While the idea of slurping bat soup or having a forkful of seal flipper pie might seem repellent to most travelers, a significant number of people circle the globe in search of gastronomical oddities and adventures. This list is definitely aimed at the latter. These tasty treats aren’t vegetarian-friendly (not even close). Nor is the list 100-percent safe, as several of these entries have been linked to health risks. But there’s no better way to celebrate a new culture than eating and drinking traditional dishes with the locals, no matter how bizarre their offerings might seem on first glance.
The Lowdown: This starchy dish is rendered from the sago palm tree, and widely served with dipping sauce made from sour fruit. Ambuyat is a local favorite of the indigenous Sabah and Sarawak peoples of Borneo, and has been likened to poi and tapioca.
Axolotl (Mexico and Japan)
The Lowdown: In the 80’s, these salamanders were popular pets in Japanese households. Then the trend died, pet shop owners faced a surplus of the amphibians, most of which were imported from Mexico (where they doubled as a tasty snack). So the Japanese followed Mexico’s lead and began selling the axolotl as fried food – and a new fad quickly emerged.
Baby Mice Wine (East Asia)
The Lowdown: Several baby mice are drowned in rice wine and left to ferment for weeks. This controversial beverage is considered to have medicinal properties in certain regions of China and the Korean Peninsula.
Bat Soup (Palau)
The Lowdown: The winged marsupials are cooked whole in a stewpot, along with ginger, onions and stock. The soup is usually sprinkled with coconut milk to add a little sweetness.
Balut (Southeast Asia)
The Lowdown: A fertilized duck egg is boiled in water and eaten in the shell. Balut is a popular bar snack, and is widely found throughout Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines.
Belachan (East Asia)
The Lowdown: Ground shrimp are fermented with salt and served as a staple sauce throughout Southeast Asia and China. The color and texture can vary from transparent jelly to brown blocks.
Bird’s Nest Soup (China)
The Lowdown: Cave swifts produce saliva-based nests, which are harvested and dissolved in water to produce soup with a gelatinous texture. Bird’s nest is considered highly valuable (and valued up to $10,000 per kilo), so the soup typically costs between $10 and $30 a bowl.
Bishop’s Nose (Southeast Asia)
The Lowdown: Otherwise known as ‘chicken butt’, this street food is quite fatty – and thus, popular with the eating public throughout the region. The morsels are usually glazed in a sweet sauce and served on a skewer. And no, we don’t know how this particular food item got its name.
The Lowdown: A goat or marmot is hung from a hook, and its skin and meat are removed to allow removal of large bones. The skin is then reapplied to form a sack-like structure, into which salt, onion and heated stones are inserted. The mass is subjected to extreme heat (say, from a blowtorch) until the carcass is black and fats ooze outward.
Bull Penis (East Asia)
The Lowdown: The perfect companion food for criadillas (see below), the Chinese view bull penis as an aphrodisiac (for what should be fairly obvious reasons) and its consumption is said to greatly boost virility. The meat is served either as an entrée or a soup dish.
Casu Marzu (Sardinia)
The Lowdown: Sheep milk cheese (typically of the pecorino romano variety) is left to ferment until bacteria from fly larva cause decomposition. It’s Illegal throughout Europe due to health concerns, though available in certain parts of Sardinia as a legally-protected ‘traditional dish’.
Chibuku (Southern Africa)
The Lowdown: Maize and sorghum are fermented to produce a potent, odiferous alcoholic beverage. Chibuku is often served in a paper carton and sold in traditional taverns and bars; upscale establishments usually do not serve it. Consumption of more than one carton is definitely not recommended.
Chitoum (Ivory Coast)
The Lowdown: These black beetles are killed, disemboweled and fried until crispy. These are most commonly eaten as a mid-day snack in rural Ivorian communities. Chitoum are said to be much more flavorful than locusts or crickets; whether or not this is a good thing is best left up to the consumer.
Cobra Heart (Vietnam)
The Lowdown: This street food is often served raw – even beating, in some cases. To help you wash it down, vendors will usually supply a shot glass of cobra blood. Others will drop the heart in a glass of rice wine and have you chug it.
Criadillas (Spain and U.S.)
The Lowdown: Known stateside as ‘Rocky Mountain oysters’, criadillas are bull testicles that have been peeled, covered with flour and spices, deep-fried and served with dipping sauce. Though the recipe originated in Spain, the dish has become a popular snack among American ranch hands, and is commonly referred to as ‘cowboy caviar’.
