Food - General
By: - at May 28, 2013

15 Unusual Things People Around the World Eat

Some of us are unable to handle even the smell of shellfish, while others find simple foods such as mushrooms revolting. Little do we realize that around the world, people are constantly consuming things we would not even recognize as food. Western and Eastern countries alike have their respective unusual dishes, some that may even be worth trying one day.

food from around the world

Learn about a few of the world's strangest delicacies and see what looks appetizing and what seems completely unfathomable as food.


15)  Fried Spiders  (Cambodia)
Fried chicken is a favorite food all over North America, but other countries are willing to branch out in terms of frying ingredients. In Cambodia, fried spiders peak the interests of locals and tourists alike. Especially in Skuon, a town also known as "Spiderville" in the regional dialect, vendors line the main plaza with baskets full of the unusual delicacies. According to "Tuck into a Tarantula," by Rhymer Rigby, some other Cambodian cities, such as Phnom Penh, also carry the delicacy on a much smaller scale. To find an overwhelming amount of fried spiders, however, Phnom Penh will always be the place to go.

Tourists Indulging in a Local Cambodian Delicacy - Fried Spiders:
Tourists Indulging in a Local Cambodian Delicacy - Fried Spiders
By Greg Walters from Eaton, United States [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

No one is completely sure of where the idea to fry spiders came from, but according to "Lonely Planet Cambodia," Cambodian people resorted to foraging desperately for new sources of food during the Khmer Rouge rule. Typically the crispy legs are the prized body parts, but anyone is also welcome to try the abdomen as well, if they are brave enough.

Fried Spiders For Sale at the Market in Skuon, Cambodia:
Fried Spiders For Sale at the Market in Skuon, Cambodia
By Mat Connolley (Matnkat) (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons


14)  Kiviak  (Greenland)
Not only does this dish take months of preparation and quite a bit of work to assemble, Kiviak puts the American turducken dish at Thanksgiving to complete shame. Perhaps it is the dish that inspired the turducken (though not likely). Kiviak is a Greenland specialty consisting of a whole seal, stuffed with not 1, not 2, but 500 birds. The stuffed seal is buried underground for about seven months, according to BBC, before it is pungent enough to consume.

Kiviak

The stuffing birds are auks, small penguin-like birds that exist in many species across Europe. Inuits remove as much air from the seal skin as they can, then sew up the stuffed skin and slather grease on top to seal it. They place a heavy rock on it while it is sitting, to avoid letting air in that might spoil the delicious treat.

A Whole Seal???
A Whole Seal???

Travel claims the dish is best dug up once the months-long process has liquefied some of the insides. In the advent of more appetizing food, this dish is no longer a popular wintertime treat in Greenland, but it still does exist.


13)  Silkworm Pupae  (Asia)
This one is a little difficult for most people to stomach. Silkworms are well-known as an important species in Asia, because they produce highly coveted silk threads. According to "Prehistoric Textiles" by E.J.W Barber, the Chinese have been breeding these little creatures for over 5,000 years. Another less common use for the little silkworms is to consume them as food in the pupa stage. Though it is not as popular as farming the worms for silk, many different nationalities in Asia consider silkworm pupae to be downright tasty.

Silkworm Pupae Arranged So Delicately on a Plate:
Dish of Silkworm Pupae Silkworm Pupae Arranged So Delicately on a Plate:
By Blueberry87 via Wikimedia Commons

Street vendors in China roast the worm pupae, while Indians boil the pupae to retrieve silk and throw a few spices on the boiled worms to make them taste better. ScienceNOW Daily News suggests that silkworms have been conversation fodder as a food idea for astronauts on long-term space missions.

Canned Pupae:
Silkworm Pupae Cans Canned Pupae

Despite the reported good taste, the rest of the world has not exactly been requesting these pupae on their plates. The lack of worldwide popularity may be due to the very bug-like appearance of the silkworm babies. While some larvae can look like beans when cooked, silkworm pupae look distinctly like fat, juicy, bugs. No taste is good enough to make up for the appearance, as far as many travelers (even gourmets) go.


