Eight Traditional Foods You Have to Try on the Road (But Probably Won’t Try Again)
For many people, sampling local food is the most important part of travel. For others it’s the bane of their trip, a massive stress that leads them all over their chosen countries in search of a familiar lunch. A lot of us get squeamish about sampling new meats, shunning anything that’s not considered ‘normal’ fare in our homelands; others seek out the weirdest dishes they can find.
I try to keep an anti-hypocritical policy when I order dinner on the road – none of this “I’m vegetarian but I eat chicken” nonsense. If you eat one animal, you eat them all, though I have to draw the line at eating certain parts of the animal (and anything that’s endangered, of course).
Here’s a bizarre menu featuring eight pretty unusual and totally traditional dishes that you simply have to try on you travels – though you probably won’t feel the need to add them to your daily diet.
Virtually every visitor to Scotland wants to sample this famous and long-established dish, but you might like to first consider what goes into the Scottish ‘delicacy’ before you order. Picture the thought process behind this creation – you take a sheep’s stomach, you fill it with the minced liver, lungs and heart of the sheep in question, add a sprinkling of oatmeal, some finely chopped onion and a few spices in the correct measurements.
You then take this monstrous mess and boil it for a few hours before serving with ‘neeps and tatties’ (turnips and potatoes) and a tot of whisky. On second thought, perhaps going in blind is not a bad idea. Just order the dish, polish it off and decide whether you enjoyed it. You can worry about what you’ve just consumed later!
When I was a child I had a recurring nightmare about an evil cartoon dog that constantly tried to eat me. This fanged character was known by my subconscious as Dog Soup. Now I’m not trying to defend my actions, but when I moved to South Korea it seemed like poetic justice that I could finally exact my revenge: dog soup was on the menu.
Taking the decision to eat man’s best friend did not come lightly. It’s a controversial menu choice and a sure-fire conversation starter when you’re sharing tales from the road, whether you opt to try it or not. I lived in Korea for a full year and it wasn’t until the week before I left that I took the plunge.
I kicked off my shoes, took a seat on the floor of a traditional restaurant and worked up an appetite as I waited for my pot of dog meat stew. I later left the restaurant with a similar appetite, having failed to finish my lunch. After much soul-searching I’d decided to sample bosintang since it’s such a seldom found and traditional dish, but the meat smelled like a dog itself and though I forced a few morsels down (just so that I could say I did), I couldn’t put the image of what I was eating out of my mind.
They’re Rocky Mountain Oysters in the States, Prairie Oysters in Canada and criadillas in Spain, but euphemisms and amusing names aside they’re all just balls. I’m going to come clean here and admit that this is the only item on this grotesque menu that I haven’t tried, despite living in Spain for four years.
While I normally pride myself on eating just about anything, I had to draw the line at testicles and am not ashamed to say that they won’t appear on my travel must-do list in the near future. Still. If you’re braver than I, you can join the debate over just what ‘swinging beef’ tastes like.
Some say they’re similar to offal, others claim their spongy texture has no taste at all and of course there are many people in the ‘tastes like chicken’ camp. One thing’s for sure, you’re going to need some tasty sauce and a couple of beers to be able to clear those mental images and enjoy this bizarre traditional meal.
As a Brit, it wasn’t until I’d lived abroad for a while that I realised that it’s not just far flung lands that offer weird foods. We eat some pretty odd stuff too – deep fried Mars bars, jellied eels and black pudding (a sausage made of boiled blood and animal fat) spring to mind. OK, so they’re not every day foodstuffs, but there is something we eat on a pretty regular basis that many would consider an odd thing to put in your mouth – pork scratchings.
In North America, bar food is pretty substantial – chicken wings, sliders, fully loaded nachos – but across the pond our beer snacks come in bags. Crisps (chips) and peanuts are the favourites, but pork scratchings come a close third. These deep fried chunks of pork fat are loaded with calories, utterly unhealthy and totally repulsive to many, but to British pub goers they’re the perfect way to soak up a pint. Look out for ones with hair still attached to the pig skin – any scratching aficionado will tell you that they’re a real find.
