One of my culinary heroes, Andrew Zimmern, had a program called Exotic Foods, in which he traveled around the world trying the weirdest things (to him) that could possibly exist. Some he liked, some he didn’t, but he was always willing to try something different. Following in those footsteps, here is a selection of the strange foods from around the world, either by their preparation, presentation, or origin. I haven’t named several Mexican dishes that could be considered strange but are quite ordinary to us, so let’s remember that it’s all about perspective. Huitlacoche (corn fungus), maguey worms, escamoles (insect larvae), and other delicacies would likely appear at the top of several peculiar foods lists outside of Mexico.
Swallow’s nest soup
This Chinese specialty tops the list because it is not an animal or vegetable itself, but a product made by a bird. The soup is prepared with swallows’ nests, made with solidified saliva that, when diluted in hot water, creates a gelatinous broth. This delicacy, also known as bird’s nest soup, can be sweet or savory and is sold in the most exclusive and expensive restaurants in China (as well as other Asian countries). Be careful, don’t be taken for a pig in a poke, since nowadays some restaurants will cheat and use pork fat to reduce costs.
While I haven’t personally tried it, I have seen it served directly at my table. In China – although it is also available in other parts of Asia such as Vietnam and Cambodia – it is considered an invigorating stimulant. During my first visit to this country, I asked to try viper. After a slight waiting time, a server approached the table with the live animal I would soon eat, coiled and wriggling in his hands. He made some movements showing me the reptile and, out of nowhere, wham!, he opened its belly with a knife and served the emerald blood in two little glasses. I didn’t drink it (nor the bile, which is also served in another glass), but the dish itself was very tasty and the meat extremely soft.
This Icelandic national dish is not for the squeamish. While the meat itself is quite unusual (Greenland shark), it is what happens during the preparation process. The meat is fermented for about three months underground to expel the high contents of uric acid and trimethylamine oxide, which would otherwise make it poisonous. After that time, the meat is hung in huts to dry and age. The result is a taste so pungent that many people vomit the first time they try it. Others (a minority of Icelanders even), consider it a delicacy that should be paired with brennivín, an Icelandic brandy (probably to make it easier to swallow).
A thousand year old egg
Would you eat an egg that has been fermenting for weeks or months? Probably not, but, as the adage goes, “in Chinese food you eat everything but the feathers.” At some point in humanity, someone in the Far East saw fit to age (although some theories assume it was an oversight) a duck egg under mud, ash and salt. The result is an emerald-colored egg with a rather gelatinous texture (for lack of more specific adjectives). Those who have tried it say it is delicious, with a hard-boiled egg flavor, but much more intense and sulfuric. It is served with pickled ginger.
Originally from the Philippines, balut is a fertilized duck embryo eaten in its shell. It must be eaten within 22 days of fertilization to prevent the embryo from developing feathers and bones. The egg is boiled or steamed and once opened, a spicy sour sauce is added, which is said to balance the flavor. It is a typical Filipino street dish that, in recent years, has become popular in restaurants, where they often innovate with modern takes.
Two live octopus, please! That’s what you ask for when you order the Korean dish sannajki. It is a tiny octopus, which are abundant in Korea’s cold waters, and there are three ways to eat it. The first option is whole, dipping it in a dressing of soju (a Korean distillate) and sesame oil. The second option is to roll the octopus on chopsticks, for easier consumption. Finally, it can be served in pieces on a plate. No matter which sauce accompanies the octopus (which will continue to wriggle before being eaten), it should always be eaten with sesame oil to prevent the tentacles from sticking to your throat, thus reducing the risk of choking.