Here at Kiwi.com, we’re interested in all aspects of travel. We realise some people don’t just travel for a holiday, but for a more specific purpose. In this series, we’re going to look at one topic or idea, and suggest destinations for you based on that. This week, we’re looking at…
Unusual Local Foods
Foodie travel is becoming more and more of a reason to go places nowadays. People are becoming more accepting of different foodstuffs as places embrace multiculturalism. You would never, for example, have persuaded a Brit in 1955 to eat Indian food; now, chicken tikka is virtually the national dish of the UK.
But not all food will ever be accepted as willingly as that. There are a number of foods particular to a specific country or culture that, to someone coming in from the outside, seem inedible, incredible, or just downright confusing.
Let’s take a look at ten foods that might only appeal to the more adventurous traveller. Would you be willing to try them?
South Korea is becoming more well-known as a foodie destination, in part thanks to the rise of kimchi in the wider world. The spicy, fermented cabbage dish is a delicious and – most importantly here – non-lethal variety of Korean cuisine.
San-nakji, however, is a different story. Basically, it’s octopus tentacles. Long octopus tentacles.
Here’s the thing, though. An octopus has an exceedingly complex nervous system, and two-thirds of its neurons are located in the nerves of its arms. This means that when served fresh, san-nakji is still moving. Twitching, spasming and flexing away, the tentacles are doused in sesame oil and eaten like that.
But lethal? Oh yes. Seeing as the suckers on the arms still function, special care has to be taken to make sure that they don’t just attach themselves to the side of the throat, causing the diner to choke. Bon appetit.
Puffin hearts, Iceland
This particular food got Gordon Ramsay into a bit of hot water when he was shown going “sky fishing”, before the puffins he caught were gutted and he ate the hearts.
He was cleared by the British TV watchdog OFCOM, who stated that “the sequence featuring Gordon Ramsay occurred in Iceland where [puffin] is not a protected species, where it comprises a popular part of the national diet and, as the programme informed viewers, is ‘a traditional food that has been hunted for centuries’.”
Disquieting though it may have been for some viewers to see one of the cutest of birds being eaten, puffin can be served in a number of ways. Grilled, fried and smoked are three of the more popular ways to prepare the birds.
Puffins are not a protected species in Iceland as they are in the UK, but you do need a license to hunt them. Plus, if a traditional alternative is hákarl (fermented shark), I might not turn down a bit of grilled puffin.
Often used as a way of teasing gullible tourists – pretending that a haggis is a small furry animal that can be spotted scurrying around mountainsides after dark – the national dish of Scotland is a combination of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, onion, oatmeal, spices and stock, encased in a sheep’s stomach and boiled. Mmm.
Well yes, actually. This author is a big fan of haggis, served, as is traditional, with neeps and tatties (that’s mashed parsnips and mashed potatoes to you and me). It’s a rich, nutty, spicy flavour that complements the vegetables beautifully.
The most common time you’ll see haggis eaten is Burns’ Night, the celebration of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. The haggis is piped in (i.e., brought in accompanied by a bagpiper) before someone reads Burns’ poem Address to a Haggis.
It’s at this point, I’m duty-bound to describe it as the “great chieftain o’ the puddin-race”, before we move out of Europe and onto our next food…
Tong zi dan, China
These are eggs eaten in Dongyang, in the Zhejiang region of China. Their name translates as virgin boy eggs. Yep.
They’re eaten in the springtime, and each seller has to source his own urine. Tradition states that any boy who supplies urine should be no more than ten years old.
Initially, the eggs are boiled in pans of urine until hard, then the shell is cracked, and the eggs are placed back into the pans. This means they become cured in the urine (as well as any herbs and spices that are added, although many vendors look down on this as not being traditional).
By the end of the curing process, the white has turned a golden colour, and the yolk a shade of green.
The dish is a well-respected tradition in the region, and when egg-sellers go to local schools to collect urine in barrels, boys regard it as absolutely normal. Teachers remind pupils not to pee in the barrels if they’re feeling ill.
Even though historically the eggs were regarded as being good for blood circulation, no health benefits have been proven from eating the eggs. Still, they’re proudly consumed by residents of the region, and are listed as a protected cultural artifact.
This dish of fermented Baltic herring is famous, mainly, for its legendarily rancid smell. It’s left to ferment for at least six months in brine, with just enough salt added to keep the fish from rotting completely.
To be fair, fermented fish has been a staple food in northern European countries for centuries; perhaps surprisingly, fermented fish is actually one ingredient of Worcestershire sauce, for example. But Surströmming’s smell has made it something of a challenge for visitors to Sweden.
It’s so bad that the fish is usually eaten out of doors, and the can opened under water so that the brine and gas is spread into the water rather than up the noses of anyone in the vicinity. German food critic Wolfgang Fassbender has been quoted as saying that “the biggest challenge of eating it is to vomit only after the first bite, as opposed to before.”
