What makes a food strange? After all, plenty of people shudder at the thought of Scottish favourite haggis, while others wouldn’t touch escargots or frogs’ legs (all of them delicious, by the way).
But some of the world’s most bizarre foods really do need a strong stomach – and preferably a weak sense of smell. And perhaps a blindfold.
1. Sannakji, Korea
In this Korean dish, chefs chop the tentacles off a live octopus, then douse them in sesame oil and seeds. As the tentacles are still wriggling, the diner should bear in mind that they haven’t lost their power of suction. Chew carefully – and consider the ethics before you indulge.
2. Khash, Afghanistan
Can you imagine the smell in the kitchen after a cow’s head, feet and stomach have been boiling for hours? No, probably not. And we don’t want to either. But this is what goes into the Afghan dish, khash, and it’s one of the foulest-smelling broths ever created. It looks as bad as it smells, too.
3. Smalahove, Norway
This Norwegian name literally translates as sheep’s head – and that’s precisely what you get. Each lucky diner gets half a head that had been smoked or dried and then boiled for several hours. They usually start with the eyes and ears, and chase it with liberal quantities of akvavit – anything to take the taste away of what the Norwegians regard as a pre-Christmas treat.
4. Sea anemones, across Europe
These ethereal sea creatures that are distantly related to jellyfish and coral aren’t obvious candidates for a seafood lunch. But in the hands of the right chef – and lightly fried in a tempura-like batter – they do actually taste quite good. You can try them in Andalucía, Spain, where they’re known as ortiguillas.
5. Ikizukuri, Japan
Lovers of sashimi think nothing of scoffing raw fish in Japan. But even they might baulk at the dubious fish delicacy ikizukuri, which is filleted while it’s still alive. Not only that, but it’s served with its beating heart on the plate or, failing that, its head with the gills still moving.
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6. Durian fruit, Southeast Asia
If the thick spiky husk doesn’t put you off, the stench of this Asian fruit should. Its smell is so strong that some hotels and public transport in the region have banned anyone carrying this noxious part of your five-a-day. While the flavour has a hint of almonds and is perfectly palatable, the odour has more than a hint of raw sewage.
7. Damamian, Taiwan
Pork is one of those meats that we’re always told has to be cooked thoroughly. So what were the Taiwanese were thinking when they came up with damamian? This is raw pork that’s been fermenting merrily away in a pot for 30 days and served with rice.
8. Cockscomb, Italy
Chicken feet are common in Chinese cooking, but many people don’t realise that the pointy bits on the head go into the pot too. These gelatinous growths are blanched and skinned before being braised slowly in broth. It’s not just the Chinese who love a bit of cockscomb in their dim sum: the Italians are big fans too, adding the cooked combs to an offal feast of testicles and livers. Waste not, want not, etc.
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9. Fruit bat soup, Palau
Before Western diets became common, the people of Palau always made the most of what was freely available on this Micronesian island. That included the little fruit bat, which, as well as being a useful part of ecosystem by pollinating plants, was a big source of protein. The soup, flavoured with chilli and ginger, has since become an expensive delicacy, even if its appearance – with large chunks of floating bat – is less than appealing.
10. Bamboo worms, Thailand
As any traveller in Asia will tell you, insects aren’t a rare and bizarre food – even if the idea is a bit off-putting. They’re everywhere, which is why Thais are always plundering the bamboo shoots during the rainy season for these squiggly worm-like insects. Full of protein, they make a satisfying sizzle when dropped into hot oil.
11. Ortolan, France
Although the eating of these tiny songbirds has been banned from restaurants in France, some of the country’s top chefs, including Alain Ducasse, are asking the government to reconsider. There’s no wonder they were banned: first, these tiny birds – small enough to fit in your palm – are drowned in a vat of Armagnac before being plucked and roasted. Diners then cover their head with a napkin and chomp on the bird whole – head, bones, organs and all. Those who’ve tried it say it’s one of the most sublime things they’ve ever eaten. Hmm…
12. Surströmming, Sweden
There’s a good reason why this Swedish herring dish is usually eaten outdoors. After the fish has been salted, it’s then fermented for at least six months before being gingerly opened and eaten. The taste isn’t nearly as overpowering as the smell, thankfully.
13. Rattlesnake, USA
Deep fried, stewed, baked, skewered – there’s no end of ways of enjoying this otherwise deadly reptile. And most of the time you don’t even need to catch the slithery viper yourself – you can buy it already cleaned and ready to be cooked in the USA.