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Travelling is often about trying the unusual and attempting to experience the different culture of the country you are visiting. One of the best ways to do this is to try the foods the native people eat.
They may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the following foods, whilst considered weird and bizarre to some of us, are considered delicious delicacies in other countries. Although eating these foods might seem like a form of ‘extreme dining’ to us, they are in fact quite normal to the people who eat them.
1 – Birds Nest Soup, China
You wouldn’t necessarily think a birds nest would be edible, but the Chinese use Swifts’ nests to make this soup, known as the ‘Caviar of the East’. Right now you’re probably imagining a nest made out of twigs and leaves, but Swiftlets make their nests predominantly out of saliva.
It’s something in the saliva of the bird that makes it have this unique gelatinous, rubbery texture and it’s one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. It’s expensive because the swiftlets build the nests during breeding season over a period of 35 days and nests can only be harvested around three times a year. The nests are typically built in coastal caves and collecting them is a treacherous process involving climbing and nimble skill, which adds to the hefty price tag.
With an increase in demand for birds nest soup however, manmade nesting sites are often constructed. Hong Kong and the US are the largest importers of birds’ nests and a bowl of soup can cost around $30 to $100 per bowl, whilst a kilo of nest can cost between $2,000 and $10,000. The soup has been a tradition for centuries and is believed to be nutritious in proteins and minerals and have aphrodisiac qualities.
2 – Fried tarantulas, Cambodia
Eensy weensy spider, climbing up the spout…if you suffer from arachnophobia you probably don’t want to try eating these eight legged monsters. They’re not tiny little house spiders, they’re great big tarantulas and you can buy them in the streets of Skuon, Cambodia.
They’re fried whole – legs, fangs and all. They were first discovered by starving Cambodians in the bloody, brutal days of the Khmer Rouge rule and have gone from being the vital sustenance of these people to a delicacy tourists come far and wide to try.
The black hairy arachnids found in the jungle around the market town of Skuon have become a source of fame and fortune for the region as bus loads of people stop to try them on their way to other places. They cost only a few cents and supposedly taste delicious, as they are best plucked straight from the burrow and pan fried with a bit of garlic and salt. They’re supposed to taste a bit like crickets or scrawny chickens and are crispy on the outside with a gooey body on the inside.
3 – Puffer fish, Japan
You’ve got to be careful with this delicacy or you might end up in the morgue. The deadly Puffer fish, or fugu, however is the ultimate delicacy in Japan even though its skin and insides contain the poisonous toxin todrotoxin, which is 1,250 times stronger than cyanide.
That’s why in Japan only expert chefs in licensed restaurants are allowed to prepare it. Otherwise you’re likely to become paralysed whilst still conscious and eventually die from asphyxiation because there is no known antidote.
Fifteen people died in Thailand when the fish was made illegal and people started dying it pink and passing it off as salmon.
4 – Balut, Phillipines
A bit like with a Kinder Surprise, you certainly will be surprised to open these eggs, though not in the same pleasant way as finding a toy inside. You get to eat your chicken and your egg at the same time with Balut.
Fertilized eggs are boiled just before they’re due to hatch, so your yolk oozes out followed by… a chicken (or duck) foetus. They are cooked when the foetus is anywhere from 17 days to 21 days depending on your preference, although when the egg is older the foetus begins to have a beak, claws, bones and feathers.
In Filipino culture Balut is almost as popular as the hot dog in America and street vendors yell out ‘Baluuuuuuut’ as they push their carts down the street. They are popularly believed to boost the libido and are also a hearty snack full of protein. Balut are usually guzzled down with beer and are prepared with a pinch of salt, lemon juice, black pepper and coriander, although some Balut eaters prefer it with chili and vinegar. The way to eat Balut is to crack open the egg, sip the broth and then eat the yolk and foetus…it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but apparently it’s delicious.
5 – Casu Marzu, Sardinia
This Sardinian cheese is a cheese with a difference; it’s riddled with insect larvae. “Casu Marzu” means ‘rotten cheese’ and is most commonly referred to as ‘maggot cheese.’ It’s now banned for health reasons but can still be available on the black market in Sardinia and Italy.
The sheep’s milk cheese is basically Pecorino, which has had the larvae of the cheese fly, Piophila casei, introduced to it. Fermentation occurs as the larvae digest the cheese fats, and the texture becomes very soft with some liquid seeping out. The cheese has to be eaten when the maggots are still alive because when they are dead it is considered to be toxic.
Since the larvae can jump if they are disturbed, diners have to shield their eyes or place the cheese in a sealed paper bag until the maggots are starved of oxygen and die. Health issues have arisen in relation to Casu Marzu, including reports of allergic reactions and the danger of consuming cheese that has advanced to a toxic state. There’s also some risk of intestinal larval infection.