12)  Escamoles  (Mexico)
The ants in Mexico can grow to rather discomforting sizes, especially if they are Liometopum, or giant velvety ants. This holds true for their larvae as well. Mexicans enjoy consuming Liometopum larvae, or escamoles, in many dishes, especially tacos. The larva are like bulbous grains of long rice with a cottage-cheese consistency.

escamoles

Perhaps more unusual than the fact that people will willingly eat bug larvae is the fact that it reportedly tastes quite appetizing. Consumers have described a light, nutty, buttery flavor that corresponds excellently with guacamole in tacos. The larvae can also be found in cheeses, and they are highly coveted. These little guys are an interesting way to react to a huge ant problem.

escamoles
By Cvmontuy (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Eat Your World attributes this delicacy to the Aztecs long ago, but it must taste at least somewhat appetizing for the dish to have thrived for so many centuries. Since the larvae look more like pine nuts, they are not as difficult for the faint-of-heart to consume. Escamoles easily integrated themselves from a tribal food into modern Hispanic cuisine. Many visitors have eaten this delicacy on accident and will never even know. It is cheap enough that it can appear in almost any Mexican dish. LA Weekly suggests that eating escamoles is far more environmentally friendly and nutritious than the current foods we eat, such as beef and pork. An escamole diet is invariably easier to sustain than an animal diet, but the rest of the world seems unwilling to make the jump to giant ant larvae as a diet staple.


11)  Lutefisk  (Northern European)
Though the base of this Northern European dish is commonplace whitefish, the delicacy grows much more unusual with the cooking process. First, the whitefish is air-dried or salted to become stockfish or klippfisk. The fish then soaks for several days in a mixture of cold water and lye before it is ready to cook. Yes, the lye from grandma's old soap is part of the lutefisk cooking process, according to the Appleton Post-Crescent. To get the lye out, the fish is then soaked in water for another handful of days, then salted, steam-cooked in a pan, and eaten.

Traditional Norwegian Lutefisk with Potato, Bacon and Mashed Peas:
Traditional Norwegian Lutefisk with Potato, Bacon and Mashed Peas:

The Nordic people seem to have picked up on the bizarreness of this dish and have come to embrace it as a cultural masterpiece. It is popular to make newcomers try the dish at least once, and lutefisk's presence at the Christmas table has recently become more and more popular, according to a Norwegian article titled "Trendy med lutefisk."

nordic fish market
By Adam_D via Wikimedia Commons

This is by no means an exotic dish, as it has even spread to the more Nordic regions of the United States, such as Minnesota. The self-proclaimed lutefisk world capital is in Madison, Minnesota. Modern culture has written many jokes in dedication to this interesting Northern dish with a jelly-like consistency and a highly memorable smell.


10)  Tripe  (Mexico)
Though not uncommon, we still feel tripe deserves a spot in this list of unusual foods. Tripe is a highly popular dish of cooked farm-animal intestines. The bodily waste is washed off of the entrails, unless the tripe is intended for dog food, in which case the green, smelly bile is left on, according to Greentripe. Dressed tripe, or washed tripe, is the stuff found in countless international dishes of great variety. The most nearby place where it is popular is in Mexico, especially in a hominy-tripe soup called menudo.

Goat Tripe and Heats at an Open Air Market in Peru:
Goat Tripe and Heats at an Open Air Market in Peru
By quinet [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The IFIS Dictionary of Food Science and Technology asserts that the popularity of tripe peaked in Europe during the Victorian period and began to ebb away in the latter 20th century. This was presumably due to economic standing, as the dish was far more popular when better food was more difficult to afford.

Tripe at a Market in Florence, Italy:
Tripe at a Market in Florence, Italy
By Warburg (self-mad) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Tripe was cheap and easy to cook, so people made due with it. Since the rise of average European wealth in modern times, far fewer people turn to tripe as food except to feed their dogs with it. It is still ubiquitous enough in so many cuisines that it seems to warrant at least one try.





