Trying new foods is an important part of learning about the countries we travel to, but some foreign delicacies probably aren’t going to make your list of favorite discoveries. Dishes that are considered iconic in one country may sound weird or even downright disgusting to visitors from abroad.
Here are 13 of the world’s strangest national foods. Are you brave enough to give them a try?
Shirako is the sperm-filled reproductive glands of male fish and it is considered a delicacy in Japan. It is only available during the winter months, which coincide with cod mating season. Commonly described as “smooth and creamy,” shirako literally translates as “white children,” which only increases the initial ick factor. Cod sperm or “milt” is considered an aphrodisiac for women and a way to boost virility in men.
When Shirako is cooked, it can have a creamy and custardy texture, but when it is served raw, it looks and tastes like a gooey and rubbery blob. Japanese diners will eat shirako in any form though and will never complain about the taste. Newbies may want to try it tempura-style, which gives you a crispy fried outer batter with a filling having the consistency of cream cheese.
The preparation of lutefisk originated in Norway, Sweden, and Finland as a way of preserving fish over the winter. Because so many Minnesotans claim Scandinavian heritage, lutefisk is popular during Christmas season and as a tradition at church dinners and festivals. Madison even calls itself “The Lutefisk Capital of the World.”
Making lutefisk is a time-consuming, smelly process. Air dried or salted whitefish is first soaked in fresh water for 5 or 6 days, then placed in lye (yes, that caustic substance that is used in soap-making) to marinate for a couple days. The lutefisk is deemed ready when it has a jelly-like consistency. The fish is soaked again in fresh water and coated in salt before steaming or baking.
Lutefisk smells like something that no one would ever dream of eating. However, people do eat it; in 2008 over 3,000 tons of lutefisk was sold in Norway.
Be forwarned: you must immediately rinse your dishes to remove any residue or you may not be able to get the jellied mess off. And the lye retained in the fish will permanently ruin any sterling silver it comes in contact with. We don’t want to even think about what it must do to your stomach lining!
3 Trứng Vịt Lộn
Boiled or steamed fertilized bird eggs, known generally as balut, are common street foods throughout Asia, including the Philippines, Cambodia, and Thailand. Each culture has its own name and preferences for this delicacy.
People who live in Vietnam believe that Trứng Vịt Lộn is an aphrodisiac. This fertilized duck egg has an almost fully developed embryo inside and this dish is made by boiling the egg and then eating the inside directly from the shell. Prior to removing the shell in pieces to eat the inside, people must sip the broth that surrounds the embryo. The entire embryo is consumed, including the soft bones.
Eggs are incubated by burying them in sand or leaving them in the sun for warmth. Where a person lives in Vietnam will determine how old the eggs are when they are eaten. The length of maturation ranges from 14 to 21 days. People who live in Northern Vietnam prefer that the eggs are mature, so that the embryo has a beak and claws.
4 Black Pudding
In England, people devour black pudding, which is not really pudding. Instead, it is blood combined with fillers that consist of meat, fat, oatmeal, or bread and turned into a sausage. This sausage is routinely served with baked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, and eggs. It’s also part of the traditional Irish breakfast fry up.
Although the main ingredient – pig’s blood – may make some people squeamish, variations of this kind of sausage are found throughout Europe. And, somehow, starting in 2016, it began being touted as a “superfood.” Can it really be any worse than kale?
5 Kopi Luwak Beans
Okay, Kopi Luwak Beans are not really a food, but a bean that is ground up to make coffee in Asia. This doesn’t sound too bad, until a person realizes that these beans are picked from animal feces.
The Asian Palm Civet loves to feed on coffee cherries. Passing through their digestive system allows their digestive enzymes to strip away some of the acid, producing a coffee is not as bitter as traditional coffee.
And you’ll pay dearly for poop picking. In the US, a single cup of civet coffee can cost $80. The real question is, who first decided to try picking beans from civet poop to make a cup of java?
6 Fried Tarantulas
Fried tarantulas are a popular street food in Cambodia with many vendors selling upwards of 100 each day. They are inexpensive and very easy to prepare. Rolled in sugar, salt or garlic, they offer a crunchy treat at only about 10 cents each.
Tarantulas became a staple for Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge, when hardship and starvation were widespread. Tarantulas proved a ready source of protein, zinc, and folic acid. They are so incredibly easy to catch that young children hunt them. Their bite, while poisonous, is not deadly.
The most commonly sold tarantulas are about the size of human’s palm. They are crunchy on the outside with soft meat inside. Apparently there is argument whether the contents of the abdomen (which may include organs, eggs, and poop) should be considered a delicacy or tossed out as revolting offal. Ewww.
