They say that one man’s dinner is another man’s vomit-inducing dare. Have you ever wondered why food is such a staple for many reality shows and competitions? There’s just something about watching over people eat something that you think is COMPLETELY inedible, but then you find out that it’s pretty much common fare somewhere else in the world.
Here are our top 10 picks for the most adventurous stomachs and taste buds out there.
Balut (Philippines) – Perhaps one of the most well-known of all the “Fear Factor” dishes, balut is regarded as a “horror show” when it comes to food. When you open the egg (depending on how old it is), you can see a duck embryo that’s somewhere in the process of being formed. If you chance upon a pretty old age, you can see features like the beak and feathers.
And yes, in the Philippines, people gobble it all down, bones, beak, feathers, and all. Don’t forget the sprinkle of salt and spritz of vinegar, please!
Casu Marzu (Italy) – If you’re a fan of soft cheeses and adventurous dining, this is one dish that you may want to include in your bucket list. Casu marzu is a traditional Sardinian dish made from sheep’s milk. Now, that on its own may already make it “exotic” for many Western diners who haven’t gone beyond cow’s milk for their cheese needs. It’s actually the process of fermentation that Casu marzu undergoes that makes this dish pretty special.
During the fermentation process, a special species of fly, the cheese fly (Piophilia casei) lays its eggs into the cheese. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae burrows into the cheese, and the enzymes that they secrete accelerate the fermentation and softening of the cheese. People have described this dish as dangerous for two reasons. One, it tastes so strongly of ammonia that it leaves a “burning” feeling on your tongue. Two, the larvae can actually JUMP out and hit you in the eye.
Hasma (China) – One look into this box, and you probably think that it’s a box of snake skins. Nope, not only is it food that is regularly consumed by people, it’s pretty much a dessert. Yes, this box of dried tissue is considered a common and popular dessert in China, and it is made from (can you guess?) the fallopian tubes of frogs, particularly the Asiatic Grass Frog (Rana chensinensis).
Using hasma for cooking is relatively simple, as it is used more to add texture to a dish, rather to flavor it. It is commonly used to thick sweet soups, and cooked with rock sugar and fruits. Some of the more upscale restaurants also use hasma as an ingredient for shark’s fin soup.
Meongge/Hoya (Korea/ Japan) – If you ever find yourself in Japan or Korea, imagine yourself stumbling upon a street stall selling these little babies. At first glance, they actually look like pine cones, albeit pine cones with something hairy on one end. However, these cannot be anywhere further than pine cones. Not only can they be found in a completely different habitat, they’re actually a type of animal!
Colloquially referred to as “hoya” this dish is actually made from sea pineapples. No, they’re not fruits from the sea. They’re actually sea squirts, which is a type of tunicate. Because they are marine animals, they have a “salty, iodized” taste to them. In Korea, they are often eaten pickled, or as an accompaniment to kimchi. In Japan, they are eaten raw as a form of sushi.
Kiviak (Greenland) – Quick, if we were to ask you to describe what that image is, would you say that it’s the hallowed-out body of a seal stuffed with multiple auks? Well, if you did, congratulations! You deserve a piece of the kiviak, just like the good Inuit people of Greenland enjoy.
Kiviak is considered a celebratory dish, and is often consumed during weddings or birthdays. The process is simple: hollow out a seal carcass, and stuff around 500 auks into it, beaks, feathers, and all. Seal the seal (hehe) with grease, and place a large rock on top to force out the air. Let it ferment for seven months, then break open the seal (again, hehe) and enjoy!
Lutefisk (Norway) – Oh, come on! It’s a piece of fish! What can possibly be wrong with a piece of fish? It looks fine, it still looks like a normal fish, so what could be different about it? Well, maybe you should get a clue from its name. It’s name literally translates to “lye fish”. Yes, the same lye that’s used to clean and disinfect.
Lutefisk is made from cod. The preparation method is somewhat meticulous. First, the fish is soaked in cold water for 5-6 days, with daily changes in the water. Then it is soaked undistrubed in a lye-water solution for two days straight. After this treatment, the fish ends up with a jelly-like consistency, a pH level of 11-12, and the taste and smell of ammonia so strong that even Andrew Zimmern had trouble eating a portion of this exotic dish.
Natto (Japan) – Oh, Japan, Japan, Japan. We knew we could count on you. This particular dish looks like an egg sac from some alien anime, but it’s actually a popular food in Japan. It is normally eaten with a side of rice. The “eggs” are actually made from fermented soybeans, but it’s the stringy, sticky white substance that pushes this food from “interesting” to “exotic”.
The stringy white substance is actually composed of a strain of beneficial bacteria called Bacillus subtilis var. natto. The food is so popular and well-known that the variety of bacterial strain is actually named after the food. Natto is said to be an acquired taste, because of the slimy texture, pungent smell, and very strong flavor.
Shiokara (Japan) – Another entry from Japan, this one might be a little harder to stomach because of its slimy and wet appearance. What’s even more interesting is that there are different types of shiokara out there, depending on the marine animal that are macerated to create the thick, fermented paste. The different types of shiokara can be made from squid, oyster, sea urchin roe, skipjack tuna, or salmon.
The flavor is similar to anchovies, to which Westerners are more familiar with. However, the appearance and texture of the dish can be off-putting to most. Japanese people also have an interesting method of eating shiokara. Instead of using as a topping or spread (like Westerners do with anchovies), the Japanese eat a serving in one bite, then follow it with a shot of liquor.
Surströmming (Sweden) – If you’re looking for the traditional taste of Northern Sweden, you may want to look for this dish. It normally comes in an innocent-looking can, but once you open the can, your senses are in for a surprise assault. Those who are not used to the smell of this dish has ranked it as one of the “most putrid smells in the world”, and indeed, people who eat this dish even in Sweden normally do so outdoors.
Surströmming is normally made from fermented Baltic sea herring. During the canning process, just enough salt is added into the liquid to make sure that the fish does not rot, however, it does not stop the fermentation process. It is allowed to ferment for at least six months, giving it a very strong odor and taste.
Thousand-Year Egg (China) – First off, the name is kind of a misnomer. The egg doesn’t ferment for a thousand years. In some places, this dish is called a century egg, but it doesn’t ferment even for that long. Century eggs are normally made to ferment for around several weeks to several months, depending on the processing method.
The eggs are buried in a mixture of quicklime, ash, salt, clay, rice hulls, and in some cases, tea leaves. During this time, the mixture seeps into the eggs, turning the yolk yellow-green, and the albumen (white) brown and gummy. Some people have likened the taste of the yolk to rotten cheese or ammonia, with the smell of sulphur.