It’s a big ol’ world out there. Seven continents, nearly 200 countries and some seven billion people and counting. That’s a lot of hungry stomachs, a lot of mouths to feed and very, very many different palates seeking new and exotic flavors. But sometimes man’s search for new delicacies – or just basic survival – have led us to eat, drink and otherwise consume foods that would seem unbelievably disgusting to most modern Westerners.
From snakes to bugs to exotic aquatic life, it’s fair to say that if something can be eaten, somebody somewhere has done so, or at least tried to. Sure, it’s a big hard world, and all of us – if hungry enough – would eat any creature, regardless of how unappealing it is to the eye or tongue. But in many corners of the world, people eat by choice creatures and things that most of us would give a second thought to no matter how hungry we are.
10. Casu Marzu
This Sardinian cheese has another name: rotten cheese. The cheese, which is mostly limited to Sardinia, contains the larvae of live insects. It is prepared by simply leaving the cheese outside, with part of the rind removed, to allow the eggs of flies to be laid into it. Hundreds of eggs are typically laid in the cheese. The eggs then hatch and the larvae begin to eat through the cheese. The acid in the maggots’ digestive system breaks down the cheese, making it very soft. By the time it’s ready for consumption the cheese will likely contain thousands of maggots. Some kill the maggots before eating it – either with refrigeration or by sealing a portion of the cheese in a paper bag. But true casu marzu aficionados prefer it with the maggots still alive.
While not as immediately repulsive as many of the choices on this list, it is a bit mind-boggling that someone somewhere once decided that this spike gray ball would make a good meal. Commonly eaten in southeast Asia, durian is considered the “king of fruits.” The food is added to a variety of products in southeast Asia, including ice cream, milkshakes, monocles and cappuccino. However, it also has an incredibly overpowering odor that is said to smell like rotten onions, turpentine and raw sewage. Worse yet, the odor can linger for days, which has led to it being banned from many hotels and public transportations throughout the region.
Ballet is a duck meat dish but not one that you’re thinking. This duck dish – served commonly in the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand – is essentially a fertilized duck egg. That means, yes, they contain a grown duck embryo. They are usually eaten when the developing duck is 17 days old – at which point the chick inside is not enough to yet have a beak, feathers, claws or developed bones. But in Vietnam, the balut are often left to grow up to 19 to 21 days. Then the chick is old enough to look like a baby duck and its bones are firm, but become tender when cooked. They are often prepared with salt, garlic and vinegar.
Strange, exotic and otherwise unappealing food is by no means limited to the Far East or gone entirely from Western cultures. Take Haggis, a popular dish in Scotland. It is a pudding made from sheep’s organs – namely, heart, liver and lungs. It is minced and mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, salt and stock, and is traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach. The food’s exact origins are unknown; sections of Homer’s Odyssey may allude to Haggis (which, of course, would mean that its origins are in ancient Greece rather than Scotland). It’s believed that the food was invented as a way to make use of quick-spoiling animal organs out of necessity. In any case, the dish remained popular after the advent of ice boxes and refrigerators.
6. Tuna Eyeball
Surprisingly, this is a common dish throughout Japan. It can be found in nearly any store, surrounded by fish fat and severed muscle. The giant eyeballs are boiled or stewed until parts of the giant dark eyeball become jellied. Supposedly, it tastes like squid, soft but rubbery on the outside. The fat and muscles it comes still attached to are also quite tasty. All one adds is salt and spices of their choosing. Perhaps it isn’t bad, but I think most of us in this part of the world would rather stick with the canned stuff.
5. Bear Paw
No, this isn’t that lumpy, brown raisin filled donut that you’ve passed on at cafés and supermarkets. This is the real deal. The food is common in the Far East, and in Cambodia, Bear Paw Soup is considered a delicacy. Sadly, the bears that these paws are harvested from are kept in grossly inhumane conditions, often kept locked in cages throughout their entire lives and handled by people with little to no knowledge of humane animal treatment. The bears are also prized for their bile, which is still used by some traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. The practice of bear farming has been banned in some Eastern nations, and heavily regulated in others, but many advocates say bears are still being widely mistreated at numerous such farms throughout the area.
4. Century Eggs
Call it our Western bias, but some folks out in the Far East eat some very, very strange things. Take Century Eggs, otherwise known as pidan or preserved eggs. This dish starts out as ordinary chicken, duck or quail eggs. But then it is preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime and rice hulls for several weeks to several months! What you’re left with is an egg “white” that’s a reddish brown, translucent jelly with a salty flavor, and a creamy, dark green yolk. The smell is similar to ammonia or hydrogen sulfide – in case the look alone was bad enough. The eggs can be eaten on their own as an appetizer or cut up and added to a variety of soups and dishes.
3. Wasp Crackers
Again, it probably comes as a surprise to think that somewhere, at some point, somebody saw a hive of hissing, angry wasps and thought that they would like to eat that. But in Japan, that is just what they do. The wasps are caught, boiled, dried out and then added to the cracker mix. Of course, eating bugs is not an entirely new phenomenon. In Japan, wasps and other insects are commonly eaten for their nutritional benefits, including high concentrations of protein, and perhaps also for their taste.
2. Live Cobra Heart
As if eating a raw cobra heart wasn’t exotic enough. This one again goes to the Far East – as are many on this list – specifically Vietnam. In northern Vietnam, many believed that eating the heart of a snake would give one the powers and strength of the large, venomous snake. Today it is more commonly eaten by tourists. The snake is first brought out – still alive and hissing – and its head is chopped off and the venom drained from it. Luckily, the venom is only dangerous when taken intravenously, so nothing safety-wise to worry about. The snake is then cut open and the heart carved out. One can supposedly still feel it beating in the back of the throat.
1. Fried Tarantula
Yep, that’s right. In America, the mere sight of a Daddy Longlegs will send many women (and some men) into absolute hysterics. But in Cambodia, tarantulas – those huge, hairy lumbering spiders of your nightmares – are considered a delicacy. They’re commonly served pan-fried with garlic and salt, and often sold from street vendors. The consistency is described as crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside; the taste is considered bland – like chicken. Most only eat the head and legs, while some brave souls finish off the abdomen – which contains a brown paste consisting of organs and excrement – as well. Certainly this puts new meaning to the phrase “I’ll eat anything fried.”