9)  Vegemite  (Australia)
VegemiteThe specialty from down under, vegemite is a very interesting spread. When beer brewers construct beer, a byproduct left behind is yeast extract. The Australians make use of this extract by turning it into a spread for sandwiches, pastries, and anything a person could want some vegemite on. Many people do not like it upon first try, and it is viewed as a somewhat acquired taste.

It reportedly tastes a little bitter and very salty with umami-rich components. The paste is smooth and spreads easily onto toast or any other food. Kraft wrote a story on vegemite, explaining that it was invented in 1922 to compete with similar spreads in other British-influenced lands. Vegemite has run into some controversy, as unexplained rumors of the substance being banned in the U.S. and Denmark started popping up. U.S. Customs and Border Protection have attempted to reiterate that vegemite is completely legal is still for sale, though the rumored ban has almost become a legend at this point. Americans are not particular fond of the stuff, anyway.

vegemite

Vegemite is commonly mocked in popular culture, as the taste for it just does not seem to travel over sees. Most memorable is the Men at Work track from 1981, "Down Under" where they refer to eating a vegemite sandwich. Movies in Australia often depict Americans trying the spread for the first time with unfavorable reactions. Even President Obama has described Vegemite as "horrible" when visiting a Virginia high school in 2011, according to CNN.


8)  Tequila Worms  (everywhere)
Tequila worms are quite interesting, because they are not actually a popular food item in Mexico. They are much more of a gimmick that has become popular legend. Tequila worms are the larvae of Hypopta agavis that resides on the agave plant. Tequila is made from these agave plants, and thus, the worms are a common sight. The myth is that these worms are highly coveted, and tequila served "con gusano" (meaning it has a worm in the liquor) is somehow extra special.

Tequila Worms

Unfortunately, this myth is much more of a marketing ploy for tourists than a local tequila secret recipe. "Drinkology," by Walter James, explains that a worm present on an agave plant is a sign of infestation and resultant low quality tequila. The worm was not part of tequila bottling and marketing until the 1940s, when it became a popular gimmick for visitors from other countries. Nonetheless, people do fall for it, and tequila worms have indeed made it onto people's palettes.

Things like this are important to keep in mind when traveling. Many foods are successful only because of tourists, while some foods only exist because of tourists. Do research before eating anything too new to keep from being the butt of a joke somewhere else. In case we do not find out in time, eating things like tequila worms at least makes for good stories later on in life.


7)  Birds' Nest Soup  (China)
The idea of eating a bird's nest may sound next to impossible. Think of the twigs, the hair, the feathers, and the other random trash birds may employ from their surroundings to construct a nest. In China, however, there is a bird family called the Swiftlets whose nests are nothing like what Westerners are accustomed to. When Swiftlet nests are cooked in water, they dissolve into a gelatinous texture than many Chinese people enjoy in soups and rice dishes. In Massimo Marcone's article, "Characterization of the edible bird's nest the Caviar of the East," he explains that edible birds' nests are highly coveted and can also be used to make an expensive birds' nest jelly.


By Joe Ritson via Wikimedia Commons

Male swiftlets construct the gelatinous nests in caves, and it takes them just over a month to do so. The nests are high in essential nutrients, and the Chinese believe them to be incredibly healthy and beneficial. People eat birds' nests to improve focus, breathing, the immune system, and more, according to Joseph Hobbs, who wrote "Problems in the harvest of edible birds’ nests in Sarawak and Sabah, Malaysian Borneo". Due to the high demand for these nests, they are now harvested in in a farming style with man-made nests, so that the birds' natural environment is not completely ravaged.

Birds' Nest Soup
By GeeJo via Wikimedia Commons

Edible birds' nests are also comparable to caviar in other countries because of its pricey nature. One bowl can cost up to $100 USD in Hong Kong, according to Hobbs and an article titled "Bird-nest Soup, Anyone?" Perhaps the health benefits are worth the cost, as birds' nest soup is a national specialty and has been for over 400 years.


