Eating local street food can be one of the great joys of travel, a way to get a feel for and be part of a country’s culture, from Bangkok’s noodle soups around Lumphini Park to Nova Scotia’s lobster rolls and Rome’s porchetta.
Street food can often mean delicious and inexpensive things that leave a traveller with a firm conviction of having truly been there, tried that. But one person’s delicacy is another’s projectile vomit. Indeed, many other cultures are repulsed by North America’s relentlessly carnivorous, fat intensive diet and would be repulsed by a hotdog.
To the somewhat spoiled, delicate Western sensibilities which rarely get more adventurous than Whole Foods, some of following items will seem baffling if not entirely disgusting. Of course, it may be equally baffling that western society is addicted to forms of unhealthy fast food known to contribute to diabetes, morbid obesity and heart disease.
Deprivation more than necessity was the mother of many of these culinary inventions. Even Italy’s acclaimed cooking is called La Cucina Povera, the Poor Kitchen that used every last inch of the livestock and whatever could be foraged to make the simple dishes an impoverished rural society could count on to survive. Still, for most, the following ten foods make up the Street Food Buffet from hell.
*Trigger warning: Disturbing descriptions and images follow*
10 Durian: Thailand
The durian is a truly bizarre and notorious fruit first intensely disliked for its habit of falling from trees inflicting serious head wounds on unsuspecting victims. Like smoking, pets and littering it is banned from some Asian hotels and public transit systems. But it's particularly famed for its horrific smell - or stench, actually.
It has produced some memorable descriptions, the most famous of which is from American food legend Julia Child who said “it stank to high heaven”; she recalled “"something like a cross between dead babies mixed with strawberries and Camembert."
Another impressive effort had it more like "pig-sh*t, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” And how could we leave out celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain saying “Your breath will taste like you've been French-kissing your dead grandmother” And he’s among its big fans who describe its taste as custard-like, usually served with sweet sticky rice.
9 Tarantulas: Cambodia
It is said that Cambodians started eating these abundant little protein sources during the horrific conditions under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, which is no laughing matter. But their current popularity seems to date only from the 1990’s.
The actual tarantula-eating capital of the world is Skuon, a market town on the highway about 50 miles from the capital Phnom Penh.They are tossed in a mixture of MSG, sugar, and salt and fried in oil with fresh garlic until the legs are crispy, and the abdomen cooks up a bit.
This is important because it’s filled with a “brown paste consisting of organs, possibly eggs, and excrement.” Second helpings anyone? The venom of the Thai Zebra Tarantula (Haplopelma Albostriatum) isn't fatal but it is more potent than most. Yet, they are known as ‘edible’ spiders.
The troubling thing is that there’s no accounting for how or why the venom is neutralized. By the garlic? You have to trust all the satisfied customers. Millions of Cambodians wouldn’t steer you wrong. You can even buy farmed tarantulas online for $15.99 a can. Tarantula Vodka too. From the It Only Gets Worse department, here is one adventurous blogger’s experience: “A friend took the first bite, and rather than being a tubby little spider, the first bite revealed it as a pregnant mother, and the little spider eggs dribbled down her chin.”
8 Escamoles: Mexico
It’s easy to imagine someone discovering that tarantulas can be a tasty treat, especially in case of famine. Not so easy to imagine the discovery of the larvae of large, poisonous black spiders nested two feet underground on the roots of maguey plants. And who though of pan frying them with onion garlic and cilantro?
Escamoles, AKA, Mexican/ Insect Caviar, have been considered a delicacy since the time of the Aztecs. They are said to have a cottage cheese consistency and a pleasant, nutty flavor. Still the thought of ingesting what are essentially black ant fetuses may not whet every appetite.
Is there enough tequila in all of the Estados Unidos Mexicanos to knowingly choke them down? The only thing worse than the thought of eating them is the thought of harvesting them. This involves digging two feet down to the plant roots where the ants build their nests: The little critters get particularly angry about being raided to fill your next taco. Harvesters reportedly strip down (preventing ants in pants) and smear themselves with pork fat to prevent ant bites.
7 Sheep's Head: Morocco
Many different cuisines utilise the sheep head. The Moroccan version makes the list because, as difficult as it is to imagine choking down head meat at any time of day, it's traditionally served as breakfast on special occasions.
