Eating water caterpillars in Xishuangbanna led us to reminisce on some of the weirder foods we’ve eaten over the last six years of travelling. I’ve tried a few unpleasant dishes and found some amazing new delicacies. I’ll start with some of the worst, and move towards some surprisingly tasty foods.
What’s on the menu?
Ants, Bone marrow, Camel, Century Eggs, Chicken Feet, Crocodile, Dog Tendons, Donkey, Elk, Frogs & Toads, Goat Head, Goat Testicles, Grasshoppers, Guinea Pig, Haggis, Llama/Alpaca, Pig Brain, Pigs ears, Pig Intestines, Pig Lungs, Pig Trachea, Pig Trotters, Piranha, Rat, Scorpions, Sea Urchins, Seal Flipper, Sheep’s Eye, Silk Worms, Snake heart+bile, Sparrows, Squid, Stag Beetles, Starfish & Seahorse, Swan, Tarantula, Warthog, Water Centipede, Whale & Puffin
En route to Siem Riep we stopped at a roadside café. Other than the usual pineapples and cakes there was a lady selling a bucket of honeyed grasshoppers. Having tried these already, we looked at the other bucket, which seemed to be filled with a jumble of liquorice shapes.
On closer inspection, the jumble was a huge mass of fried spiders. The frying process makes the tarantula understandably angry and it shoots out all its hair in protest, which saves plucking them…
Being arachnophobic this was a chance to get my own back, so I bought a particularly plump one. 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.
After hiking for a week in the Golden Triangle, somewhere on the border between Cambodia and Thailand, we reached our destination: a small village consisting of wooden huts and few chickens pecking at scraps. Whilst walking and fording rivers for eight hours a day we’d had nothing to eat but old rice and an increasingly funky smelling chicken curry, heavily spiced to mask the taste of rotting poultry.
Our first meal in the village was highly anticipated: homemade Thai green curry. The villagers killed a pig, minced all the good meat and mixed it into a curry. It smelt delicious, and we watched with increasingly watering mouths as they sat down to eat first and enjoyed all the fresh pork meat. We then had to wait again whilst they created our special guest curry. When it finally arrived, mine had no meat, just a trachea floating in a watery broth. The guy next to me had half of the pig’s nose. We tried, but there is no end to chewing a trachea – it’s like a rubbery length of hosepipe, but less flavourful I’d imagine.
If you’re going to eat grasshoppers, it’s helpful to know beforehand that you’re supposed to remove the hind legs; otherwise they can become stuck in the throat like a fishbone. Just saying…
See grasshopper legs: The same goes for stag beetle claws…
Stag beetles are rather like sore throat lozenges – a hard crust with a soft liquid centre. Once you bite through the hard outer shell there’s a little squirt of liquid that shoots out the back and dribbles down your throat.
Despite being covered in claws and stingers and legs and whatever else, these are eaten whole. Like the other insects, these don’t really have much flavour, but just provide a necessary source of protein to desert nomads and tourists on a dare.
My first time travelling across China I couldn’t speak or read Chinese, so ordering from text-only menus in rural areas was always an adventure. We agreed on a system where we’d order one dish we knew (usually egg and tomato, or Kung Pao chicken), one vegetable and one complete unknown, ordered by pointing randomly at the menu. Sometimes this worked wonderfully, such as discovering twice-cooked pork, and sometimes we still didn’t know what we’d ordered after tasting the mystery dish.
Now I’ve tried more dishes I realise that the soft dark red blocks were cubes of congealed duck blood, the translucent white meat on tiny bones was fried bullfrogs and the weirdly fishy crunchy jelly was indeed jellyfish.
On one such occasion, we got our usual chilli chicken, a plate of fried rice and a bowl of flat noodles coated in an almost Cajun-style spice mix. The chicken and rice were standard enough but the flat noodles were remarkably chewy. The spice mix was delicious, but it was a real struggle to chew the noodles enough to swallow. We persevered, but by the time we were full there was still half a bowl left. We divided them up and just licked off the mix. Arriving back at our campsite we queried our guide who gleefully informed us we’d chewed through the tendons of about 20 dogs.
I have friends who swear that properly prepared pigs intestines are one of the best foods in all of China. There are even restaurants dedicated to nothing but pig’s intestines. Both times I’ve had them they’ve smelt of poo and tasted of something very unpleasant.
I recently tried Goose intestines for the first time, and they were much less fatty than a pigs innards, and apparently better cleaned, leaving the diner with a very delicate meat.
A lot of chewing, sucking and nibbling for not much meat. I’ve only had them served in a strong sauce, so I’ve no idea what they taste like.