6)  Kopi Luwak  (Indonesia & Philippines)
Kopi Luwak is coffee with an extremely unusual twist. Like people, a cat-like creature called the Asian Palm Civet also regularly consumes coffee. It eats the beans whole, and then, unable to completely digest them, excretes the beans whole inside their feces. These beans, apparently, make the best coffee out there. Massimo Marcone's article, "In Bad Taste," details the enzymes in a civet's digestion system that some how enhance the coffee beans' flavor.


By Wibowo Djatmiko [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The supposedly delicious coffee does not come without cost, however. A kilogram of beans costs about $700, according to Forbes. Not only is it expensive, TRAFFIC officers worry that the extensive trade of civets are disrupting the current population all in the name of good coffee. Farming does not seem to work, because without natural selection at play, the beans will be of poorer quality. Whether the coffee is even tasty or not is still debated, as the Specialty Coffee Association of America solidly agree that the kopi luwak coffee taste plain terrible and exists for novelty purposes only. It may just be an acquired taste.

Asian Palm Civet:
Asian Palm Civet
By W. Djatmiko via Wikimedia Commons

Kopi luwak can most easily be found in Sumatra or Java (countries with huge natural coffee bean supplies). People in the Philippines also gather the beans in forests or produce them on farms in large quantities. The consumption of kopi luwak goes back as far as Indonesian coffee bean history and has intrigued outsiders since the Dutch came over in the 1800s. Ideally, the kopi luwak is supposed to remove acidity and add smoothness and body to the coffee, but most coffee experts agree that it tastes like, well, crap.


5)  Casu Marzu  (Sardinia, Italy)
Cheese, anyone? Casu Marzu is a Sardinian sheep's cheese with insect larvae living in it. The cheese fly larvae helps to further break down the cheese into what most would call a decomposed state. The additional digestion causes the cheese to liquefy and seep out. Some people remove the larvae from the cheese right before they eat it, but those who choose not do must watch out. The larvae can jump about half a foot, according to May Barenbaum's "Ninety-Nine More Maggots, Mites, and Munchers".

Casu Marzu Cheese:
Casu Marzu Cheese
By Shardan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

If someone is willing to handle the live maggots, he must hold his hand above the cheese to avoid maggots jumping near his face or on his clothes. Those who do not care for live maggots can place the cheese in a bag and wait for the sound of the jumping maggots to subside, which means the maggots are no longer alive, and the cheese will be still. Mark Frauenfelder's "Most Rotten Cheese" explains various Maggots in Casu Marzumethods of consuming this strange delicacy. To create it, a cheese fly is placed in a wheel of pecorino cheese and left outside. The fly can lay over 500 eggs in one sitting, so that can really can a wheel of cheese oozing, while she lays more eggs. A consumer can expect thousands of maggots to be in just one wheel of Casu Marzu.

The unease this cheese may cause outsiders has also occurred with Sardinian health authorities. The cheese was even illegal for quite a while in Europe and only obtainable through the black market. The ERSAT now details the proper traditional method to prepare the cheese, so traditionalists can continue to enjoy it. Because the cheese has existed for so long, authorities decided it does not need to be held to current hygiene standards and can be eaten at the consumer's risk.


4)  Live Cobra Heart  (Vietnam)
Live hearts have carried an intrigue for centuries in most countries. In modern times, live cobra hearts reign as an extremely popular dish in Vietnam. When visiting, it is one of the most recommended dishes for outsiders to try. What is especially interesting is the process that goes into eating a snake heart. The customers must choose a reputable restaurant, where the host will lead them to a room full of live animals of many varieties. Hungry diners should pick out a fat looking snake. The host will pull out the chosen snake and test it by poking it with a stick on the floor. If the snake proves to be highly aggressive, then it will likely make for some very tasty food.

Live Cobra Heart Dish

The snake is then decapitated and drained of its blood and venom for the customer's drinking accompaniment. Matador Network explains that the heart will be placed on a platter and served up to the most honored guest, which in most cases is the outsider. It is meant to be swallowed whole and enjoyed with a shot of blood and venom liquor. People often claim it tastes like chicken.


3)  Century Eggs  (Many Places)
Despite the auspicious name, these eggs have a completely opposing look and smell. It goes by other similar names, such as thousand-year-old egg, millennium egg, preserved egg, and more.