It is one of the signature dishes of the legendary Djemaa el Fna, the market in Marrakesh and UNESCO World Heritage site. The instructions on how to eat a sheep’s head begin with “Wait for the vendor to scrape off the fur.” Ooph.
Experts say to start with the eye and ear - because there's nothing like beginning a feast with chewing on a piece of animal cartilage. One then continues front to back.. Scraping out the cheek meat and tongue are especially favored. Whole heads can be had for about $3.50.
6 Vastedda: Italy
The Italian kitchen, La Cucina Povera, may be the most diligent of all the so-called ‘Nose to Tail’ cuisines. Every part of every animal will be found a use. But sometimes, there’s an organ that should be an exception.
The spleen is in the blood business. It filters the blood and keeps an emergency stash of red blood cells. Why it would be considered edible in anything but the danger of starvation is mystifying.
Cow spleen has the texture of pieces of arteries and membranes, a smell of rotting meat and the taste of its mission in life, blood. Yet it can be found on menus in Italian places even on the American side of the Atlantic.
A cow spleen sandwich is served with ricotta and caciocavallo. Back in Palermo vastedda vendors are common and they throw in pieces of lung. A restaurant reviewer in The Atlantic memorably described it tasting “like a fictional creature butchered and left to rot in an ogre's cellar.”
5 Cobra Hearts: Vietnam
It’s hard to believe that there are 4 worse things than rotting ogre meat: Asia dominates the market in what has come to be called “extreme eating. Some Vietnamese believe that eating cobra heart is a virility booster. They're also popular on extreme eaters’ bucket lists.
The fresher they are, the theory goes, the more virile the consumer becomes. That means cutting the heart out of a live cobra at the table, tossing it back with a cobra blood chaser. Cobras are so deadly that a chef in China died tragically when bitten by the head of the cobra he had chopped up twenty minutes earlier.
4 Hakarl (Fermented Shark): Iceland
Hákarl is a type of ice shark that's poisonous when eaten fresh.
It’s not widely known that Iceland is a Superpower in Disgusting Food. Yet, this local speciality takes a poison fish, sticks it in the ground and lets it putrefy. It's then dug up, hung to dry for 5 months then served among friends. Its smell is said to be a mouth-watering combination of stinky cheese, rotten fish and ammonia. It’s traditionally served with sheep’s head. The feast is finished up with pickled ram’s testicles, sometimes made into pate.
Even a little too much Hákarl can cause severe gastrointestinal discomfort and improper curing of the meat can fail to deal with the neurotoxins - in that case, it could lead to an agonizing death. Bon appetite everyone. Is it even necessary to warn cooks not to try this at home?
3 Balut: The Philippines
Balut is so completely repulsive it could have been invented by Dick Cheney as cruel and unusual punishment to torture prisoners into spilling the beans. Balut are duck eggs with a big difference. They don’t have yolks. No, balut have an actual partially-formed fetus, feathers, beak and all boiled alive. Just peel the shell and pop it in your mouth.
In Vietnam, they prefer to let the eggs incubate a few more days, for some added crunch. Really? There is no mention of perceived benefits like enhanced virility, longer life or even good luck. It seems to be fetus eating just for the joy of fetus eating.
2 Kegogi: Korea, China, Vietnam
The fondness for dog meat in southeast Asia may be repulsive to Westerners safe in their own judgmental hypocrisy. True, the description of it tasting like a wet dog smells is enough to make most people reach for the Gravol. But its preparation is what ultimately and unequivocally disgusts, like an animal rights war crime.
Thousands of pets are stolen from homes and strays are rounded up jammed into overcrowded cages and force fed. Discriminating dog meat palates believe that a shot of adrenaline before death gives the meat a little je ne sais quoi, so the dogs are, horrifically, beaten or tortured.
1 Bat Soup: West Africa
Authorities in Guinea had to intervene and ban this popular dish to combat the spread of Ebola. Medical researchers discovered the fruit bat to be one of the main culprits in the transmission of Ebola from animals to humans.
The flying mammals are reservoirs for dozens of nasty viruses. The Center for Disease Control says bats carry other viruses such as rabies, SARS and Marburg. Even without that scientific information, just the thought or eating a bat may boggle the mind. One recipe calls for lots of garlic, hot peppers and coconut milk. It’s disturbing that abject poverty and tradition can lead to needless horrible death for the sake of lunch.