Cockscomb (France and Italy)
The Lowdown: Though cockscombs (the fleshy matter that grows on a rooster’s head) are tough, they are considered a delicacy in both French and Italian cuisine. They are usually served either as hors d’oeuvres or as a sauce component.
Cuy (The Andes)
The Lowdown: It’s hard to imagine, but the guinea pig is a major livestock animal in equatorial regions; roughly 65 million are killed and eaten every year. You can also purchase cuy in the United States – particularly New York City, which boasts a large number of immigrants from Andean countries.
Drunken Shrimp (China)
The Lowdown: Traditionally, freshwater shrimp are placed in a bowl of strong rice liquor (baijiu), where they swim around in a drunken haze until the eater bites off their heads. Due to a risk of shellfish-borne diseases (and protests that the dish is inherently cruel), many chefs now boil the shrimp and serve them already dead.
Durian (East Asia)
The Lowdown: Technically durian is a fruit, but its overwhelming scent has been likened to a combination of garlic and salad dressing. Or, as British novelist Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) noted, consuming the spiny fruit is like “eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.”
The Lowdown: Ant larvae are harvested from either the agave or maguey plants, which are used to produce tequila and mezcal, respectively. This dish is widely known as ‘insect caviar’, and sometimes served in a taco.
The Lowdown: Land snails are sautéed in butter and served as a starter dish. Escargot tends to be expensive, primarily because most land snails are either inedible or not large enough to serve in restaurants.
Flipper Pie (Canada)
The Lowdown: This popular dish among native peoples of Eastern Canada is a meat pie baked with a filling made from harp seal flippers. Due to national laws, the dish is now only consumed during the annual seal hunts that take place every spring.
Fried Brain Sandwich (U.S.)
The Lowdown: Traditionally, bovine brains are sliced, pan-fried and served on bread. Currently, many restaurants use pork as a substitute to dodge the risk of mad cow disease.
Gau Jal (India)
The Lowdown: Indigenous peoples of Africa and Asia have been consuming bovine urine since ancient times, but Indian soft drink manufacturer Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh became the first to produce a soda rendered from cow urine in 2009. However, the company has assured the public that the beverage neither tastes nor smells like cow pee.
The Lowdown: This rich pudding is derived from sheep pluck (heart, liver and lungs) and sautéed with onion, oatmeal, mutton fat and various spices. This is considered the national dish of Scotland, and a popular entrée for Scotch pairing.
The Lowdown: A basking shark is beheaded and placed in a sand pit for up to 12 weeks; during this time, its carcass is drained of bodily fluids and fermentation occurs. Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations, described this as the “single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting” culinary item he has ever encountered.
Hot Dog Potato Chips (Australia and U.S.)
The Lowdown: They sound gross, but Huffington Post contributors remarked they were a “delicious” blend of barbecue flavor, salt and vinegar. They originated in Australia, but 7-11 began selling them in the U.S. last year. If you can locate them, one bag typically goes for less than a dollar.
The Lowdown: Huitlacoche, or ‘corn smut’, is a fungal growth known to cause disease in maize crops. It is also eaten throughout Mexico, typically as a filling for quesadillas or tamales. Traditionally, the Zuni native people of the Southwestern U.S. also used the fungus to induce labor among pregnant women.
Jibachi Senbei (Japan)
The Lowdown: Digger wasps are boiled, dried and mixed with cracker dough to produce this fried treat, which is packaged like Chips Ahoy! and sold in convenience stores. The crackers don’t have any sting, though those who have eaten them describe a distinct, “waspish” smell.
Kaolin (U.S. and Central Africa)
The Lowdown: Otherwise known as white clay, kaolin is a mineral-rich substance that is harvested and served for sustenance throughout the rural Southeast; the practice has also been noted in Central Africa. This material is said to have a handful of medicinal properties, and many also consider it an aphrodisiac. In case you were wondering, the practice of consuming earth or soil is called geophagy.
The Lowdown: This dish with Russian Yiddish roots is made from animal intestine and grain that is stuffed into a sausage casing. One popular form of kishka, blood sausage, is made from pig’s blood and barley.
The Lowdown: Kitfo is prepared with tera sega, or raw meat, and seasoned with beans, herbs and spiced butter. Tera sega is rich in vitamins and nutrients, though some health risks are associated with raw beef consumption.
