Eat local, if you dare: Seven ‘distinctive’ delicacies from around the world

Into adventurous cuisine? From fermented fish to illegal cheese, these foods run a gourmet gauntlet – from the idiosyncratic, to the infamous.

Friday, September 11, 2020,
By Simon Ingram
See anything you like? A congee (porridge) made with pork, vegetables – and a 'century egg'. A common ...

See anything you like? A congee (porridge) made with pork, vegetables – and a 'century egg'. A common comfort food in China, the striking central ingredient is perhaps not quite as daunting as it sounds.

Photograph by hein teh / Alamy

Experiencing the world’s varied tastes and traditions are surely two of travel’s biggest appeals. Cuisine constructed from local ingredients and prepared utilising generations of culinary knowledge has allowed even specialist food cultures to transcend borders and earn a place on high streets, cookbook shelves and television screens all over the world. 

(Like your food served with adventure? Check out Gordon Ramsay’s new show for National Geographic.) 

Occasionally, however, tradition and taste collide to produce dishes with a decidedly more niche appeal. This realm  has spawned a subculture of gastronomic adventurers keen to experience some of the more unique of the world’s tastes – however ill-advised that may occasionally be. 

From prehistoric blood-suckers to crackers with a distinctive ‘sting’ – here are seven cuisine curios from around the world. 

Century egg

Order/avoid in… China, Thailand, Vietnam 

Also known by the chillingly-escalating names of ‘500 year-old egg’ and ‘1000 year egg’ (as well as the more obviously unappetising ‘horse urine egg’) the patience required to enjoy this Asian snack, locally called pidan, isn’t quite as extreme as its names suggest. But that’s not to say it doesn’t require considerable time, and a strong constitution. 

A common snack in China, century egg is born from a marinade process that involves a solution of ash, tea, salt, mud and quicklime, then the immersion of either a quail or duck egg – and anything from five weeks to two months of preservation. This results in a combination of preservation, curing and chemical change in the egg, dramatically altering its texture and flavour. 

Unfortunately, popularity and patience aren’t an easy mix; in the interests of speeding up the chemical reaction required, some manufacturers have used toxic metals such as lead oxide and copper sulphate – which recently led to concerns over the safety of commercially-bought century eggs.  

Century egg, hundred-year egg, thousand year egg, millennium egg... and horse urine egg. No matter the name, you'll probably either eat it – or you won't. And many do, with this Asian delicacy hugely popular as street food.

Photograph by neiljohn / Alamy

Presuming such hazards are navigated, it's the egg’s darkly gelatinous appearance that is perhaps the ultimate hurdle to prospective diners – followed closely by its ammonia-like smell. But its popularity as a comfort food suggests that, much like the sensory dichotomy of a ripe cheese, the appeal is in the taste.  

Rakfisk

Order/avoid in… Norway 

Fermented fish is beloved of seafaring northern nations, where it goes by several names and appears in various forms. These range from Sweden’s notoriously pungent surstromming (herring served in cans that bulge appetisingly due to the gases within) to Iceland’s hakarl, which consists of decomposed shark that’s been buried for months, exhumed, cured, then eaten without cooking. Norway’s rakfisk lies somewhere between these venerable dishes. 

Prepared rakfisk. Though fermented and hung for up to a year, the fish is eaten uncooked. 

Photograph by Alexander Mychko / Alamy

Comprising a trout or char that has been seasoned with salt then sealed in an airtight container to ferment, the dish was reputedly born from a necessity to stave off starvation in the colder months. The idea was that fish caught at leisure in summer could be allowed to ferment throughout Autumn, then consumed in the lean winter months, when hunger was powerful enough to turned a blind nose to the smell. A traditional winter dish for this reason, rakfisk is perhaps understandably often served with a shot of strong local spirit aquavit.  

Video: Gordon Ramsay Uncharted – trying rakfisk

In Norway, Gordon Ramsay (apprehensively) tries some rakfisk that has been curing for months.
Ramsay learns Viking cooking methods and tries some rakfisk (fermented fillets of freshwater trout salted and layered in wooden barrels to ferment). It doesn´t look very appetising…

Jibachi Senbei

Order/avoid in… Japan

Remove spectacles and these innocuous-looking cookies might resemble just that. It’s only when a closer peer reveals wings, legs and tell-tale stripes amongst the constituents that urgent questions may emerge around this this Japanese curiosity, which translates to ‘wasp crackers.’ Created, rather uniquely, by a fan club for digger wasps in Omachi – a town northwest of Tokyo – the senbei are prepared by wild-catching the insect, which is then boiled, added to a cracker mix and baked.

Perhaps the ultimate test of squeamishness versus objectivity, the inclusion of wasps in this cookie is unique – but not necessarily unusual. Wasp larvae are considered a delicacy in Japan.

Photograph by permission of SoraNews24

First made in 2007, the insect’s inclusion in a cracker is a recent innovation, but appeals to an older demographic. “Young people see the bugs and refuse to eat the senbei,“ Club president Torao Kayatsu told Reuters at the time. “But seniors, they love them. We even have an order from a nursing home.” This is perhaps that while the crackers are a local curio, wasps – hebo– aren’t unusual as an ingredient in Japan, with the larvae particularly prized.        

As for the taste to a Western palate, an apprehensive tester for Japanese website SoraNews24 reported the experience in detail, remarking the baked wasps were ‘very much like raisins’ but with a ‘slightly acidic and bitter taste’. He scored the crackers 19 out of 44.  

(Read: Why insects make sense as a foodstuff – and why people in the west still won’t eat them.)

