When it comes to food adventures, there are two types of people in the world — the adventurous eaters and the cautious ones. The adventurous eaters are the ones who willingly explore the uncharted territory of bizarre foods, while the cautious ones might be content with their trusty mac and cheese. But what makes some foods seem bizarre to some and delectable to others? Let's delve into the world of adventurous foods and explore some of the most peculiar delicacies that have left food enthusiasts both intrigued and repulsed.
According to a website about life in Korea, 67% of Koreans living in rural areas and 58% living in urban areas eat kimchee every day. A combination of fermented cabbage, onion, garlic, fish sauce and peppers of varying heat, it has hundreds of flavors, typically built on a sour taste many Westerners recoil from. Almost every cuisine has food processed through fermentation, like lassi, the Indian yogurt drink, or the sauerkraut you put on your hot dog at a baseball game. Many fermented foods have probiotic qualities, adding “good” bacteria to your stomach’s ecosystem. While kimchee’s strong smell may be initially off-putting, it’s worth trying. If you like it, you’ve added something healthy to your diet.
Escargots have long been a weird foot rite of passage, generating a jumble of emotions. They’re French, and we’re supposed to be impressed with French cuisine, right? Didn’t Julia Child tell us so? But snails are also garden pests that leave a slimy trail in their wake. Who would want to eat that? In the 1965 edition of Mastering the Art of Cooking, escargots aren’t even mentioned; was this because they weren’t available in U.S markets, or because Ms. Child thought Americans’ taste buds weren’t ready for this Gallic delicacy? Despite their rubbery texture, if you like butter and garlic, you’ll probably like escargots.
Dozens of Road Scholars report trying grilled guinea pig while on programs in the Andes, where they’re a common street-vendor food known as cuyes and described as “tasting like chicken.” Many Americans think of them as a furry pet rather than a foodstuff, but they’re a great marker of shifting tastes and even of environmental economics. A 2013 NPR story reported that guinea pig is beginning to appear on U.S. menus, driven by demand from “Andean expats” from Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. They also may be good for the environment, a “low-impact meat alternative to carbon-costly beef.” Curious? You can try it in Andean restaurants from Queens to San Diego, or order frozen guinea pig meat online and prepare it at home.
Grub is slang for food, right? As in “let’s go grab some grub?” So who could object to eating actual grubs? A grub is the larva of an insect, like a beetle or a moth; several Road Scholars reported eating witchetty grubs—the caterpillar stage of a wood moth—in Aboriginal areas of Australia. They’re a staple of the hunter-gatherer diet, typically eaten after being roasted on a stick, and survival experts and people just trying to grab their 15 minutes of fame like to demonstrate their mettle by eating grubs. (Don’t believe me? Check YouTube.) According to a report from the National Geographic Society, more than a quarter of the earth’s population eats insects (crickets and other types, as well as grubs), they can be farmed with low environmental impact, and they’re an excellent source of protein. You may never eat an insect, but, in an increasingly crowded planet, it’s quite likely that your children or grandchildren will.
Now here’s a food that I’ve never eaten and, frankly, I’m not inclined to try. Hákarl is what you get when you bury a shark carcass in the sand for several months until it ferments, then hang it up to dry. It’s a traditional food of Iceland, and you can just imagine Viking explorers caching a dead shark on a remote beach for the next time they pass that way. Hákarl has a powerful ammonia smell, and one Road Scholar describes eating hákarl in Iceland outside a horse stable where the air was already foul and the rotten smell of the fish wasn’t as noticeable! The intrepid chef Anthony Bourdain describes it as “unspeakably nasty” and “probably the single worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.” Experts in the psychology of taste make a distinction between “distaste” and “disgust.” The biological root of disgust is a reaction to protect ourselves from harm; think of how your face contorts when you imagine something you find disgusting— your nose curls up and you might stick your tongue and say “yuck” in a simulated act of oral expulsion, mimicking the reflexive response to putting something poisonous in your mouth. Most people, including, as it turns out, many Icelanders, react that way to hákarl.
Haggis, Scotland’s national dish, is made by mixing and cooking sheep organ meats (heart, liver, lungs, sometimes tongue) with onion, oatmeal, herbs and spices, and stuffing it all into the sheep’s stomach before boiling the whole concoction for three hours. I’ve heard it described as a “poor man’s sausage,” and it certainly is a laudable example of the waste-not- want-not approach toward food that the disadvantaged have by necessity adopted. One Road Scholar said they had tried haggis on a program in Scotland and that the taste was improved by a generous pour of Scotch whiskey.
Sea urchin, or uni on the sushi bar menu, is something you either love or hate. One Road Scholar described it as “awful, having the color of yellow mustard, the appearance of the surface of one’s tongue and sliminess beyond my imagination.” One website, on the other hand, says that “uni is firm but melts in your mouth with its rich and creamy sweetness.” You can try it and decide for yourself.
Baloot, or Balut
Baloot is a common street food in the Philippines and Southeast Asia made from a duck’s egg that’s been fertilized for about 17 days before being boiled. It’s said to taste like a boiled egg with the added crunch from the partially developed feathers and bones. Think for a moment about baloot in contrast to hákarl. The reaction of disgust we have to the idea of rotten shark reeking of ammonia is based on an instinctual self-preservation from something our senses tell us might be poisonous. But my (and perhaps your) reaction to baloot is something different. We’ve all eaten eggs, and many of us have eaten duck, so the ingredients of baloot aren’t inherently disgusting. So it’s something about the very idea that’s off-putting, perhaps a strong cultural bias against eating what’s basically a baby duck.
Cheese? Yes, cheese or, as I deliberately misdirected in my opening, the “rotted, bacteria-filled, bodily fluid of an ungulate.” Cheese is made by coagulating proteins in milk from cows, sheep, goats, buffalo or other animals, a process started with bacteria (including bacteria from the Streptococcus family!), and the finished product often includes a healthy dose of mold. Sounds pretty disgusting when you put it that way, right? It turns out that many people around the world find cheese repulsive, and it’s a good reminder of how food tastes and preferences are largely determined by culture.
Food is an important window into culture, and trying new foods when we travel is a great way to expand our comfort zone and confront our prejudices. I’m not suggesting that you seek out these specific foods, but I hope you agree that a great way to stretch your mind is by challenging your palate.