7 Rocky Mountain Oysters
Rocky Mountain Oysters may sound harmless enough but don’t be fooled; these oysters have never seen the ocean. The dish consists of buffalo and bull calf testicles, which are boiled, rolled in flour, and fried.
Called prairy oysters in western Canada, this specialty dish was created by ranchers and has made its way onto bar menus as a novelty appetizer. They’re often served sliced and fried with a topper of hot sauce. They’re also an iconic offering at Coors Field, home of the MLB Colorado Rockies baseball team.
Bull balls just cry out for their own celebration, and there are quite a few out west to choose from. Try the TestyFest in Clinton, Montana for one of the biggest testicle festivals. They serve up over 50,000 pounds of Rocky Mountain oysters to over 15,000 attendees.
In Korea, people enjoy eating octopus and Sannakji gives everyone the opportunity to eat an octopus while it is still moving. The octopus is cut into smaller pieces and served while the tentacles are still moving. So it’s not technically alive, but it sure looks like it is.
Korean natives sometimes eat the entire octopus raw, but we’re not adivising this to newbies. People do need to be careful while eating this dish; about six people die from choking on the legs each year. Those suckers aren’t just for show! How to avoid this? Chew and chew and chew some more.
Escamoles are harvested from the agave plant but they aren’t a vegetarian offering. They are actually the ant larvae and pupae that are found among from the plant’s roots. This plant is used in making tequila and you might want to try a shot or two before trying these.
Escamoles are a popular pre-Hispanic dish served in Mexico. Originally valued as a protein source by the indigenous peoples, they are known as “insect caviar” and are featured nowadays in high end restaurants. They often added to omelets and tacos for their crunchy bite and nutty flavor.
In Korea, people take silkworm pupae and cook them in a liquid (usually soy sauce and sugar) to a soft but still recognizable state, before eating them as a snack. The pungent (that’s the kindest description we can offer) smell of the cooking bugs often fills the street markets, where huge pots of this common snack are cooked and served.
Originally intended as a cheap source of protein, Beondegi has become a nostalgic tradition. Koreans can gulp them by the handful or nibble them over after-work drinks, but visitors generally don’t find them appealing. If you do develop a taste for them or just want an interesting souvenir, you can buy cans of the bugs in the grocery store.
This one has to be a contender for most disgusting “food” on earth. Fermented, putrified, and dried, this Icelandic preparation of shark has been around since the days of the Vikings. The Greenland shark is bountiful but its meat is poisonous when fresh because of the high levels of urea, which is rich in ammonia. So some hungry Viking got the idea to let it rot and THEN eat it.
First, a gigantic shark is beheaded, buried and left to ferment in its own fluids for months at a time. Rocks are laid on top to press the seeping fluids out of the carcass. Modern preparations may substitute enclosing the shark in a giant closed tub.
The shark is then removed, cut into strips, and hung up to dry completely. Once the shark is completely dry, people can enjoy this Icelandic delicacy, if they can get past the smell and the gag reflex. It is suspected that few Icelanders actually like hákarl but they do enjoy torturing tourists with it.
Tepa is also called stinkheads, which should give you a clude where we’re going. This fish is eaten mostly by the Yupik people of Alaska. Reliant on hunting and fishing, these native peoples don’t want to waste any part of their catch. The heads of whitefish and king salmon are chopped off and buried in loamy soil.
The length of time the fish heads are left to ferment is a matter of personal taste. Buried under about a foot of earth, the fish will be ready in about two weeks. The state of the fish can be checked by digging a hole to inspect the feel and smell of the fish to see if it’s ready.
Interestingly, use of modern containers like plastic has resulted in an increase in botulism outbreaks from tepa. The traditional methods are much safer as generations have determined the ideal methods, timing, and temperature to preserve their food.
13 Wasp Crackers
The Japanese take their wasps very seriously and that includes baking them right into biscuits. These biscuits are supposed to be similar to chocolate chips, but with different results. Maybe closer to raisins, with their chewiness.
These are made by a specialty bakery in Omachi, Japan. It seems that digger wasps are a popular food stuff here, full of protein and waspiness. It’s kind of a local industry, with “elderly wasp hunters” trapping the bugs to be incorporated in the crackers. Don’t know if it’s a dying art or if they’ll be passing on their knowledge as these have become a hot item.
All of these strange foods are considered delicacies in their native country although many visitors may be hesitant to try them. While some may be an acquired taste, you may find others that are downright delicious despite their gross factor. At the worst, you will have a great travel story to tell when you get home.