I thought it might be interesting to write about some of the weird foods that people eat worldwide. Keep in mind that I grew up in a Greek household. Strange is part of our cooking DNA. From cow’s tongue to sheep’s brains, I have seen quite a few headscratchers on our kitchen table. In my parents’ defense, they grew up with the idea that you do not waste food. That means they use virtually the entire animal in food in some way, shape, or form.
Those who do not have a strong constitution should not read on. But, I will be honest with you. There were some dishes that my stomach turned on too. Others I might even try someday. So, let’s begin with one from Greece and work our way up what I call the “ick” factor.
Greece: Sheep’s Head
If you can get past the eyes looking at you, the head has quite a bit of meat on it. The cheek meat is tender, and the brain is considered a delicacy. Season it simply with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper, and bake in the oven for 2 hours (depending on the size). Norway has a very similar dish called “Smalahova,” eaten on the Sunday before Christmas.
Cambodia: Fried Tarantulas
Creepy-crawly critters used in cooking are not a new thing. Many cuisines offer deep-fried ants and grasshoppers. Popular cooking shows have even featured some of them. My husband was brave enough to try fried crickets in Mexico. I firmly believe that anything that crawls or slithers is simply not human food.
Cambodia has taken it one step further by deep-frying whole tarantulas – legs, fangs, and all. I get creeped out by the tiny spiders that come into our house—trying one the size of your palm? Um, no, thank you. Cambodians, however, first discovered them to be edible during the brutal days of the Khmer Rouge rule (starving, they would eat whatever they could find). From this point on, they have remained as vital sustenance for the locals and a delicacy for tourists. Apparently, their flavor resembles chicken. Nope. Still not willing to try.
This dish is one that I’m sure you have heard of before. The deadly Pufferfish, or fugu, contains a natural poisonous toxin called tetrodotoxin that is 1,250 times stronger than cyanide. Therefore, only expert chefs in licensed restaurants are allowed to prepare it. There is no known antidote to this toxin, so you need to ensure professional preparation, or you may end up in the morgue. This white fish has a mild flavor and is served raw as sashimi (cut into very thin slices). Its unique taste is part of the reason why it is so popular. At $265USD per kilo, it is a delicacy you can try if you are a seafood lover (and brave).
Surströmming is a fermented Baltic herring caught in the spring when it is just about to spawn. It is fermented in barrels for one or two months and then tinned for several months. Its extremely strong odor wins it a place on this list (a fish port smells like Chanel No. 5 next to this). Herring is a smelly fish in the first place. Letting it sit in a tin for several months only adds to that pungent aroma. The very, very strong ammonia smell is primarily from the brine, where the fish releases gas. Usually eaten with flat, crispy bread and boiled potatoes, it is often served outdoors after the third Thursday of August (Surströmming day) simply because the smell is too strong inside the house. Willing to try? You can order some online at https://www.surstromming.com/ for $199 a tin.
Australia: Vegemite (or Marmite in the UK)
Vegemite is a by-product of brewing beer. Made from yeast extract, it is the slurry from the bottom of the barrel that most breweries throw away. It is salty, slightly bitter, malty, and rich in glutamates. It has an umami flavor similar to beef bouillon and is considered vegan, kosher, and halal. This sticky brown paste is usually spread on toast or eaten with cheese. You can buy it on Amazon for $22.99 if you would like to try some. Someday, I’ll order it and let you know how it goes. From what I have heard, you either love it or hate it. We will see if I am a lover or a hater.
Another dish that I am sure that you have heard of is haggis. A sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs are minced and mixed with onions, oatmeal, and suet. All these ingredients are placed back into the animal’s stomach, seasoned, wrapped tightly in foil, and then simmered on low heat in boiling water (one hour for every 500g of haggis). Greeks have a version of this dish in soup form called “mayirista.” It is a traditional dish served after midnight mass at Easter and includes many of the same internal organs but in slow-boiled broth with fennel or lettuce, dill, fresh onions, and a lemon-egg sauce. I’ve tried the Greek version (my father used to make it). It is surprisingly not that bad if you get past the ingredients. Apparently, the Scottish version tastes like a crumbly sausage. Hmm. I think I’ll stick to chorizo instead, thank you.
We are back to seafood, but in this case, a rotting carcass of a basking shark (Somniosidae). The shark is buried underground in a shallow pit and pressed with stones to drain the poisonous internal fluids. After this, it is hung out to dry and then cut into strips and served (think beef jerky but smellier—much, much smellier). It has a strong “fishy” flavor and an extremely strong smell. A renowned worldwide culinary expert, Anthony Bourdain, said it was “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” that he had ever tried. Yet, in Iceland, it is considered a delicacy.
Canada and Greenland: Muktuk
This Inuit delicacy consists of the skin and blubber of bowhead, narwhal, or beluga whales cut into chunks. Often served raw, it is also sometimes pickled or deep-fried. There is not a lot of history on its origins, but one account describes the skin and blubber eaten as a snack by hunters while they butcher the rest of the whale meat for later consumption. It is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin C and D. As far as taste goes, some say it tastes like fried eggs. Others suggest it tastes like fresh coconut. I am on the fence about this one. I might be convinced to try a deep-fried version. Think of crispy, fried pork belly—same idea. Or, maybe not?