6 – Surstromming, Sweden
One of the world’s strangest dishes can be found in Sweden. Surstomming is fermented Baltic herring and can be found on supermarket shelves all over the country, although you probably won’t see it next to the Ikea meatballs.
The herring is caught in spring when it is just about to spawn and is fermented in barrels for one to two months before it is tinned where the fermentation continues for several months. The cans often bulge during shipping and storage because of the continued fermentation process.
Certain airlines have in fact banned these cans from being taken on flights, as they consider the pressurized cans to be potentially dangerous, like fireworks and explosives. When the can is opened the smell is usually what will get to you first as the fermented fish has a really strong odour. It’s usually eaten with a type of flat crispy bread and boiled potatoes. Sometimes people drink milk with it, but beer and water are often used to guzzle it down.
7 – Live Octopus, Korea
In Korea Sannakji is a raw dish consisting of live octopus. The octopus is cut into pieces whilst still alive, lightly seasoned with sesame oil and served immediately whilst the tentacles can still be seen squirming on the plate.
Eating live octopus is a challenge not only mentally trying to get your head round eating something that’s still alive, but physically, as the tentacles stick to any surface they touch. You actually have to fight with your food before you can devour it and savour its taste.
The first hurdle is to get the tentacles off your chopsticks, and once the octopus is in your mouth it will suction to your teeth, the roof of your mouth and your tongue essentially trying to preserve its own life. It is supposedly enjoyable to experience the party in your mouth as the tentacles wriggle around and stick to your mouth as you chew it. Special care should be taken to chew thoroughly, however, because if the suction cups stick to the mouth or throat, this can be a choking hazard.
8 – Kopi Luwak, Indonesia
You might want to think twice if someone offers you a cup of this coffee when you pop round to their house. Kopi Luwak is the rarest, most expensive gourmet coffee in the world. Sounds divine right? It’s actually made from the excrements of an Indonesian cat-like creature called the Luwak.
The Luwak eats only the ripest coffee cherries but its stomach can’t digest beans inside them, so they come out whole. The coffee that results from this process is said to be like no other, and the stomach acids and enzymes that perform the fermentation of the beans give the coffee a special aroma.
This process takes place on the islands of Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi in the Indonesian Archipelago. With an expensive price tag of anywhere between US$120 – $300 per pound, you might want to start saving now if you want to try this gourmet coffee.
9 – Puffin Heart, Iceland
Sometimes referred to as the ‘clown of the ocean’ or ‘sea parrot’, the puffin, with its colourful beak and clumsy behaviour, is considered an adorable bird. The sight of a puffin flapping its wings and jumping from a cliff to generate enough lift to become airborne is enough to make anyone go ‘aaaah’.
In Iceland, however, these seabirds have been a source of sustenance for Icelanders on the islands for centuries. Iceland is home to one of the world’s largest colonies of puffins and ‘sky fishing’ is a sport which involves catching the low flying birds in a big net.
The best place to catch a puffin or two is in the Westman Islands, where they are sustainably harvested to prevent them from coming extinct. The heart of a puffin is eaten raw whilst it is still warm in traditional Icelandic delicacy.
Puffins are eaten by breaking their necks, skinning them and then eating the fresh heart raw. Puffin is supposed to be delicious like a fishier version of chicken or duck. It is often smoked, grilled or pan-fried. TV chef Gordon Ramsey caused quite a stir when he was seen eating this rare delicacy on TV.
10 – Snake Wine, Vietnam
Fancy some wine with a difference? A bouquet of snake with some snake blood notes perhaps? Snake wine is a bottle of rice wine with a venomous snake inside and has ‘medicinal purposes’, but is probably more useful for display purposes than to drink.
The snake is left to steep in the rice wine for many months to let the poison dissolve in the wine. The ethanol makes the venom inactive so it is not dangerous, and snake wine supposedly has many health benefits. It has a slightly pink colour like a nice rose because of the snake blood in there.
It originated in Vietnam, where snakes are thought to possess medicinal qualities, but it has spread to other parts of South East Asia and Southern China. Snake blood wine on the other hand is made by slicing the belly of the snake to let the blood drain into the wine and this is served immediately.
Bird’s nest soup by wynlok on Flickr, Fried spiders by Nir Nussbaum on Flickr, Fugu by Schlomo Rabinowitz on Flickr, Balut by chadedwardxxx on Flickr, Casu Marzu by wikicommons, Surstromming by Ese-emon on Flickr, Octopus by gregoryperez on Flickr, Kopi Luwak by miscpix on Flickr, Puffin by nicholasngkw on Flickr, Snake wine by Rob Sheridan on Flickr