One of the greatest pleasures of traveling to exotic locations is trying out new cuisines. If you don’t travel that much, ordering in Chinese, Thai or Mexican fare from the comfort your home may be a welcome change from the mundane. But they are usually tweaked and adapted to suit local taste. That’s just as well, because many of us would actually shy away from tasting the most exotic fare even if we had the chance. Familiar food is comforting, strange dishes are disconcerting.
However, if you’re an adventurous soul, here are some exotic foods that you should definitely try. We’re not talking about picking the brain of live monkeys or eating fresh, wriggly baby octopus doused in rice wine and vinegar. You can actually get to like these popular food items enjoyed by people in different parts of the world if you’d shed some of your inhibitions…
This tropical fruit from Malaysia has the reputation of being a stinker; it is usually banned from hotel rooms, restaurants, and public transport. Nevertheless, Durian is popular in Southeast Asia where it is regarded as the King of Fruits, and for good reason. The offensive smell notwithstanding, the creamy, custard-like flesh inside is out of this world.
If you travel to Indonesia, Malaysia or Singapore, Durian is worth hunting down; it is not difficult, just follow your nose, it will lead you to stalls dedicated exclusively to this fruit. Don’t be put off by negative opinions or the stink. The old idiom, “proof of the pudding is in the eating,” is literally true in the case of Durian.
It is nothing but grasshopper eaten in Mexico. Eating grasshoppers is not new or exclusive to Mexico; they have been savored by many cultures since ancient times, especially in African and Middle Eastern countries. After all, locusts–which are marauding swarms of grasshoppers that have undergone a kind of transformation–constituted the main diet of St. John the Baptist.
As a matter of fact, edible insects are now considered the future of our world with regards to sustainable living. They are a much cheaper source of protein than meat, and contain appreciable quantities of minerals and unsaturated fat. If only we could get over our inhibitions, or if fried grasshoppers were to be passed off as shrimp, a lot more people would find this crunchy snack quite satisfying.
This is another Mexican delicacy now being popularized as Mexican Corn Truffle. It is a fungus growth found on corn cobs. This grayish blue smut becomes black on cooking, and has a smoky and earthy taste comparable to mushrooms and truffles. Mexicans use it in a variety of dishes like tamales and taco. If they think it’s worth paying a much higher price for the fungus-infected corn than for regular corn, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t give it a try. You might come to love it, especially if you are fond of mushrooms. What’s more, the fungal infection actually enhances the nutritional profile of the corn.
This meat pudding, originally made with the organ meat from sheep stuffed into its stomach, is a signature dish from Scotland. Immortalized in a poem by the 18th century poet Robert Burns, the taste and texture of Haggis is considered the epitome of culinary perfection, although many people are put off by the description of the dish. But when you think about it, it is not much different from sausages, which are but stuffed intestines.
Haggis has undergone some changes over the years, but if you come across authentic stuff, don’t dwell on the details, just enjoy the fare.
The excitement about this dish from Japan comes from the fear factor. The puffer fish that is famous for its delicate flavor and unique texture contain a toxin that can kill you quite fast. Skin, skeleton and internal organs, particularly liver, are the seat of poison, so careful removal of the above makes the fish safe for consumption.
Some people like a tinge of the poison which gives a tingling sensation in the mouth, but that is clearly playing with fire, especially since there’s no antidote for this toxin. If you try Fugu, stay safe by getting it prepared by experienced chefs in reputed restaurants.
If you come across snake wine in Vietnam or another Southeast Asian country don’t be faint-hearted. The wine cannot hurt you any more than the dead snakes preserved in it, even if they are venomous ones like cobras.
Snake wine is made by steeping venomous snakes in rice wine or other types of alcohol. However, their venom is mostly proteins, so they get denatured by the alcohol.
Snake wine is thought to have a restorative and aphrodisiac effect. Whether you believe it or not, taking a sip or two can obviously bolster your self-esteem.
This delicacy comes from Mexico, the land of Tequila, from the roots of the tequila agave, in fact. Escamoles are the larvae and pupae of large black ants of the Liometopum spp., which nest among the roots of the agave plant. The off-white, slightly elongated eggs are reportedly quite delicious, and not at all like the stinging acidity of ants. They must be full of nutrients too, as all larvae are.
Escamoles is called insect caviar, so if you come across it, the least you can do is take a nibble to see if they taste anything like caviar. No one who has actually eaten this item has said anything bad about it.
This Civet coffee from Indonesia is one of the most expensive brews, costing above $600 for a pound. It is quite reasonable when you consider the coffee beans that go into its making have to be eaten by the civet cat first and then collected from its poop.
Civet coffee is said to be highly flavorful, but less bitter because the beans have been partially digested as it passed through the cat’s digestive tract. Captive breeding of the civet cat and commercial production of kopi luwak may have affected the quality of this coffee, but if you are offered a cup, do not refuse. The beans are probably washed well before being processed.
Black Ivory coffee
This special brew is Thailand’s answer to civet coffee. It is even more expensive, costing more than $1,000 a pound because it comes from a limited number of elephants. As in the case of kopi luwak, the coffee berries are eaten by the elephants and excreted in their dung, but they stay for a longer period in the elephant’s digestive tract where they undergo fermentation. The bitterness of coffee is lost in the process, partially at least, giving you a smoother brew.
Even if its refined taste appeals to you, Black Ivory coffee probably cannot become a habit unless you own an elephant, but it can be an occasional indulgence.