Kopi Luwak (Indonesia)
The Lowdown: This coffee is derived from the excrement of the Asian palm civet, a tree-dwelling mammal indigenous to Southeast Asia. Surprisingly, this is one of the most expensive coffees in the world, valued up to $600 per pound.
Kumis (Central Asia)
The Lowdown: Mare’s milk is fermented and served as a slightly alcoholic beverage. Kumis is most commonly found during the annual ‘mare-milking season’, which takes place between June and October.
The Lowdown: This gelatinous dish is comprised of whitefish and/or stockfish that is soaked in cold water for about one week, and then submerged in a lye solution for 48 hours. By the time its ready, the pH level of lutefisk sits between 11 and 12, technically making it a caustic substance.
Moruga Scorpion (Trinidad)
The Lowdown: In 2012, this devilish chili pepper was named the world’s spiciest in the Guinness Book of World Records – more than 240 times hotter than a jalapeño. Those who consume it have likened the sensation to a crack high.
The Lowdown: Whale skin and blubber is either eaten raw or breaded, fried and served with soy sauce. The dish is rich in vitamins C and D, though chronic consumption has also been linked to certain types of cancer.
The Lowdown: This dish consists of soybeans that have been fermented with Bacillus subtilis, a bacterial organism that gives the legumes a distinct flavor and smell that many have likened to rich cheese. Nattō can be served as a side dish or added to salads, soups or sushi.
The Lowdown: A duck, chicken or quail egg is preserved in mineral-based materials such as ash, clay, or limestone for weeks – even months. The resulting yolk will be gray or dark green in color, and have a metallic taste thanks to the alkalines that raise its pH level during the long curing process.
The Lowdown: Greek winemakers have produced retsina, a white wine that is bottled and sealed with pine resin, for thousands of years; jars of this pungent libation have been uncovered during excavations of Neolithic sites. Today, many vintners use retsina to produce blended varietals.
Rot Duan (Southeast Asia)
The Lowdown: Bamboo worms are popular deep-fried snack due to their high concentration of fat (more than half of their bodyweight). Their shape could be the reason behind the name rot duan, which translates to ‘express train’.
Salo (Eastern Europe)
The Lowdown: Slabs of pork belly are cured and (traditionally) served with skin. Unlike bacon, salo contains little meat and is mostly comprised of fatty tissue. The aging process can last up to one year.
Sannakji Hoe (Korean Peninsula)
The Lowdown: A live octopus is dissected on a tray, and the tentacles (still wriggling) are consumed with chopsticks. This dish is considered a choking hazard; a handful of people die eating sannakji every year.
Scorpion (China and Southeast Asia)
The Lowdown: No need to worry about getting stung – these crispy critters lose their venom as soon as they hit the fryer. They are a traditional delicacy said to originate in the Chinese province of Shandong, where other famous dishes include stir-fried pig kidney and deep-fried cicada beetles.
The Lowdown: A sheep’s head is burned to a crisp, and then the brain is removed. The head is cured and smoked, and then served with mashed potatoes. The brain (commonly known as ‘head cheese’) is sometimes served in the skull and consumed with a spoon. This dish has been banned throughout Europe since the late 90’s, due to health risks associated with scalpia, a disease found in sheep and goats.
Squirrel Brain Omelet (Southern U.S.)
The Lowdown: Squirrel is widely consumed throughout the Appalachian region. Many eat the entire animal, and prepare the brain by mixing it with eggs, onions and other classic omelet ingredients.
The Lowdown: Baltic herring is ‘soured’ (or fermented) and canned. Contents produce a pungent odor when the can is opened, so the dish is typically served outside.
Tepas (Alaska and East Russia)
The Lowdown: Known for its horrific aroma and sharp taste, fermented whitefish heads are still widely consumed by the Yup’ik people. Typically, the heads are mixed with fish guts in a wooden barrel and buried in the ground (typically for one week).
Tuna Eyeball (China and Japan)
The Lowdown: This item is usually served with a generous amount of fatty tissue still attached to enhance the flavor. Tuna eye is relatively inexpensive, available for less than $2 in most Japanese supermarkets.
Turducken (Canada and U.S.)
The Lowdown: We end on a fattening note. This neo-Thanksgiving favorite – a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey – is often supplemented with seasoned sausage, herbs and/or bread crumbs, and typically braised or roasted to savory perfection. Gravy is definitely recommended; a post-meal nap, on the other hand, is downright mandatory.
By Brad Nehring