Strange foods people eat: From larvae to fetuses
Before we begin talking about weird food, it must be noted that the “exotic or strange” is a social construct, and one man’s mayonnaise is another’s Marmite. What is perceived as food differs from place to place because of unique local conditions that affect what is abundant and what is scarce. In remote areas of Alaska, moose or bear meat is fair game to hunters, because that’s nature’s bounty there. In places like Iceland, Greenland sharks that are poisonous when fresh are left to rot for months, before being cured and served as hákarl. It takes a tongue accustomed to such tastes, or a mind acclimatized to such cuisine, to find such foods “normal.”
Broadly speaking, there are two categories of “weird”: one where dishes are “inherently” strange because of the ingredients, and another where the meal is odd because of what it combines. An example of the former would be deep-fried crocodile feet (found in Minnesota and others) and “Rocky Mountain Oysters” (USA’s misnomer for deep-fried bull testicles); and for the latter, chocolate and chili, for example. We will be looking at the former category.
Moving away from the USA, let’s take a look at the faraway land of Australia. (Remember, it’s all relative and Australia is only far because you’re in the United States.)
Witchetty grubs are large larvae of wood-eating moths that can be eaten raw, and were first consumed as a staple in the Aboriginal diet. They are packed with protein and apparently taste like scrambled eggs! Witchetty grubs are cold and slippery, and can be harvested by anyone lucky enough to dig and discover a swollen witchetty tree root ensconcing a 5”-long witchetty grub.
Fried insect larvae is also eaten in North Thailand, where the bamboo moth worm larvae is often fried and heartily consumed. When raw, the larvae is said to have hallucinogenic properties, which may or may not be a result of one realizing one actually loves its bamboo-y taste.
In Indonesia, civet cats with zero constipation are essential for this next strange food. Called kopi luwak (the local name for civet coffee), it is the world’s most expensive coffee bean at $600 a pound, harvested by collecting the undigested coffeebeans found in civet excrement. After the civet cat feasts on coffee cherries, its digestive juices somehow remove the bitter taste from the undigested coffeebean, leaving behind a complex, unique, and some say, magical flavor.
Sold on the streets of Philippines, we have the notorious balut. Balut is the local culinary name for a duck fetus that is still inside its egg and is at least 17 days old. At this point in time, the chick isn’t close to full maturation, and its beaks, claws and feathers are still unformed. The duck egg is hard boiled, before its shell is cracked opened to reveal a soupy, yolky, mush of protein. The older your duck egg is, the closer you get to eating a miniature duck, whole. In July 2013, a balut-eating contest was held in New York City where the winner ate 18 eggs in 5 minutes. With cosmopolitan cities in a globalized world, it may only be a matter of time before you get to try exciting new dishes too.
Lastly, in the land of delectable raw fish, let’s focus instead, on fermented foods. In Japan, shiokara is salted squid semi-fermented in its own acidic digestive juices. It is often swallowed in a single gulp, followed by a shot of whisky.
A particularly daring diner may chase shiokara with a shot of habushu instead. Habushu is a yellow-looking liquor that gets its color from the herbs and honey it is made with. But the most visually arresting thing about habushu is that it is made by steeping a pit viper into the alcohol, for a very long time. Depending on the brand of habushu, the viper may be drowned in the liquor, or be eviscerated before being placed inside. Often, the snake is paired with other exotic animals like scorpions, so when habushu is poured out, there are multiple objects floating about inside the bottle.
The foods above were chosen for their “strangeness” to the contemporary Western foodie, and we apologize if you are a well-traveled, well-informed global citizen who does not find these foods strange, but rather, a beautifully creative way of cooking up a storm.
–Min Yi Tan
Cover photo source.