Frog’s legs are a French delicacy, but popular in Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine too. Frog’s legs are obtained from edible water frogs. They are usually found in rice fields, especially during the rainy season. Frogs are hunted at night when they give away their location by loud croaks. Although the whole frog minus the entrails is edible, only the thick hind legs are usually used. They are cooked in a variety of ways, just like one would cook chicken wings. They taste much the same too, although more tender and delicate.
If you like chicken, there’s no way you can find fault with frog legs. Nothing but your food prejudices can keep you from enjoying it.
This tangy chutney from India, the land of chutneys, is made from dried red ants and their eggs. This local delicacy of the state of Chhattisgarh is prepared with a number of spices. You would hardly recognize what it is, unless someone alerts you to its ingredients. If you don’t mind the details, you can enjoy this fiery chutney with rice. And why not? Ants are good for you. Don’t you occasionally hear of stranded people surviving solely on ants?
This popular street snack from India has nothing gross about it. Small, crisp, wafer-thin balls made by deep frying rolled out circles of dough are filled with boiled potatoes, peas and seasonings and then dipped in a sweet, sour, and spicy flavored water. When you put the golgappa in the mouth, the crushed balls release a sudden avalanche of tongue-tickling taste and flavor that drowns your taste buds.
Other than the usual risks associated with street foods, Golgappa is safe, clean fun.
They are soft bodied echinoderms found inhabiting the seafloor. The variety commonly known as sandfish is harvested from several coastal areas around the world, but they are mainly exported to China where it is considered an exotic dish with medicinal values. Sea cucumbers are mostly available in the dry form. They have to be rehydrated and then cleaned very well to remove sand and dirt.
Sea cucumber meat is tough and takes quite a bit of cooking. Overharvesting has reduced their numbers in the wild, but commercial farming has made it possible to sample this dish without guilt.
Jellyfish are dangerous marine animals you should stay away from, but some of them are edible when their trailing, stinging tentacles are removed. The Chinese love this delicacy and it is available in most Chinese markets and restaurants outside the country. However, not many people have attempted it.
The sweet and savory taste of Jellyfish jelly is worth a try. It is said to be good for arthritis since the jelly predominantly consists of collagen. The next time you go to a Chinese restaurant, check whether they have any jellyfish dish.
Mopane worm is the caterpillar of a moth found in Western Africa. It gets its name from the Mopane tree that serves as its host. Dried Mopane worms are a not just a delicious snack, but nutritious as well. Some caterpillars offer stiff competition to turkey legs in terms of fat and protein content, and they are good sources of monounsaturated fatty acids.
Since insects are increasingly viewed as excellent alternative food sources, developing a taste for caterpillars can be an asset. Mopane worms could be the right place to start, provided the sight of dried worms does not put you off.
Aptly called longevity rice, it is a powerful antioxidant food that offers many health benefits. The grains get their dark color from their extremely high anthocyanin content, one of the highest among all edibles including blueberries. It is rich in amino acids, iron, zinc, and other minerals and B-complex group of vitamins. That makes black rice superior to brown rice, but their limited availability, from only a few Southeast Asian countries and Northeastern parts of India, stand in the way of their deserved popularity.
You may know Apple snails as aquarium favorites, but these freshwater mollusks are eaten in rice-growing parts of the world, just like escargots (land snails) are eaten elsewhere. If you like escargots or oysters, you might love the meaty apple snails with their flavorful flesh. However, the aquarium specimens are not meant to be eaten. Go for wild caught ones; they do a lot of damage to rice and taro, so you’re doing a favor by consuming them. Their nutritional value and protein conversion rate are quite high too.
Rocky Mountain oysters
This popular dish from the American West does not have any oysters in it. It is made from the testicles of farm animals that are castrated when young. Castration of young males is a common practice in cattle country, and the testicles are put to good use when they are cut up into bite-sized pieces and fried. They are reportedly quite addictive. You’re forewarned.
Add variety to your meat platter with iguana meat. These reptiles are mostly wild caught, but eating more iguanas is one way to control their exploding population in some Central and South American countries. When cooked the right way, iguana meat is said to taste like chicken and the eggs reportedly have a cheesy flavor. It is nutritionally superior to chicken and is thought to have medicinal properties as well. Try it, you might take a liking to it.
Inarguably the largest and heaviest of fruits, it is a native of the Indian subcontinent but has now acquired invasive status in Brazil. The intensely sweet fruit is now available in canned form, but it is not as popular as it deserves to be. Some people have an issue with its strong smell, but the tasty flesh often wins them over.
This Korean fare is silkworm pupae from which silk has already been extracted. It is a sustainable food source, no doubt, but people who have tried it don’t speak very highly of it. However, it is a popular street food in Korea and savored by the Japanese too. You probably have to develop a taste for it. Beondegi is thought to be good for diabetics and Alzheimer’s patients.
If you like eggs pickled in vinegar, you might as well try the Pidan, which is commonly called century eggs. They are preserved in an alkaline mixture of clay and quicklime. They have not been preserved for a century as the name suggests; a few months is a more like it. The white of the egg becomes brownish and flavorful while the yolk gets a grayish green color and strong hydrogen sulfide smell. Pidan is an acquired taste, no doubt, but you never know unless you try.
This purple-colored fruit with tantalizingly tasty, white flesh deserves its title “Queen of Fruits” every bit. Native to the land of Durian, there’s nothing repulsive about this fruit, except that it takes a bit of effort to break open the thick rind and get to the sweet flesh.
Commercial cultivation of this wonderful fruit has started, but they are not widely available as yet. It would suffice to say that you should grab them any chance you get.
There you have it, twenty-three super exotic foods just waiting to be tried. Enjoy!