their lifetime.
Credits: Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations Disgusting Food Museum