Arranged Century Egg:
Arranged Century Egg
By irrationl_cat via Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese take quail, duck, or chicken eggs and place them in rice hulls also filled with quicklime, ash, clay, and salt for an extended period of time. Depending on the recipe, the eggs may sit for weeks or up to many months before they are ready, according to BBC News.

Century Egg With Snowflake Patterns:
Century Egg With Snowflake Patterns
By WingkeeLEE via Wikimedia Commons

These eggs are supposed to have a truly unique taste, and the smell is also reportedly very distinct. A Chinese citizen who found eggs covered in slacked lime discovered the egg recipe on accident. He immediately went to work trying to recreate the newfound delicacy. There is an urban legend that horse urine is part of the egg process, but Anne Marie Helmestein's article pertaining to the subject says this is simply untrue. The myth probably arose from the distinct smell the eggs give off. Horse Urine is essentially not acidic enough to produce the effect create by quick lime.

Because quick lime is not exactly safe for human consumption, modern cooking efforts have often replaced it with zinc oxide, an essential nutrient. Even too much zinc can cause problems as well, though, so the process must still be monitored very carefully.


2)  Lengua  (Many Places)
Anyone who knows a little Latin or Spanish will recognize this word and think of the tongue. Lengua is indeed cooked beef tongue. People typically boil it, then remove the skin and serve it. Pickled tongue is also popular because of its spicier taste. It can even be roasted like roast beef and served up in a big ban with tongue gravy.

Cooked beef tongue - Lengua

This dish sounds and looks interesting (or maybe even off putting), but it tastes quite good. It is popularly consumed in Mexico, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and some Asian countries. Even northern North America serves it up at fancy restaurants on toast sometimes. Try it with mushrooms and horseradish sauce. Lengua is very high in fat according to Gourmet, which may have something to do with its longstanding popularity. Epicurious offers a great recipe for Tacos de Lengua, an extremely common Mexican dish.

Tacos de Lengua (Beef Tongue):
Tacos de Lengua Beef Tongue


1)  Puffer Fish  (Many Places)
This is a dish not only for the gourmet traveler but for the braver souls out there. Next to poisonous frogs, puffer fish are the most dangerous poisonous vertebrates out there. Either they must taste delicious, or the challenge must excite people, because highly trained chefs in Asia are still paid to prepare puffer fish to be eaten by hungry customers. In Japan, the puffer fish dish is called fugu, while in China it is named hetun.


By Brocken Inaglory [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chefs must be extremely delicate and skilled to remove the right parts and amount of edible fish from the dangerous parts. It seems to poison more people when served as soup. The poison effects begin with tingling and end with paralysis. Those who survive the first 24 hours of poisoning are typically in the clear, though they may first have to wake up from a coma. "The Introduction to Food Toxicology" by Takayuki Shibamoto attributes the poison to the intestines, though this is a topic subject to debate.

A Tray with 6 Pufferfish Species at Market:
A Tray with 6 Pufferfish Species at Market:
By Chris 73 via Wikimedia Commons

The Philippine Daily Inquirer warns Philippine citizens against puffer fish altogether after the deaths of several unsuspecting fishermen. Though the toxins are reportedly over 100 times more powerful than cyanide, many people enjoy eating the sashimi and feeling the numbness in their mouths and on their lips. This is no doubt a daring dish.

(Pufferfish) Fugu Sashimi:
(Pufferfish) Fugu Sashimi
By Suguri F via Wikimedia Commons


Final Words
No matter where we go in the world, we will always find new and unfamiliar things to try (or not try). Some unusual traditions were born out of necessity but continued out of popularity. Others are just a matter of different tastes. It is important to remember that both Westerners and Easterners have their respective strange foods. Some foods only still thrive from popular tourist demand. For example fried spiders and tequila worms, and others still remain a favorite local dish much like the silkworm pupae. There are many more exotic foods out there waiting to be tasted and enjoyed by locals and brave tourists alike.


 

 

 

 

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