Sampling exotic new foods is one of the joys of travel. But beware: you could be risking your health, or nausea at the mere thought of what you've eaten. These dodgy taste adventures from around the world may give you pause...
Casu marzu is a creamy, strongly flavoured sheep-milk cheese from Sardinia...mmm, sounds delicious. Until you learn its other name, formaggio marcio, "rotten cheese", and that the secret to its piquancy is that flies have laid eggs inside it.
By the time casu marzu is “ready”, it contains thousands of live, translucent cheese-fly maggots, which digest fats in the cheese, making it lusciously soft and causing it to exude a liquid called lagrima (“tears”).
Many feel the cheese is best eaten with the larvae still wriggling – but watch your eyes: they also leap, up to 15 cm high!
While the maggots usually pass harmlessly through the digestive system, sometimes live larvae will survive and burrow into the intestinal walls, causing ulcers, nausea and bleeding.
This traditional Norwegian and Swedish delicacy consists of dried whitefish, steeped for several days in a lye solution. The jelly-textured food is mild-tasting but extremely smelly.
Seems reasonable, if a bit dull – until you realise that lye is caustic soda i.e. the stuff used to clean drains, and which can give you serious chemical burns.
Lutefisk needs to be soaked in fresh water for a week before anyone can attempt eating it. Note: never use silver forks with lutefisk, as the corrosive chemicals will destroy your cutlery.
The writer Garrison Keillor describes lutefisk thus: “Most lutefisk is not edible by normal people. It is reminiscent of the afterbirth of a dog or the world's largest chunk of phlegm … a foul and odiferous goo, whose gelatinous texture and rancid oily taste are locked in spirited competition to see which can be the more responsible for rendering the whole completely inedible.”
Sannakji is a lively Korean dish of nakji (small octopus), cut into little pieces before serving, usually seasoned with sesame.
The catch? Your meal may throttle you on the way down. It’s alive when cut up, and the nakji pieces usually squirm on the plate.
The suction cups on the tentacles are still active and can stick to your mouth or throat. Aficionados like to swallow the pieces wriggling, but amateur nakji-eaters are advised to chew thoroughly first, to avoid choking.
Also note that it can be dangerous to eat raw seafood, including octopus, as it can carry bacteria, viruses and toxins. Nonetheless, in Korea raw live octopus is considered a healthy novelty snack.
Chicha is a refreshing Peruvian maize beer, brewed according to an ancient Inca recipe. What’s not to like?
Well, traditionally, the ground maize was chewed up and mixed with the chicha-maker's saliva. Natural enzymes in human saliva break down starch in the maize, allowing it to ferment.
Once the Inca women had moistened the mixture sufficiently, they’d spit it into a tub of warm water to ferment. Some days later, it would be ready to drink.
Chicha is still extremely popular in Latin America, although these days masticating the maize in the time-honoured way is only practised in small rural villages.
Prairie / Rocky Mountain oysters are not, in fact, exotic shellfish: they’re bull testicles.
To enjoy, first peel your testicles, then coat in flour, pepper and salt, deep-fry, and serve with a dip.
They’re a well-known treat in cattle-ranching areas of Western Canada and the USA, where the castration of calves has long been practised and “calf fries” are part of cowboy culture.
One elderly Nevadan described with relish how, on her childhood ranch, the fresh testicles would be “thrown into the fire at branding time, pulled out with a stick and then peeled and eaten like a fresh fig.”
This dish probably won't do you any harm (physical harm, that is) if you try it once, although organ meats are usually high in cholesterol, and, oddly enough, bull testicles are apparently high in the female hormone progesterone...
Kiviak / kiviaq is a delicacy enjoyed in the far north of Greenland. It’s created by stuffing 300-500 auks (small birds), caught with long-handled nets, into a bag made from a seal skin with the fat left on it.
The skin is sewn up tight and then left under rocks to ferment for 3-18 months. The seal fat preserves the bird meat and tenderizes, so the soft auk mush can be eaten raw, bones and all.
It’s considered a treat during the winter months, when other game is hard to find. Kiviak is eaten communally in a celebratory atmosphere – but always outside, as the smell is overpowering.
- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, August 2011, Health24.
Aningayou, James, 1940, from Akuzilleput Igaqullghet: Our Words Put to Paper, 2002
Beckman, Mary, ‘King of Beers’, Science, July 30, 2004
Berenbaum, May R, Ninety-Nine More Maggots, Mites, and Munchers. University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Brown, Patricia Leigh, ‘Virginia City Journal: Delicacy of the Wild West Lives on for Those So Bold’, The New York Times, March 17, 2009
Hegarty, Shane, ‘Maggots, songbirds and other acquired tastes’, The Irish Times, 1 April 2006
Keillor, Garrison, Pontoon, 2007
Loomis, Susan Herrmann, ‘Sardinia, Italy’, Bon Appétit, May 2002