This is bound to become an annual post which I try and build on. Well, this and the upcoming sister post about the strangest drinks I have ever tried. This is one of those topics that comes up from time to time especially with well-traveled folks. What is the strangest thing you have ever eaten? I’ll go in chronological order.
- Sharp-Shinned Hawk. Yes, this is actually probably the most exotic (and illegal) food I have ever eaten. But before you skewer me and try my flesh cooked over your scorn, hear me out. I was driving my 1988 Chevy S-10 pickup and saw a bird dash across the road just ahead of my red truck. Then BAM! I popped a larger bird with the plastic grille of my ride. I stopped and looked and a piece of the grille was busted out. Then looked a hundred feet back on the road and saw the bird laying in the street. Sharp-Shinned Hawks predate on smaller birds, and I just happened to interrupt the natural cycle but gave one bird a new lease on life. Yeah, we’ve probably all killed a thing or two by accident with our cars. So why did I eat it? Because I was driving to the location for my three day wilderness survival college course. I saw that poor bird laying in the road and decide that I’d rather eat it than have it become a feather-fringed greasy spot on the road. Lucky for me, I knew where there was a large patch of wild leeks and also the best spots for cattails which the root is a bit starchy and the new growth is like asparagus. Sharp-Shinned Hawk and leek stew for the first night of survival? Luxuriously exotic. Of course, it tasted a bit like chicken with really dark meat.
- Muktuk. That’s whale blubber to you non-Inuit speakers. I was in Alaska at a native potlatch and emissaries from around the state brought many regional foods as part of the celebration. One of the plates that was passed around had small cubes on it. Whispers were that it was whale blubber. Well, that’s not something you have passed to you very often! So I tentatively grabbed one. Popping it into my mouth, it was chewy. Like chewing the densest fat of a steak. But it tasted fishy. Honestly it wasn’t very good. But it is supposed to be high in vitamins. It was likely that this was bowhead whale that I was trying. It is legally harvested in only nine Alaskan villages.
- Crispy Bird’s Nest. As far as I can recollect, my eating habits were relatively tame for over a decade. Yes, I ate moose meat, caribou, and alligator. I regularly looked forward to harvesting shaggy mane mushrooms or the aptly named chicken-of-the-woods shelf fungus. I even ate Herring eggs on kelp. At the time, they all seemed quite odd and somewhat adventurous. Then I went to China and saw and tasted a huge range of oddities such as the Kiwi flavored Lay’s potato chips. But then I walked along the Donghuamen night market of Beijing looking at the street foods there. Scorpions writing on a stick. Whole roasted starfish. They were more odd than the boiled sheep feet I saw in Xian. I have no idea what kind of nest this might be. You can get birds nest drink in Vietnam – oh wait, I was going to talk about drinks in a different post. Anyway, how was the crispy bird’s nest? Crispy. Deep fry just about anything and it is good, right? No. I wouldn’t say this was good. If you want good stuff here, get the fruits that have hardened sugar glaze on them. Mmmm!
- Crocodile Caesar salad – While in Zimbabwe at a fancy hotel we ate at the restaurant with a view of the spray from Victoia Falls. From the menu; “Crocodile Caesar salad with thyme croutons, Parmesan shavings, Caesar dressing and cracked black pepper.” Who can resist that? I forgot I had even tried it until Brooke reminded me a few months ago. Crocodile isn’t a very good substitute for chicken though. It’s greasier. But otherwise it actually isn’t that bad in a Caesar salad! I should have pictures of this which I’ll add later.
- Fermented shark meat. I read that this was awful; so had to try it. We had just arrived in Iceland, spent hours enjoying the Blue Lagoon and then went to find Hákarl which is probably a Greenland shark that has been decapitated and gutted and then stored underground for a few months to fester. Wikipedia says “Those new to it will usually gag involuntarily on the first attempt to eat it due to the high ammonia content.” Further details on Wikipedia from Foodies…
Chef Anthony Bourdain, who has traveled extensively throughout the world sampling local cuisine for his Travel Channel show No Reservations, has described hákarl as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten.
Chef Gordon Ramsay challenged journalist James May to sample three “delicacies” (Laotian snake whiskey, bull penis, and hákarl) on The F Word; after eating hákarl, Ramsay spat it out, although May kept his down. May’s only reaction was, “You disappoint me, Ramsay.”
On season 2’s Iceland episode of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, Andrew Zimmern described the smell as reminding him of “some of the most horrific things I’ve ever breathed in my life,” but said the taste was not nearly as bad as the smell. Nonetheless, he did note that hákarl was “hardcore food” and “not for beginners.”
Yeah, what they said.
- Whale steak and puffin – Yes, these are different foods. But we had them in the same sitting, so we’ll lump them together here. Still in Iceland we found another opportunity for an odd food. Whale steak. Minke whale specifically. Iceland and Norway are two countries that still harvest whale and the environmental activists seems to leave alone. Maybe they have dined there. I guarantee the shark meat didn’t win anyone over. Honestly, the whale steak won’t either. It is strong flavored and only slightly fishy. (Of note, in my experience, the older fish gets the more fishy it tastes. I don’t know if this is the same for mammals like whales.) The puffin appetizer we had was delicious!
- Horse – I didn’t really ever imagine that when news stories broke about “horse-tainted” meat in Europe that I might utter “what’s the big deal?” But the truth is that most foods I will only experience because of local customs. I’m not interested in developing a tourist trade based on exotic foods if they are unethical. And I’m an omnivore so don’t berate me for my meat eating. Saying that I have eaten a banana that was 18 inches long or a few other exotic fruits just isn’t as interesting to most as saying that I have eaten horse intentionally. In Mongolia there are probably more horses than people. They are not all animals used for labor or transportation either. The milk for mares is used. And with that many animals, using them for meat is natural. Horse is on the menu at our favorite hot pot restaurant. It isn’t much different tasting than beef. Very lean beef. There isn’t much fat on horses. The truth is, horse meat is a much more healthy option for meat-eaters than the fattier meats that are preferred by many.
- Bull penis. I have had hot pot before moving to Mongolia. We went often last year – probably averaging at least once a week. And we frequently saw the “bull penis” on the menu and kept promising ourselves that some day we’d try it. Well, last year Pepper decided that the conditions were right. A number of our friends were out and we gave it a try. It was chewy. Even when you let it boil in your hot pot for a long time. That’s ok – we tried it!
Yes, this list seems to be more accurately called the most exotic meats I have eaten. I’ll keep that in mind as I add to it in the future though. What have you tried?