Strange Foods to Try (or Avoid)

Hákarl is an Icelandic dish that most of you have probably heard of. Anthony Bourdain called it the single worst, most disgusting and terrible thing he has ever eaten. Gordon Ramsay puked after eating it. Icelanders like to punk foreigners by presenting it to them, but it’s also associated with strength and virility.

I tried this three years ago. It was actually the first animal flesh I ever knowingly ate. When I tell this to people, they inevitably reply that I’m doing it all wrong, but it really wasn’t so bad as everyone says. It just tastes a lot like fishy, gelatinous blue cheese that’s been left to fester in the hot sun for months before getting peed on – nothing horrible.

The problem with hákarl being my first meat experience is that it made me cocky. I figured, after trying this, I could eat anything. When I returned to Iceland 6 months later, I bragged to my couch surfing host  -”yeah, I’d probably try whale, I bet it wouldn’t be a problem for me.” He totally called my bluff – he went to his kitchen and returned with a big slab of bloody raw whale meat.

Whale meat is so red it is almost black from all the iron in its blood.

At this point, I should probably share that in my youth, I was indoctrinated by well-meaning but ultimately misguided hippies. My dad (who now loves few things more than a slab of fatty bacon) would walk us down the butcher aisle at the grocery store and point – “that’s slaughtered baby cow, that’s hormonal salmonella chicken…” I would challenge anyone to overcome that sort of indoctrination and grow to love the taste of meat.

But, I digress.

Food can be the most pleasurable or horrifying aspect of travel, depending on where you are and what you’re eating. Few things bring people together like a good meal, and almost nothing can ruin your trip like a bowl of parasitic street food. Some of the strangest foods we’ve had:

Fufu – Fufu is a doughy mass of pounded starch. In many parts of Africa, you eat this by breaking off little balls with your hands and dipping it in soup or sauce. Making it is a bit time consuming and requires a lot of strength – those women are buff.

Gjetost – A caramelized brown whey cheese, this might be another acquired taste. It’s pungent, salty, sweet, and, in my opinion, absolutely delightful.

Natto -This fermented soybean dish, much like other fermented foods, is really polarizing. I absolutely love it, but I’m in a small minority. Many will tell you that it resembles chunks of brown snot, and doesn’t taste a whole lot better.

It is usually much snottier than this.

Umeboshi – I was actually introduced to this as a child, but it was new to most of my friends in Japan. Umeboshi is pickled plum, and I think it is every bit as delicious as it sounds, but it can alienate some people. You need to eat a tiny bit – it’s really, really strong.

Whale – Apparently, it tastes like beef. I’m not sure, I’ve never had beef. To me, it tasted bloody and smoky.

Local fruits – Have you had mangosteen? How about dragonfruit? Jackfruit? Mamey? Lingonberries? Fresh passionfruit? Cloudberries? The list is endless. In Thailand, they get creative – you can find roadside vendors selling fruits covered in a mixture of salt, sugar, and chili powder. Sampling the local fruits is one of the most fun parts of traveling abroad.

Century eggs – If only these tasted as beautiful as they look. Contrast the appearance – translucent amber exterior and rich turquoise green yolk – with the taste, which is roughly equivalent to drinking lye while making out with your grandpa’s corpse. This is probably the grossest and strongest taste of all the ones on this list. I couldn’t get the flavor out of my mouth for about an hour, and I tried everything (chewing raw ginger and raw garlic, swallowing hot peppers, drinking milk, eating bread, swallowing pats of butter).

Well, maybe if you consider what color this egg started as, it doesn’t look so pretty.

Gibnut – A large rodent whose tender meat is a relished by Belizians, it is also known as “the Queen’s rat” because it was famously served to Queen Elizabeth on her tour of the then-colony. Newspapers in England reported the the queen had been served rat meat, which caused quite an uproar in England.

Dumps – I wish this food were as gross as it sounds. It is actually just a bread pudding served in Hungary, often with poppies. But, if you get a chance to eat this you should, just so you can tell your friends back home that you ate some dumps today.

Tripe soup – This is eaten many places, but it's still strange to think about. Tripe is a cow's stomach lining, put into a pot of dedicated soup and boiled in water used to cook soup. Oddly, I thought it tasted most like calamari. It was white, rubbery, and vaguely fishy. Good thing I like squid!

Huitlacoche – This is Mexican corn disease, but you’ll mainly find it in some fancy-schmancy restaurants. It’s weirdly delicious, and might be less horrifying if you think of it as a Mexican truffle.  It’s earthy and smutty but, please, try not to think about what you’re eating if you want to really enjoy it. I was lucky to have a family member who harvested huitlacoche for a little while, so I developed a taste for it.

Each of those massive grey blobs is a single corn kernel. Who ever thought to market this as a gourmet food?

Horse meat – I accidentally ate horsemeat while it was wrapped up in an eggroll – someone had assured me that it was vegetarian because of the pictures of vegetables on the wrapper, and I couldn’t read the Finnish ingredients list. Honestly, I don’t remember how it tasted because I was too busy crying.

Hverabrauð – Not gross at all, just really cool. This bread is made in Iceland in the steamy buttcrack of the Earth. A friend brought me to eat fresh baked hverabrauð, which she pulled from a steaming vent over the continental ridge.

Head Cheese – Native to my homeland (the US south), head cheese is so disgusting that I haven’t eaten it since I found out what it was made out of. Every part of the pig that no one in their right mind would imagine eating. This is like spam to the nth degree. And yet it somehow actually tastes cheesy.

