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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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