Some say weird, we say unique! In this post of theCurrent, we will be taking a look at some truly interesting, if not at first glance the most appetizing, dishes from around the world. Indeed, some may leave you wondering how anyone could have conceived of eating such a thing. With that in mind, we’ve included wherever possible the origins, or possible roots for the food you’ll be reading about. So sit back, relax, and remember to keep an open mind! Bon appetit!
Literally “sour herring” (strömming referring to the Baltic Sea herring, a smaller version of that found in the Atlantic), you can probably already see where we are going with this. Surströmming is herring that has been fermented for at least six months. Just enough salt is used to prevent the fish from rotting, and the taste of the finished product has been described as sharp, cutting, and slightly acidic.
However, surströmming’s taste is hardly the problem. It’s true notoriety comes from the smell emitted from a freshly opened can. The odour is so pungent in fact, that a study conducted by Japan’s national broadcasting corporation declared that a newly opened can of surströmming has one of the most putrid food smells in the world.
So what are surströmming’s origins? Well, the process of fermenting fish goes far back into ancient times, but this particular dish has been a popular component of northern Swedish cuisine since at least the 16th century. Weak brine was used in the beginning due to the then still significant cost of salt, and the tradition must have stuck. Today it remains a favoured treat on many Swedes’ tables.
Continuing on with our list, our next item is again a member of the Scandinavian fermented fish family. Kæstur hákarl (literally “fermented shark” in Icelandic) is a Greenland, or other type of sleeper shark, that is fermented and dried. The flesh is initially quite poisonous, and so traditionally the shark is beheaded and gutted, then a shallow hole is dug in gravelly sand wherein the carcass is thrown. It’s then buried in gravel and sand and large stones are placed over top to press the fluids out. In this sense, the shark is literally fermented in its own juices; it remains in this state for 6-12 weeks.
Once the timer runs up (the length of fermentation partly varies depending on the season), the shark is dug up and sliced into strips, which are then hung up to dry for four to five months. A brown crust forms during this time, but it is removed before serving. Once ready, hákarl comes in two options: glerhákarl and skyrhákarl. The first is described as reddish and chewy, and is composed of the meat from the stomach, while the second is soft and white, coming from the rest of the body.
Not convinced? Anthony Bourdain (may he rest in peace) on his visit to Iceland described the dish as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten. Indeed, many who sample the dish will experience a strong urge to gag, a result of the high ammonia content. The strong smell has been compared to many cleaning products.
So why? Why kæstur hákarl? Well anyone who has ever visited Iceland, beautiful country that is, can probably imagine that it has not always been an easy place to live. Indeed, having lived there myself, I had the opportunity to speak to several Icelanders on the subject of hákarl. Their summary was this: today almost no one eats the stuff; those that do are either tourists, or old-timers doing so out of respect for a time when the going was not nearly so good.
Pacha is a traditional Iraqi dish, though variations of it are found throughout the Arab world, Turkey, the Caucasus, Persia and Afghanistan. It consists of sheep heads (brains and all), trotters, and stomach, all boiled together slowly and served with bread submerged in the broth. The stomach’s lining is filled with lamb and rice. While the eyes are not commonly eaten in Iraq, the sheep’s brain is served.
With aromatic spices used in the cooking, it is the visual (picture sheep heads and hooves floating around in a large vat of broth), as opposed to the olfactory, aspect that might pose the biggest obstacle to many Western consumers (unlike with surströmming and hákarl). Though, personally, I have my reservations regarding the texture of brain. Still, perhaps this is one dish where it’s best to just close your eyes and let the taste and smell do the talking.
Our next dish may be a little more well known by readers than the previous few. Indeed, fugu has become one of the most notorious dishes in all Japanese cuisine. For those who are a little fuzzy on the subject, fugu is pufferfish or porcupinefish, or a dish prepared therefrom. But why all the notoriety? Well, it doesn’t stem from the taste – which despite a unique texture somewhat akin to squid is reportedly rather mild – but instead from the fact that if prepared improperly the consumer could very well perish. Due to the presence of lethal tetrodotoxin, the fish must be prepared incredibly carefully to avoid contaminating it.
The restaurant preparation of fugu is strictly controlled by law in Japan, and chefs must go through three years of training before they are qualified to serve it. Domestic preparation is a little more difficult to control, and still on occasion leads to death.
So why would people risk eating such a fish in the first place? While the exact details around the origins of fugu consumption are uncertain, evidence suggests it has been consumed in Japan for over 2,000 years. The ingestion of fugu was banned for almost two centuries under the Tokugawa Shogunate, and to this day, it is the only item of food the Emperor of Japan is forbidden to eat – a measure set in place for his safety. So on your next visit to a fugu restaurant, I guess the one question you’ll have to ask yourself is this: “are you feeling lucky?”.
The witchetty grub is the term used to refer to large, white, wood-eating moth larvae found in the Australian interior. The expression covers the larvae of several moths, but it is the Cossid moth that is meant specifically. So called because they feed on the roots of the witchetty shrub, the witchetty grub has long been a staple in the diets of many of the indigenous peoples of Australia, and is commonly slated as the most important insect food of the desert. It is not hard to see why, with 245 calories per 100g of meat, and about 15g of protein in that same portion, the grub is a nutrient-rich high-protein source of energy that would be a far deal easier to catch than other foods found in the outback (think kangaroo).
What’s more, witchetty grubs can be eaten raw or cooked. When raw they are said to taste almost like almonds, and when cooked they’re close to chicken. Not so bad for a grub. So the next time you’re in need of a protein fix, consider digging around under the witchetty shrub.
Rocky Mountain Oysters
With alternative billings ranging from prairie oysters, calf fries and cowboy caviar to dusted nuts, criadillas and huevos de toro; rocky mountain oysters, if you haven’t already guessed, are bull testicles. Found under these various titles from Canada and the American West to Mexico, Argentina and Spain, bull testicles are pretty common fare in those parts of the world where cattle ranching remains prevalent.
In a sense, it should be commended that the huevos de toro are not left to waste after the male calves are castrated. In each place you try them you might find a different manner in which they are served (though of course the essence of the dish remains constant). Generally the testicles are peeled, coated in flour, pepper and salt, and sometimes pounded flat before often being fried or deep-fried. Yummy.
Stemming from the Tagalog and Malay word meaning “wrapped”, balot, or balut is a developing bird embryo (most commonly a duck) that has been boiled; and is then eaten out of the shell. Originating in the Philippines where it is still served as street food, the dish has become popular in many Southeast Asian countries, and is commonly served with beer. A quick glance at what you’re eating and the beer makes more sense (you might even wish for something stronger), but balut, cruel visual aside, is actually supposed to be quite tasty. First the liquid “soup” is sucked out of the shell, prior to digging into the creamy egg yolk. The embryo is saved for last.
The dish has become quite controversial on various grounds, for reasons of religion, animal welfare as well as health. The incubation temperatures for the correct preparation and processing of balut creates the perfect environment for many bacterias, including salmonella enteritidis. Labelled a “Hazardous Food” in Canada, this is one meal you’re just going to have to roll the dice on.
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