As I watch the media foodies on television, visiting exotic locales and eating local dishes, I never cease to be amazed at what people around the world will really put into their mouths. Here are some examples:
What do you get when you take the heart, liver, and lungs from a sheep in Scotland, stuff it all into the sheep’s stomach and boil for three hours? Haggis, of course. Dating back to ancient times, haggis is reported to have been a way to use all the portions of an animal killed during a hunt so nothing was wasted. According to the 2001 English edition of the Larousse Gastronomique: “Although its description is not immediately appealing, haggis has an excellent nutty texture and delicious savory flavor.” It is traditionally served with a dram of scotch. I had to drink half a bottle after eating it on a trip to Scotland. And I don’t even like scotch.
Hakari is a dish eaten in Iceland that is processed from rotten sleeper sharks. Because of the high amount of urea in a freshly killed shark, the fish cannot be eaten until it is allowed to fully decay, ferment, and hung to dry for four or five months. After that, it is processed, which removes the uric acid from the flesh of the fish, making it safe to eat. Because of its heavy ammonia-like smell, even Anthony Bourdain, chef to the world, described it as “the single worst, most disgusting, and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten. Hakari may be eaten with a side dish of puffin heart – yes, those cute little birds – and a shot of akvavit, also known as Icelandic rocket fuel.
Surstromming is a northern Swedish delicacy made from fermented Baltic herring. The Swedes use just enough salt to keep the fish from rotting and then ferment it for about six months. It is sold packed in cans which have a habit of bulging because of the ongoing fermentation taking place inside. It also gives off what’s considered the most putrid odor of any food in the world. Somehow it makes sense that it’s usually eaten outdoors.
The word lutefisk, a dish eaten in Norway, Finland, and Sweden, translates into lye fish. Yes, this fish is made with lye. Take a dry, salted whitefish, usually cod, and soak it in lye for a few days. After that, the fish soaks in cold, clean water for a week and then it is ready to cook. Or maybe to scrub something.
What looks like sheep cheese, smells like sheep cheese, tastes like sheep cheese and is loaded with live jumping insect larvae? Casu marzu, which is also known in Italy as formaggio marcio or rotten cheese. Originally from Sardinia, casu marzu is a type of pecorino cheese. The larvae come from an insect called the cheese fly. The larvae digests the cheese and causes it to ferment – actually to decompose – and breaks down the fats into a very soft, almost liquid, consistency. The oddest thing about this cheese is that the larvae, if disturbed, can jump as much as six inches, plenty of distance to become an added ingredient in your minestrone soup. Andrew Zimmern, another well-known international media foodie, described the taste as “so ammoniated that it scorches your tongue a bit.” The cheese is known to leave an aftertaste for several hours. And yes, insect larvae is a just another way to say maggot.
And while we’re on the subject of larvae, let’s talk about escamole from Mexico, which is sometimes referred to as “insect caviar.” The ant larvae used in escamole is harvested from the roots of the agave plant. It is described as tasting like a nutty butter and having a texture reminiscent of cottage cheese. When it comes to the agave plant, I think I’ll stick with tequila instead of insect caviar.
Indonesians love stink bugs which they claim taste like sunflower seeds without the salt.
A-ping, made by frying tarantulas, is a delicacy in Cambodia. During the food shortages under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, people fried tarantulas and enjoyed them so much they are still a popular snack today.
Tuna eyeballs are very inexpensive and can be found in grocery stores in Japan for about $1 each.
Balut is boiled duck embryo served in its shell. Found throughout Southeast Asia and the Philippines, balut is often served with beer.
Drunken Shrimp is very popular in China. The chef gets the shrimp intoxicated with a strong liquor before they are eaten alive. This is a popular dish in the US as well but that recipe includes an extra step called “cook shrimp before eating.”
Sannakji, an eastern Asian delicacy, is like sushi on steroids. The chef takes a live octopus, dismembers it, seasons the pieces with sesame oil, and serves it. Caution number one: the pieces may skitter off your plate when you try to skewer them with your chopsticks. Caution number two: the tentacles are still alive, which means the suction cups could decide to suction on the way down. An alternative is nakji which eliminates the dismembering and serves the octopus whole. The octopus does occasionally have its revenge as several deaths are reported each year due to internal tentacle strangulation.
Kopi Luwak, which costs as much as $700 a pound, is one of the most expensive coffees in the world. The coffee beans are eaten and then defecated by Civet cats, a small mammal in Southeast Asia. While most people like the taste, some critics complain that the coffee tastes like… well, you get the meaning.
Snake wine is very popular in China, Viet Nam, Korea, and much of Southeast Asia. It is made by infusing whole, poisonous snakes, especially cobras, in rice wine or grain alcohol. It is purported to be a powerful curative in Eastern medicine. I tried snake wine in China and found it to be tasty, like a fine Beaujolais with a bit of a bite. They said it was from May 5, a memorable vintage.
Fugu is a highly poisonous pufferfish that has been known to cause the death of sushi chefs who were preparing it. By Japanese law, even highly experienced chefs must undergo a rigorous three year training regimen before being allowed to serve it.
Yak Penis seems to prove the adage that the Chinese will eat anything on four legs with the possible exception of tables.
Not to be outdone, the US has its own examples of over the top unusual dishes as well.
Rocky Mountain Oysters, as we know, are not oysters. They are the cut, peeled, flattened, and deep fried testicles from bulls, sheep, pigs, and the occasional divorced husband. The dish is also known as cowboy caviar, Montana tendergroins, dusted nuts, “bull fries” or the ever popular swinging beef. Rocky Mountain Oysters are usually served as an appetizer with a nice dipping sauce. I wonder if yak penis is prepared the same way.
Fried Brain Sandwich, a mid-West staple, consists of sliced, fried cow brains on white toast or hamburger buns. It was outlawed several years ago after the outbreak of Mad Cow’s disease. Today the fried brain sandwich is served with pig’s brain instead of cow’s brain.
Scrapple, also known by the Pennsylvania Dutch name pan rabbit, is made with pork scraps and trimmings mixed with cornmeal, wheat flour, and a number of spices including sage, thyme, and black pepper. It is formed into a loaf, sliced, pan fried, and usually served at breakfast. Growing up in New Jersey, I learned, through being forced to clean my plate as a child, that it is one of those foods that I can say been there, done that, and survived.
As we go through life, one of the main rules we need to always remember is that one man’s maggot is another man’s morsel.