Call it extreme foodie-ism. After centuries of mastering the ritual of civilized dining, renegade chefs and adventurous eaters have set out to explore and conquer the outer bounds of food culture. Above all, this “new” cuisine is marked by provocative and challenging ingredients, unconventional elements that often test the psychological, rational, legal and physical limits of edibility.
Gael Greene coined the word “foodie” in 1980. The term was used to describe a group of devoted fans of an untrained Parisian housewife who cooked in heels. Today, foodies are a like competitive birders; they obsessively document what and where they eat on food blogs, and post images (food porn) on content-sharing sites like Pinterest, Instagram and Flickr. And like those competitive birders in pursuit of the elusive Asian crested Ibis or Honduran Emerald, the more unique, rarified or outlandish a particular dish, the more the foodie likes it. The foodie revolution is so mainstream that the Los Angeles Times reported “a gourmet cult reaches now from the lavish Park Avenue apartments to the grass-roots split level homes of the Middle West,” and concluded by referring to the current movement as “the great delicacy boom.”
Eating live food has long been considered a delicacy. There’s no shortage of connoisseurs who believe that the meat tastes better if the animal is alive. Medieval chefs continually tried to outshine each other with the types of live animals they baked into dishes. In a 1660 book titled “The Accomplished Chef,” Robert May describes a number of spectacular (and surreal) concoctions served at feasts and banquets including: an exploding pastry ship complete with flags, streamers and guns; bleeding stags filled with claret; and pies containing live frogs and birds. May goes on to describe how the live animals would hop and fly about the room, causing squeamish diners to shriek or tumble over in their chairs.
As modern chefs look to experiment with food and “make it new,” animals and creatures long forgotten or never considered before are emerging as exotic and expensive dishes. Moreover, there’s a growing trend to use food scraps or foods commonly associated with poverty –“the organy, taily, brainy, nosey parts” –and recast them as elite. Whether you view them as exotic delicacies or cringe-worthy “discomfort” foods, here are 7 foods that are eaten alive around the world.
7. Grubs and Insects
Many cultures around the globe eat grubs and insects as a source of protein. According to The Daily Meal, as the world’s population approaches 8 billion people, eating insects is destined to become more common in the western world. Andrew Zimmern, chef, food writer and host of the TV show Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, often travels to far-flung destinations to highlight certain grubs or insects -say, the witchetty grub of Australian aboriginal cuisine –that he believes would be an innovative addition to mainstream global cuisine. Perhaps Zimmern is right. The Copenhagen-based restaurant Noma, which was ranked the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine for three years in a row, serves an ant salad. The ants are chilled so that they move slower and taste like lemongrass, parsley, cilantro, and ginger, with legs.
6. Sea Urchins
Popular eating in Japan, Italy, Spain, Korea and Chile, sea urchins are related to starfish and snails. Sea urchins look like outcroppings of coral covered with spikes and spines, but they can eat, move and reproduce. In fact, it’s the creature’s sex organs (not its roe) that are edible; each sea urchin shell contains five tongues of flesh that’s said to evoke the rich, salty flavor of caviar –a mouth-feel described as briny, pure cholesterol -but with a texture resembling panna cotta.
Sea urchins are harvested seasonally and until recently have been inaccessible to American chefs. In Korea, women known as haenyo (sea women) are trained from childhood to hold their breath and dive in deep, cold water to find sea urchins. Most of the sea urchins in the U.S., however, come from Chile, California, or Maine. Known as uni in Japan, sea urchins are a staple in high-end sushi bars. Italians prefer to sauté sea urchins with tomatoes, garlic, and parsley and serve them over a bed of fresh pasta.
While being served live octopus may be considered some type of culinary “Heart of Darkness” to some people, Sannakyi is a Korean delicacy. The octopus is chopped up –the tentacles are the meal -and served with sesame seeds and sesame oil. However, the tentacles are still alive and squirming, and patrons order the dish because they enjoy feeling the suction cups on their tongues and throats as they chew. Sannakyi is described as bland and flavorless, and the best part of the Korean dish is the adrenaline rush one gets from eating a food that is actually fighting back. Sannakyi novices are reminded to chew thoroughly before swallowing as the wriggling tentacles are a choking hazard.
4. Casu Marzu
Derived from Pecorino, casu marzu is an Italian gourmet sheep cheese that is fermented to the stage of decomposition. Casu marzu is made when a fly lays its eggs on the cheese, the eggs hatch, and the larvae burrow into the cheese. The process gives the cheese a squishy-soft texture. The bugs eat the fats in the cheese and excrete the remains, which gives casu marzu a tart, acidic flavor.
Casu marzu is considered unsafe to eat when the maggots in the cheese have died. At the same time, those who don’t want to eat live maggots seal the cheese in a paper bag; starved for oxygen, the live maggots jump out of the cheese. Casu marzu is served with flatbread and strong red wine, and because the larvae in the cheese can launch themselves for distances up to 6 inches when disturbed, patrons hold their hands above the sandwich to prevent the maggots from leaping. Sardinians consider casu marzu an aphrodisiac.
In Japan, Ikizukuri (otherwise known as “breathing fish”) are fish prepared for sashimi while still alive. Typically, these fish are filleted without being killed and served with the heart still beating. The live fish head, which is often gasping for air, is carefully arranged on the plate for decoration. China has a similar delicacy called “Yin Yang Fish.” The chef prepares the dish by rapidly deep-frying the fish’s body, while leaving the head fresh and untouched. In other words, as patrons cut into the fish’s deep-fried, golden brown body, the live head is still moving on the plate. Watching.
2. Frog Sashimi
In 500 years of Imperial rule, Romans sold and traded the meat of panthers, hippos, lions, and giraffes. A classic Roman feast included dishes of birds’ brains, coxcombs, and peacock heads. There are even rumors of emperors serving guests moray eels that had been fattened with human flesh. Frog Sashimi, a popular delicacy in China, Japan, and Vietnam, pales in comparison to ancient Rome’s display of slaughter and decadence, but it raises questions about what’s considered torture and animal cruelty.
A plate of frog sashimi consists of live frogs filleted with their heart still beating. When a patron orders the dish, the frogs are alive; they are then freshly sliced and disemboweled, and certain parts of the frog are removed and used for a broth while the rest is sliced as sashimi and served on the frog. Special bullfrogs are raised particularly for Frog Sashimi. Needless to say, the dish is banned in numerous countries around the world.
1. Fruit Bat Soup
Guam is a small island located in the western Pacific Ocean. Locals serve a traditional meat soup made with the Mariana flying fox, a fruit bat common to the island. The bat is first captured in the wild, and with wings, fur, and head intact, it’s placed alive in a boiling pot of water. Basic vegetables are added, and the soup is finished with a dash of coconut milk. Everything but the bones and the teeth of the bat are eaten in the traditional feast.
While the Mariana flying fox is technically dead, the bacteria, parasites, and cycad neurotoxins in the bat are not. Throughout the last century the Chamorro people of Guam have been plagued with a mysterious neurological illness. In 2003, the journal Conservation Biology reported that the prevalence of the disease –which was found to be 100 times more common in Guam than in the United States –is directly linked to the rate of consumption of the Mariana flying fox.