For some bizarre reason we all seem to feel the need to taste insects whenever we stumble across a street vendor selling them. Perhaps it takes us back to those childhood days when we’d pull the legs of spiders, or perhaps it’s just the most grotesque thing we can think to eat and when we travel we want to seek out new experiences. Whatever the reason, many-legged creatures seem to be at the top of an intrepid traveller’s list of must-sample delicacies, whether it’s Mopani worms in Africa, grasshoppers in Mexico, silkworm larvae in Korea or deep-fried millipedes on a stick in China.
There’s nothing quite like that first crunchy mouthful of a creepy-crawly you wouldn’t normally consider picking up. And there’s no feeling more revolting than later picking its many legs from your teeth as you regret your choice of lunch.
I think most people think of snake the way I think of dog – they fear it and fancy eating it before it eats them. If there’s one thing snake is renowned for it’s the putrid smell. Anyone who opts to take home the skin from their dinner soon lives to regret it when they have to fumigate their backpack a few days later.
In China, the most traditional way to sample snake is to first drink its blood mixed with a vodka-like drink, though less gruesome options thankfully exist. And surprisingly snake doesn’t taste like chicken – it has a taste and texture reminiscent of squid or frogs legs and isn’t at all unpleasant.
One word of advice – though you can find cheap options, like snake on a stick from a street-side stall, it’s worth splurging if you want to sample a serpent. If not prepared and cooked properly, snake can smell, quite literally, like crap!
Most of the weird eats we encounter on our travels are different varieties of meat. I know I’m not alone in my fascination with eating animals that would be taboo at home, whether it’s out of curiosity, to gain bragging rights or just to shock friends and family. But in some countries the meat dishes are pretty normal so you have to look elsewhere for unusual nourishment.
When meat is found on an Ethiopian menu it’s a pretty standard choice of beef, chicken or goat – nothing to tempt the average traveller, but their traditional side dish does intrigue outsiders. Injera is a local speciality and is as ubiquitous in Ethiopia as rice is in the Far East. You can’t leave Ethiopia without trying injera, but it’s impossible to try it just once. This is not because it leaves you wanting more, you’ll understand, but because if you plan to eat in any local restaurant it’s impossible to avoid. In fact, one mouthful would be enough to last you a lifetime.
Injera is like a giant bubbly pancake, made from fermented teff flour which gives it a weird, bitter flavour. Squishy and foamy, it’s a colour that no food should be – a kind of greyish brown – and is unmistakeably reminiscent of carpet underlay.
Pet owners and fluffy animal lovers beware: you will not like this. But those who’ve travelled through Ecuador or Peru will remember the unexplainable curiosity they experienced when reading up on local cuisine. Would guinea pig taste like chicken? And would there actually be enough meat on this skinny house pet’s bones to fill your fork? Of course, what people forget is that a guinea pig in Peru is not a pet, but a farm animal.
Sitting in a dubious restaurant in backstreet Cuzco I ordered a quarter of a guinea pig, just wanting to sample a tiny piece of the meat, and was shocked to receive a chunk of animal hanging over the edges of my plate. I was wondering if I’d confused the word for guinea pig with the word for dog, when I found a spindly leg jutting out of my lunch. It was then that I realised that in The Andes, guinea pigs are neither small nor cute and I felt less guilty about chowing down on one. As a local dish and a curious foodstuff, guinea pig is a must-try, though I don’t know of many people who feel the need to go back for seconds.
Read more about unique foods around the world:
- 13 of the Most Unusual Snack Foods From Around the World
- 11 Delicious Street Foods From Around the World
- 10 Weird Food Delicacies
- 6 Places to Find Great and Exotic Street Food
- A Dish for All Seasons: What to Eat and When to Eat it Around the World
Read about author Lucy Corne and check out her other BootsnAll articles
Additional photo credits:
Haggis by Christabelle on Flickr,
Dog soup by estebandid on Flickr,
Bull’s testicles by Sklathill on Flickr,
Pork scratchings by plasticshore on Flickr,
Insects by Killerturnip on Flickr,
Snake by Kent Wang on Flickr,
Injera by jypsygen on Flickr ,
Guinea Pig by Inept on Flickr