It’s illegal to eat swan in the UK so once I saw it on the menu I had to try it. It’s a horrible meat – it’s grey, very irony and tastes borderline rotten.
The swan above was preceded by an appetiser of deep fried sparrows. These came arranged in a bowl to mimic baby birds waiting to be fed by their parents.
It was hard and crispy, almost like honeycomb. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that.
Arriving to stay at a friend’s farm in Austria my first chore was to kill a pig. Lots of squealing and chopping later the pig was strung up in a wood smoker. This task completed we were left with the head. The face was removed and put in the fridge, the cheeks put aside for dinner and we were left with the dripping red skull. This was cracked open like a coconut and the raw brain served folded into scrambled eggs.
Unsurprisingly I didn’t have much appetite at this point, but out of politeness I tucked in with so much fake enthusiasm, they gave me a second portion.
In the Mekong Delta, water rats are quite a common food. They’re easy to catch and skin and are then barbequed. For once, they’re not marinated or covered in sauce, so you can actually taste the meat. They’re best eaten hot enough that you can’t quite decide if they taste more like chicken or pork.
Whilst boating round the Mekong Delta we stopped at a popped rice factory. This made sticky sweets out of the crispy rice, and was a pleasant change from the rat we’d eaten the evening before.
To wash it down we were given shots of rice wine, with a dash of snake’s blood. To harvest the blood the factory guide killed a snake in quite an unpleasant fashion and handed me the still beating heart to plop into my drink. Cheers!
My first international work trip was to Tokyo. After getting off the 16 hour flight I was dehydrated and desperate to sleep before an early work day, but my eager host insisted on us going to a restaurant on the way to my hotel. Half-asleep, I started on the Pocari Sweat and Red Bull, whilst she ordered from the menu.
The first dish that arrived was a square grey plate of equally grey wriggling squid. She deftly wrapped it up and popped it in her mouth, leaving me to wonder how to wrangle the tentacles with the chopsticks, and whether I was supposed to chew.
To be honest I wasn’t happy with eating live animals in Japan, as it was unnecessarily cruel. At the fish market, they sliced a sample of sashimi from a live tuna, and another time they cooked lobster by pressing it on a Teppanyaki grill plate whilst still alive, causing steam to escape from the reddening shell like the shrill sound of a plaintive scream.
We attended a game of polo, played using a goat carcass with the head and hooves removed. After spending all afternoon watching the game, the evening meal was the aforementioned goat, by now very well tenderised.
As guests of honour, we got the head, which had been stewing away for hours. If you’ve never eaten a head before it’s very tricky to know where to start, or even if you should be eating the whole thing.
I think that if I didn’t know what I was eating I’d easily mistake testicles for a well-marbled fillet of meat. This never works though, as every time there are testicles on a plate there are quite a few people around gleefully informing you that you’re eating testicles and screaming “Ew!”
Honestly, they’re not that bad – it’s just meat. Unlike:
This is the worst thing I’ve eaten. For a start it has to be eaten whole, and is quite large to fit in the mouth. It’s slightly squishy so you can compress it and force it past the teeth. Once in, it expands again and isn’t going to come out whole. The only solution is to bite into the soft sack and release all the slimy ‘eye juice’ (probably not the technical term).
Whilst this seeps down the throat, you’re left with the hard lens in your mouth. This was an awkward moment, as it’s too large to swallow whole, but about as chewable as a pigs trachea.
Unsure whether it would be offensive to my hosts to spit it out I left it in my cheek, swallowed and gave a big grin. They cheered and got back to the cooking, whilst I buried it in the sand.
From here on are foods which initially sounded a little odd, but turned out to be particularly tasty
Let’s get the clichéd one out of the way first. It tastes like chicken.
Despite this, it has the flaky texture of fish. It’s not a great meat by itself, and very easy to overcook, but with a little spicy Cajun rub or a sweet and fruity Gambian sauce, it’s quite edible.
Deep-fried and coated in honey these puff up like corn snacks (Wotsits, for those in the UK. Cheetos in the US) and taste like a breakfast cereal.
This is apt as we ate them with after a night of heavy rice wine drinking. Our host then gave us half a lemon covered in fish sauce, which she claimed was a traditional hangover cure…then gathered the family up to laugh as we ate it.
In France, frog legs were served braised and draped over the side of a dish of sauce. In China, they’re chopped up – bones and all – and used like any other meat in a sauced dish. The thighs are satisfyingly meaty, but there really isn’t much to eat on a toad’s rib cage. The meat is translucent, and somewhat tasteless.