Durian – An exotic fruit, but it definitely deserves its own entry in this list. It is so stinky that several countries have banned it in public places. Imagine a sweaty man ate onions, mangoes, and maple syrup, then died and rotted for a few days. If you exhumed that man’s festering stomach contents and wrapped them in his smelly socks, you could approximate the smell of a durian. And yet this fruit still retains wild popularity in many Asian countries, and has a reputation as an aphrodisiac. If you want to carry durian anywhere without affecting the people around you, you'll need an best commercial food storage containers. My dad, who has no sense of smell, loved it.

It also looks pretty weird.

Peanut butter and cheese sandwich – I’m not actually sure if this is local to anywhere, but it was prepared for me by a Dutch boy who claimed to have eaten them all the time while growing up. His family might have just been weird. You know what? It was awesome. The peanut butter was warm and crunchy and the cheese was melted and delicious. It was perfect.

Note: all the pictures are from Wikipedia. We were too busy eating to operate a camera, and anyway our fingers were too greasy.

Second note: this article was co-written, in case you’re wondering why a tender-hearted vegetarian would grow up eating head cheese while being raised by hippies.

See more maybe you are interested here

18 Comments

  1. HOUDEANI says:

    Cool blog! I LOL-ed when I read this part:
    Horse meat – I accidentally ate horsemeat while it was wrapped up in an eggroll – someone had assured me that it was vegetarian because of the pictures of vegetables on the wrapper, and I couldn’t read the Finnish ingredients list. Honestly, I don’t remember how it tasted because I was too busy crying. haha!

    One thing you should definitely try is the dreaded Balut – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balut_%28egg%29
    Best eaten with plain rock salt and loads of pure guts! There’s also a peculiar Mangrove Worm known as [I}Tamilok[/I] in a tropical island named Palawan. It looks like a long, thick white strand of slippery snotty spunk that tastes like a cross between a mussel and an oyster. ( http://blog.legendpalawan.com.ph/2008/06/tamilok-longest-oyster.html )

    Both these dishes could be eaten in the Philippines.
    Bon Appetit!

    • Lehua Gray says:

      Yummmmm, that worm sounds delightful, I had never heard of it. It is definitely now on my weird food bucket list. I haven’t gotten a chance to try balut, but I would like to, if I was offered.

  2. joe says:

    my friend cooked me a grilled cheese and peanut butter sandwich once. I was surprised to find that it was pretty good, although I haven’t sought it out since. maybe I should…

    • dirtyv6 says:

      Yes, please do. Try it with crunchy unsweetened natural peanut butter, sharp cheddar, and crusty fresh bread. Ugh I want it right now, so good.

  3. Idun says:

    Another one for the list is haggis..delicious sheep intestines, yummy. Or not. I tried it, and the taste isn’t that bad thanks to good spicing, but I found the texture really weird. Interesting to try though.

    Gjetost, or brunost (brown cheese) as it’s also called is definitely a special taste, I gave it to my bunch of international friends while in Scotland, and they either loved it or hated it.

    There’s a couple of other Norwegian foods for your list, smalahove (sheep’s head), gravlaks (lightly fermented fish) and lutefisk (fish soaked in lye for a few days). Maybe you should try them next time you’re in Norway, if you haven’t already? :) These 3 dishes are traditional stuff though, which people now usually just eat once or twice a year as tradition. It’s not normal dinner for most people.

    • dirtyv6 says:

      Hi Idun! Good suggestions. I’ve been to Scotland a few times but never had haggis, so we left it off the list. I love the stories that Scottish people tell foreigners about what haggis is, though – they’re always hilarious.

      I love gjetost, but I understand why people wouldn’t. Do you ever cook with it? I’d be interested in trying some recipes that incorporate it.

      I’m not sure I’m brave enough to try those Norwegian specialties, but Lehua might!

      Cheers,

      Raphaela

  4. Idun says:

    Don’t know much about cooking with gjetost, as I don’t like it that much myself, but supposedly (after a quick google search) you can use it in ice cream sauce, waffles, cupcakes and even in pasta sauce. No idea if it’ll be good though. It’s in Norwegian, but here are some recipes http://www.tine.no/oppskrifter/sesong-og-tema/prøv-brunost-i-maten so if you’d like to try, just pick one find someone to translate for you when you have some gjetost.

    Completely get you on that, I don’t want to try them either, like ever.

    • dirtyv6 says:

      Oooh I can actually read those recipes! (Reading Norwegian is much easier for me than hearing it ;) ) Thank you, that looks amazing. I am going to try the pasta and the pie – one savoury, one sweet! I will report back. I hope Icelandic supermarkets have gjetost, or it might be a while…

  5. c says:

    you need to try rose apple and jackfruit when you make it south/southeast asia!

    • dirtyv6 says:

      I LOVE jackfruit. There was this awesome jackfruit curry dish I used to get all the time in a Nepali place near me in Madison. Also, BBQ jackfruit. I’ve never had it plain, though – what’s it like? And I am very intrigued by rose apple.

  6. c says:

    yeah, rose apple is incredible–essentially rosewater in fruit form. i used to pick rose apples on my way to the university, stuffing myself until my stomach hurt. hard to describe raw jackfruit; you need to go to asia asap to try it for yourself!

  7. huitlacoche is the stuff of legend. you sure were lucky to have some rad family member harvest it.

  8. Tomos Burton says:

    There are better chefs than Gordon Ramsay out there, let’s be honest. All his restaurants were failing, last I heard.

    A true chef is one that can accommodate minority diets.

    • dirtyv6 says:

      I can’t say I’ve ever eaten his food. All I know is that he puked after eating Icelandic fermented shark, which says nothing about his cooking, and everything about how terrible Icelandic shark is

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