China: Bird’s Nest Soup
From this point on, the “ick” factor starts to go up and up. Chinese use Swifts’ nests to make this soup, often referred to as the “Caviar of the East.” Swifts (a bird similar to swallows) build nests during a breeding season of 35 days, with harvesting available only three times a year. Collecting the nests is treacherous as they are usually in difficult-to-reach coastal caves. Because of the short collection period and the difficulty involved, a kilo of nests can sell for up to USD$10,000. The birds make the nest with their saliva, and something in this saliva gives a unique, gelatinous, and rubbery texture to the soup. Some even say that the soup tastes like the sea. With a hefty price tag of between $30 to $100 per bowl, you may be willing to try it someday. Me, not so much.
Indonesia: Excrement Coffee
The rarest, most expensive gourmet coffee in the world costs between US$120 to $300 per pound and is the result of the excretions of an animal called an Asian palm civet. The civet is a cat-like creature that eats the ripest coffee cherries but cannot digest the beans inside them. Instead, its stomach acids and enzymes perform a fermentation that creates a unique aroma like no other. Then, you guessed it, these beans come out and are then gathered, cleaned, and roasted. I wonder if Starbucks ever considered a specialty coffee like this. Just think of the fun they could have with it (how would they advertise?).
China: Century Egg
We are back in China again with an egg. The century egg (or hundred-year egg) is a black preserved egg of a duck, chicken, or quail. The practice started about 600 years ago during the Ming dynasty. The Chinese stored eggs in clay, ash, and quicklime for hundreds of years during these ancient times. Today, they are usually just a few months old. Still, the egg turns black with a dark green yolk, and let’s not even discuss the smell.
Philippines: Fertilized Eggs
Speaking of eggs, the next on our list comes from the Philippines. I’ll be honest; this one did turn my stomach, and I hesitated to include it. But, in the end, I decided to finish off with the most disturbing dishes. Locals call this dish “Balut.” It is made by boiling eggs just before they are about to hatch. You heard right. The fetus within the egg is 17 to 21 days old when cooked (the older the egg, the more features like a beak, claws, and feathers form). Are you grossed out yet? Get ready for more. When cooked, the yolk oozes out, followed by the chicken (or duck) fetus. This dish is as popular as hot dogs in America and is sold as street food on carts in Filipino culture. Yikes.
Sardania: Maggot Cheese
This cheese is full of insect larvae (my stomach is already clenching.) Although now banned for health reasons, it is still available for purchase on the black market in Sardinia and other parts of Italy. Made by introducing the larvae of the cheese fly into Pecorino cheese, fermentation occurs as the larvae digest the cheese fats. It is a soft cheese with some liquid seeping out. And if this is not bad enough, it must be eaten while the larvae are alive. If they die, the cheese becomes toxic. I love eating and cooking with cheese. After reading about this, I will check each and every piece of cheese before taking a bite. Or maybe I just won’t eat cheese until I forget this one exists.
Korea: Live Octopus
Koreans call this dish “Sannakji.” It is a raw octopus lightly seasoned with sesame oil. The octopus is cut into pieces while alive and served immediately (you will see the tentacles still squirming on the plate). Octopus is a delicacy in Greece, but it is usually boiled and then grilled. Aside from the mental aspect (who can eat something alive?), there will be difficulties eating this dish. The tentacles stick to any surface they touch, and if you are not careful, you can choke if the tentacles stick to your throat. Final word: Team Greece: 1; Team Korea: 0.
Iceland: Puffin Heart
Our last entry comes from Iceland, and it brings back visions of the brutality of the Vikings. The puffin bird is known as the “clown of the ocean .” It has a colorful beak and clumsy behavior, and as far as birds go, quite cute. In Iceland, however, these birds have been a food source for centuries. Hunters break their necks, skin them, and eat the heart raw while warm. The bird’s meat is supposedly a fishier chicken or duck, and it is often smoked, grilled, or pan-fried. Cooked, one could understand the meat being used (after all, in ancient times, people ate whatever they could catch). Where they lose me is in the fresh, uncooked heart. In 2008, Gordan Ramsay, a world-renowned chef, went to Iceland “sky fishing” for puffins. He tried this local delicacy on his show (watch the video). Can anyone say, “with fava beans and a nice Chianti?”
Are You Weirded Out Yet?
When I first thought about writing this blog, I had visions of my childhood “weird” Greek dishes my parents often made. I thought, yuck. How can we eat this? After this blog, I realized that our traditional dishes are not that bad. I’m genuinely amazed at what people are willing to ingest, and I love eating. Just so you know, I’ve avoided including some with slugs, beetles, and such, simply because I was too creeped out about them. Don’t get me started on countries that eat dogs or horses. All in all, I was amazed and disgusted at the same time. How about you?