Black Pudding

Order/avoid in… the UK and Ireland

It’s probably a fair suggestion that this traditional staple of the British breakfast has a provenance best not scrutinised by the squeamish. Its origins were admirably practical; a way of briskly packaging the blood of a freshly-slaughtered sheep or cow into something consumable, before it spoiled and went to waste. Combined with oatmeal, fat and herbs and packed into a casing, this familiar format gave it its alternative name, and the one most prefer not to use: ‘blood sausage.’

Mouth-watering... or nausea-inducing? The traditional black pudding has long been a feature of the British cooked breakfast, but opinion on its appeal is fiercely split. 

Photograph by Raymond Tang / Alamy

While firmly associated with the great British fryup, blood sausages of one type or another have been around for thousands of years. According to the English Breakfast Society, one distinguished early mention of the practice was in Homer’s The Odyssey, which contains the phrase: ‘As when a man besides a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood and turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it quickly roasted.’ 

The pudding was subject to controversy in the 16thand 17thcenturies, where opposers to the food suggested it be banned on religious grounds, due to the consumption of blood being against certain Christian and Jewish directives. Still a familiar fixture on breakfast platters, it remains a passionately polarising food.

Casu Marzu

Order/avoid in… Sardinia (and defiance of the law)

If the idea of mould-laced cheese is challenging, Casu Marzu (‘putrid cheese’) is likely to be several steps too far. Those steps would be in Sardinia, where the cheese is considered a traditional food, though experiencing it today is challenging, dangerous – and illegal. 

The idea behind Casu Marzu is perhaps not immediately appealing even to hardened turophiles (cheese lovers). A wheel of pecorino sheep’s cheese is opened and placed in a location where the Piophila casei fly – with the cheerful common name of the 'cheese skipper' – will find it, and lay its eggs in it. The cheese is then stored and the maggots allowed to hatch. As the maggots eat through the cheese, it softens and (brace yourself) develops its distinctive taste and smell thanks to the ‘digestive produce’ of the maggots. To ensure the putridity is suitably fresh, the cheese is traditionally eaten with the maggots still alive. 

Notorious – and illegal – for being as much an infestation as a foodstuff, Sardinia's Casu Marzu's unique ingredient is the larvae of Piophila Casei – and their excretions. 

Photograph by Gengis / Alamy

If this does sound appetising, you are out of luck: Casu Marzu has the distinction of being an illegal cheese for a raft of reasons, not least the much-discussed intestinal hazards associated with consuming live maggots, and the fact that the cheese is effectively an infestation – and therefore hardly a welcome addition to a restaurant menu. For this reason it’s against the law to market or sell Casu Marzu.   

Absinthe

Order/avoid in… Switzerland and France

A liquid delicacy, absinthe gained notoriety in the 19th century. This was due to a cocktail of bad publicity, bad feeling from other alcohol manufacturers and rumours of toxicity due to thujone – a toxic compound found in one of absinthe’s key ingredients, wormwood. Long used as a folk medicine (the name comes from the Greek apsinthion) the drink carried a charismatic mythology that made it popular with bohemian creatives who revered it for its particular type of intoxication. Containing around 60% alcohol, a distinctive emerald green colour and branded with a fairy, it was consumed by Picasso, Oscar Wilde and Vincent Van Gogh, amongst others.

"The Absinthe Drinker" (1901) by Viktor Oliva. Popular with artists and bohemians around the turn of the 20th century, absinthe was rumoured to have hallucinogenic qualities. Its emblem was that of a green fairy, later morphed into a devil or skeleton in anti-absinthe propaganda. The drink was banned in France and Switzerland until the 2000s.

Photograph by Viktor Oliva / Creative Commons

The green fairy became the green devil when rumours of madness and hallucinations – eagerly stoked by temperance campaigners – transformed the drink’s reputation into a catalyst for wickedness. This came to a head in Switzerland in 1905, when a labourer named Jean Lanfray murdered his pregnant wife and two children after an extended binge of absinthe and other intoxicants. Swiftly outlawed, it remained banned in Switzerland until 2005, and France until 2011. Today the drink is undergoing a reputation reassessment, and a artisan revival in Europe– though it is still not for the faint hearted.

(Read: how absinthe is making a comeback in its Alpine heartland after a century-long ban.)

Lamprey

Order/avoid in... Spain, Portugal, Finland 

A distinctive dish found mainly in northern Spain and Portugal, the arresting (some may say alarming) looking lamprey is a deeply ancient inhabitant of the taxonomic cul-de-sac Cyclostomata – whose sole other resident is the slime-producing hagfish. Considered the most primitive of surviving vertebrates, lamprey have a nostril on the top of their head, seven gills and no jaws. Instead, they are equipped with a menacing disc of terraced teeth they use to attach to fishy prey, cut through the scales, and suck their blood. This makes the lamprey a parasite and, following accidental introductions into locations like the American Great Lakes, a sometimes highly adaptable and destructive invasive.  

A sea lamprey, displaying its round mouth of teeth and 'piston' of spiked cartilage. Lampreys likely date from 360 million years ago, and specimens from the fossil record suggest their physiology has barely changed.

Photograph by John Cancalosi / Alamy

While these attributes make it a curious choice for even the most open-minded fish-lover, lamprey was once a refined delicacy in the UK; excessive consumption was long-rumoured to be the cause of King Henry I’s death, which most historians now attribute to food poisoning. 

The modern Iberian dish often involves either sea- or river-caught lamprey, garlic, rice, and a small pinch of irony: this sucker of blood is traditionally marinated in its own.   

Tickle your taste for food adventures? Season 2 of Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted begins on the National Geographic Channel on 16 September  

 

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