Surströmming has many defenders, particularly those who argue that as a traditional dish it should be treated with the veneration it deserves; critics say that it’s just a way for Swedes to be portrayed as a bit odd… Plus a lot of people think it’s rather an acquired taste. As euphemisms go, that’s a mild one.
Rocky Mountain oysters, USA
Oysters. One of the most luxurious things you can eat, right? An aphrodisiac, so they say. Although who they are, I don’t know. So Rocky Mountain oysters sound even better! They sound healthy, fresh and delicious! Dish ‘em up!
Woah, easy there, sunshine. They’re not oysters. Not even close. So what are they? Well, they’re also known as prairie oysters, or cowboy caviar. No?
Bull fries. Montana tendergroins. Dusted nuts. Swinging beef.
They’re deep-fried bulls’ testicles, okay? Now see if you think they’re an aphrodisiac.
“Poison… poison… tasty fish!” In season two of the Simpsons, the family go to a sushi restaurant where Homer orders fugu, a type of pufferfish that contains tetrodotoxin, a poison that causes muscle paralysis and eventually asphyxiates the victim.
Many viewers thought that such a dish would never be allowed – that the writers had simply invented it as a plot device – but, amazingly, it is so.
So why eat something so obviously lethal? Well, the role of the fugu chef is not to eliminate the poison altogether, but to reduce it to levels that produce a tingling sensation and waves of euphoria. Walking this fine line between getting high and being horribly killed is, apparently, the main reason thrill-seeking diners choose to eat it.
To become a fugu chef takes three years of training. The final exam, consisting of a fish identification test, a written test and, finally, preparing and eating the fish is very rigorous. Only around 35% of applicants pass, with others either stopped during preparation after a mistake has been made or, in rare cases, poisoned.
There has been no antidote developed for fugu poisoning as yet. The only treatment for the poison involves emptying the victim’s stomach, feeding them activated charcoal to prevent the toxins being absorbed, then putting them on life-support until the effects of the poison have worn off.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Casu Marzu, Italy
Italy is famous for its cheese, and for good reason. Ricotta, gorgonzola, parmesan, pecorino and others too numerous to list here are world renowned for their tastiness. This one, however… you might want to think twice.
It’s a sheep milk cheese, and its name translates into English simply as rotten cheese, which gives you a pretty good idea of what you’re going to be faced with.
To further the fermentation of the cheese to a stage in which it’s basically decomposing, cheesemakers introduce the larva of a particular fly; translucent white worms which break down the fat in the cheese, reducing it to a soft, almost liquid state.
Put onto bread or toast, and raised to the mouth, you can’t help but see the maggots writhing around, some actually launching themselves up to six inches out of the cheese.
It’s very strong, with gorgonzola-like hints, and leaves your mouth coated in a thick layer of the stuff. It’s still moving. Grab your glass of red wine and wash it down.
Staying with wriggling things – and why the hell not? – these are the larvae and pupae of a species of ant harvested from the roots of the tequila and mezcal plants (no, really) that grow in the rich, sandy soils of Mexico.
They’ve been a traditional dish in that part of the world since the time of the Aztecs, and when eaten, have the consistency of cottage cheese. They taste slightly nutty, and are often pan-fried with butter and spices and are served as part of a taco or an omelette, or simply as a main dish accompanied by guacamole and tortillas.
They’re so well thought of that in the past they were only served to royalty, and sometimes known as Mexican caviar. Chef José Meza is a huge proponent: “I feel this duty to use it, so other people will know our ingredients from many, many years ago,” Meza says. “I believe it’s very important, not just for me as a cook, but for us as a culture.”
Stargazy pie, England
Our final dish takes us to Cornwall, the leg, if you like, of England. A proud and ancient region that has its own traditions and trades, as well as this oddity.
A pie consisting of eggs, bacon, onions, mustard and white wine has pilchards or sardines added to it before being topped with a pastry crust.
The key, however, is to have the fish heads pointing out of the top, as if looking up to the stars – hence the name. This allows the fish oils to run back into the main body of the pie during cooking, adding more depth of flavour.
The food is a big deal in the village of Mousehole (pronounced MOW-zul), where it’s eaten on Tom Bawcock’s Eve, December 23rd.
Lately, storms had been so bad that the village – which to this day relies heavily on fishing – were facing starvation come Christmas.
Tom braved the storm and managed to catch enough fish to feed the village, and they were all baked into a pie.
As a final aside, the Cornish love of putting stuff in pastry was said to be the reason that the Devil never visited Cornwall.
In his 1865 book Popular Romances of the West of England; or, The Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of Old Cornwall, Robert Hunt explains that, on reaching the border of Devon and Cornwall, the Devil gets wind of the fact that the Cornish will put anything in pastry, and turns back, in case the locals want to get a taste of devilly pie.