These large spiky balls are a pain to break into, and once inside the content is minimal. There’s a small lump of what looks like brown mustard to scoop out, which in Japan is then eaten raw. In Morocco they briefly BBQ the sea urchins first, which I thought deadened the fresh flavour.
I once attended a Japanese buffet, with waiters bringing unlimited Sea Urchin sashimi. The volume of sea urchins stacked up beside some tables was somewhat worrying.
Visiting St Johns restaurant in London we were served three slices of roasted bone and given a long thin spoon that we used to tease out the unctuous jelly-like marrow. It’s best eaten as is, or served simply on a thin slice of toast with a sprinkling of sea salt. Ours was plated alongside a parsley salad, but the rich meaty flavour was too good to want to obscure it with strong herbs.
Eating bone marrow is relatively common around the world. In Vietnam, bone marrow is boiled down to create the stock for traditional Pho.
A warthog may look a little odd whilst alive, but once on a plate it’s barely distinguishable from a well-raised pig. I had it served as part of a 1.2kg, five-animal taster-dish, along with skewers of Gemsbok, Impala, Eland and Kudu – 4 very tender and flavoursome varieties of antelope.
These arrived as part of a set menu in a Sichuan restaurant, so it just tasted of hot spices. The texture is a lot like tripe, or chewy tofu.
A guinea pig tastes of fatty pork. We had ours roasted over an open flame and served whole, simply splayed out on a plate with just a lettuce leaf for decoration. My hosts told me that the two sharp front teeth made excellent toothpicks, but having spoken to others I’m still convinced he was pulling my leg.
Before the meal, we visited a guinea pig farm in the hills overlooking Cusco. Here we had the pleasure of playing with a large pile of the furry little rodents, before guiltily having to pick one out for the night’s dinner.
Served deep-fried these ugly little creatures could be mistaken for skinny shrimp.
Also served in Peru, Alpaca and Llama are surprisingly good meats – both look like lamb, but taste a little beefy, and have very little fat.
Tasted terrible and gave me the worst stomach problems I’ve had in years of travelling. Unfortunately, it was the first night of a group tour, and I’d been assigned a new roommate whose first meeting with me was through a bathroom door whilst the world loudly fell out of my bottom.
After a hard day of off-roading round the geysers, waterfalls and glaciers of Iceland we retired to the best seafood restaurant in Reykjavik. The menu listed the regular items, trawled from the sea just a few meters away, but what really caught my eye was the specials board: “Whale, with a topping of grated Puffin“.
When it arrived, I was presented with a large rusty coloured lump of meat, with a very strong livery taste. The grated puffin looked a lot like Baco-Bits and didn’t add much more than a slightly salty flavour. It’s not too unpleasant if you’re a fan of liver.
This was the starter for the whale meal above – it looked suspiciously like a black rubber glove on a plate. I guess the closest taste would be calamari, but with the texture of an old limp mushroom.
Deep-fried and sprinkled on salad. Crunchy with a slightly smoky flavour. Not as good as Baco-Bits, but better than Puffin.
Whilst snake hunting in Los Llanos we stopped for a while by a river. Using just a piece of thread and a piece of raw fish, we easily caught a number of piranhas and roasted them for the evening’s meal. I really don’t like fish much as it’s too tasteless, but piranha is quite meaty so much more enjoyable.
A delicacy all over the world, but certainly not a favourite of mine. It’s much like eating a very fatty chicken drumstick – the meat is good, but you have to dig through mounds of greasy fat to get to it. This is particularly tricky with chopsticks…
Those sows’ ears that aren’t turned into silk purses are a much-loved food in China. It’s a strip of cartilage, with a lump of brown jelly on each side that tastes very much like a well-made pork stock.
Beautifully tender red meat, like well marinated beef.
These preserved eggs are common in many Chinese dishes, often chopped and stirred in with vegetables or tofu. Traditionally made by simply burying eggs in clay they’re now produced by chemicals which makes them much quicker to manufacture, but with the added bonus of zinc poisoning.
Tricky wee buggers to catch, but very tasty stuffed in a sheep stomach, along with the lungs, heart, liver, oats and a mixture of herbs and spices.
In China there are restaurants dedicated to donkey meat. It’s lean, moist and flavourful. Personal preference is served in sandwiches, chopped up with a little pepper and onion. Donkey is also available in stews, used similar to beef. I’ve also seen places that specialise in donkey tails, but have always found something nearby that sounds more enjoyable to eat.
Video: Do Chinese People Eat Everything?
Contains a little swearing
Has anyone tried balut (a boiled, fertilised egg), casu marzu (a rotten cheese filled with maggots), Or live monkey brains (exactly that…)? Let me know in the comments below!