We like food. A lot. It’s one of the most exciting aspects of travel for us. Ever since our first trip to Tokyo back in 2007 when we first arrived in a blurry haze of jet lag. We soon found ourselves sitting in a small, dimly lit dive bar on a quiet backstreet. A lady behind the bar handed us two beer and a small plate of something fried that we hadn’t ordered. It was seafood of some kind and smelled far from fresh. Out of a combination of politeness, curiosity and hunger, we ate it. It didn’t taste good. But then again, it wasn’t bad either.
To this day we have no idea what it was, probably just an over-salted ball of leftover fish. All we know is that it didn’t kill us or even make us ill. This seemingly insignificant moment triggered something in us. Simply saying yes, submitting to our surroundings, it felt right. It stoked a curiosity to further seek out strange and unfamiliar foods.
Over the years this curiosity has taken us a long way from fried mystery fish in an Asakusa dive bar. We’ve eaten all sorts of odd animal bits, from cow stomach soup in Colombia to pickled pig tongue in Canada. But there are a few that stand out above the rest.
These are the five strangest foods we’ve eaten around the world.
Live Baby Squid in Seoul
This is one we’ve probably talked about the most, on this website and others. It’s easily the most disturbing of all but also the most exciting.
Before visiting any destination, we like to have a look at what Bourdain got up to. In South Korea, among other things, it was Sannakji. And while we’re not out to play copycat to everything he does, this was just too crazy to ignore.
Live baby squid? It’s a bit of a stretch from the smelly fish balls of Tokyo. But this is what we love to do; we had to do it.
Sannakji, or live baby squid, can be found in specialty restaurants across the country. Though following in Tony’s footsteps, we went straight to the source: the Noryangjin Fish Market. Now, eating anything alive —or at least slowly dying in this case — at any time of day can be tricky. First thing in the morning, for breakfast, is another story. Combine that with the fact that the soju (Korean rice wine) flowed heavily the night before, looking back, I’m quite impressed with us.
Fried Crickets in Oaxaca
To many travellers, this might not seem like a huge deal. Most backpackers who’ve spent any time in Thailand or Cambodia has likely given a fried grasshopper a nibble or two.
The reason I’m including these on the list isn’t necessarily because of how bizarre they are. It’s because, considering they’re fried bugs, they were actually pretty good.
Chapulines as they’re known in Mexico, are small crickets that are fried or roasted and used as a not-so-uncommon ingredient. The difference between these and your regular old fashioned fried bug is that chapulines are spiced and seasoned. Instead of just being a strange, crunchy bit that has you picking legs out from your teeth; you have a rather tasty, strange, crunchy bit that leaves legs in your teeth.
You can find chapulines all across Oaxaca, in markets or on the street. One of the most common ways to eat them is in a quesadilla. So after picking up a bag of our own, we headed home and made a few.
Raw Horse Heart in Montreal
No, it wasn’t at a Dothraki wedding. Nor was it in some foreign land while participating in some eccentric cultural celebration. This was in Montreal, in our home country of Canada. We were visiting some cook friends and eating at one of their restaurants.
This restaurant in question specialized in all the nasty tasty bits. Offal of all kinds was on the menu, it was a wonderful place. Horse meat isn’t common country-wide, though it is found fairly often in Quebec. And what better way to showcase the true flavour of the animal than to serve its heart as tartare. They even folded in a few bits of foie gras for good measure.
This dish is, by a long shot, the most delicious on the list.
Pork Blood Curry in Chiang Mai
Pig blood as an ingredient isn’t something entirely foreign to us. We’ve encountered it often, both in our travels and cooking careers. Blood sausage is probably the most recognizable version to most. Then there are pork blood-based soups common throughout Southeast Asia. Even at the Montreal restaurant mentioned above, we finished the multi-course meal with a pigs blood panna cotta for dessert.
The Chiang Mai curry stands out for two reasons. First, unlike most preparations, the blood was not dissolved into the dish. It was served in relatively large chunks, essentially acting as the ‘meat’ of the curry. As well, we enjoyed it while visiting a Thai family who were friends with a travel companion of us. We were invited into their home and were taught by the mother how to prepare the dish.
The experience was fantastic and the curry itself, aside from a wildly unfamiliar texture, was delicious.
Rotten Shark & Black Death in Reykjavik
Hakarl. Fermented shark. What was once necessary for survival is now treated as a delicacy in Iceland, so we’re told.
It’s fucking awful is what it is.
Dating back centuries, eating this foul treat was a necessity. The Greenland shark is a species common in the waters here and provided a reliable food source. However, due to high concentrations of urea and other chemicals, the flesh is highly toxic if eaten fresh. In order to render the meat edible, it is buried underground, where it ferments for many weeks.
Of course, we had to try it.
Though it’s found almost anywhere from markets to grocery stores, we tried ours at a restaurant in Reykjavik. After sampling several local delicacies, we move on to the hinged jar, closed with a tight rubber seal. The waiter watches over and pours two shot glasses of brennivín, an Icelandic firewater commonly known as “Black Death.” And is traditionally consumed with hakarl.
When we ask him where it gets its name, he tells us “…it’s because of the black label.”
That’s not the part we’re concerned about.
We open the jar the smell hits us almost immediately. The acrid bouquet of ammonia makes our eyes water. I go first and pop the tiny white nugget into my mouth. There’s almost nothing at first, until I inhale and choke on my own breath. I chew quickly while my sinuses scream. After swallowing, I down the shot of brennivín. On its own, the stuff is vile, though following the shark, it was a smooth, soothing palate cleanser.
If you’re ever considering trying rotten shark, the best I can describe the sensation is chewing on spongefied cat piss.