Top 10 Strangest Dishes In Asia
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Grab the kids and gather ’round the computer. TheExpeditioner.com takes a look at some of the strangest dishes in Asia.
While one of the highlights of travel is the opportunity to sample dishes and flavors that you’ve never had before, it’s inevitable that you’re going to run into something that, well, despite your open mind and adventurous spirit, still causes you to pause and think, “Do I really want to eat this?” This happens perhaps nowhere more so than in Asia, where those of us from the West are taken aback when suddenly confronted with the prospect of snacking on fried insects or the delicate parts of male animals.
However, in the interest of cultural relativism, I can’t help to think that certain items found in our own fast-food restaurants and consumed every day in the West probably (and perhaps rightly so) elicit the same reaction in many parts of the world as our own when we think about wolfing down a bag of fried insects. Throughout my own travels in Asia I have rarely turned down the chance to taste something new, no matter how strange it seemed, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. With that in mind, I present to you the top 10 strangest dishes in Asia.
10. Bamboo Worms — Bangkok, Thailand
This fried snack, usually sold out of mobile food stalls on the streets of Bangkok, isn’t as bad as it sounds (or looks). These crispy cretins, once deep fried, taste eerily similar to French fries. If you don’t look at their beady eyes and stubby, shriveled-up feet, this bag of oily delight could easily pass for a salty snack at any American burger joint. In fact, insect carts throughout Bangkok carry a wide variety of deep-fried arthropods, including locusts, beetles and moth chrysalides, and are common late-night drunken munchies. Of all the items on this list, bamboo worms are probably the only one that I actually enjoyed. Go figure.
9. Boiled Duck Head — Shanghai, China
The rung-out duck necks lassoed around steel shower poles that greet guests in Chinese restaurants are synonymous with Chinatowns across the globe, and are ubiquitous in interior China in one form or another. On the streets of Shanghai’s French Concession, it’s not uncommon to see duck heads devoid of body, staring vacantly through punched-out eye sockets at passerbys. I found myself puzzled as to how to go about eating these heads. Start by asking the waiter to cut the head in two, then begin picking away at the skin and inner-workings of the skull, though there are no given set of rules. Keeping in mind to avoid the multitude of bones inside, many people recommend slicing through chunks of the brain as a sinewy dessert to the meal. However, be warned, this option is usually left to those with more traditional tastes.
8. Chicken Testicle Soup — Taipei, Taiwan
If you didn’t know any better, the rather buoyant pair of orbs floating in this soup could be mistaken for fresh matzah balls. However, upon further scrutinization, minute, elastically bound veins become all too noticeable. The first time I tried this dish was at a wedding banquet in Taipei. In Northern Asia, male organs of animals are gladly served to mark auspicious occasions with promises of prosperity (i.e., virility). Minus the livid veins built around the exterior, the first chicken testicle manages to slide down quite nicely — of course taking in mind not to concentrate too much on the solidified Jell-O-like interior. Most amateur testicle eaters are quick to call it quits after finishing the first, but the way I figured it, they were created in pairs, so in keeping with auspicious traditions, I did my duty and went for the complete package.
7. Crickets — Bangkok, Thailand
Eaten out of the same insectival meals-on-wheels as bamboo worms, crickets are collected still chirping from the countryside before finding their final resting place in a wok of oil. I’m often asked, “What do crickets taste like?” So far, the best explanation I’ve been able to give is, “Well — they taste just like crickets.” These silenced chirpers usually go for 20 Baht (roughly .60 cents), and I’ve found that if they are small enough (and if you’ve adequately prepared your system with alcohol) they aren’t so bad. When you come upon that rare, freakish-sized one where the thorax bursts like a Krispy Creme doughnut, then you start treading on some truly strange territory. I’d recommend finding a toothpick after this snack, as it’s not very attractive to don cricket legs in your teeth.
6. BBQ Dog — Sapa, Vietnam; Yunnan, China to Ynanna Province, China
Man’s best friend in the West, whether we like it or not, is the other white meat in Northern Vietnam and China’s southern Yunnan Province. To admit to a Westerner that you’ve tasted dog flesh often conjures up reactions of pallid heaves or, on the occasion, indignation. Yet I often wonder (and I’m prepared for the ensuing hate mail on this), why is it that skewering a dog over a rotating fire pit is seen as barbarism, yet doing the same to a cow or a pig, is not? The fact is that in different parts of the world, different societies elevate the status of common animals. To some Asians, it is far more disgusting to have a shedding dog in the house than a few chickens milling about. Of course, it is hard to see some food cooked before our eyes. Witnessing the scorched earth policy applied to a dog by using a hand-made flamethrower isn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done.
5. Scorpions — Bangkok, Thailand
We return to Bangkok for number “5” on our list. Actually, fried scorpions can be found all over Asia cooked in a variety of methods, but on the streets of Bangkok, the stingers and pincers are usually removed before they are dunked in oil. As with other insects, scorpions are high in protein and contain unique vitamins and fatty acids. Though malicious in appearance, the taste of scorpions isn’t nearly as bad as their bite. Some other countries, like Cambodia, prefer their scorpions baked. Depending on how they are cooked, and as long as the poisonous bits are done away with, this snack is a safe, crunchy experience.
4. Bull Penis — Tokyo, Japan; Beijing, China
I’ll admit the first time I saw this virility sausage was at Kenka, a Japanese restaurant in New York City. Chomping down this beast’s privates is a delicacy two notches above sushi in Tokyo. Businessmen will, similar to my Taipei wedding experience, mark auspicious occasions with the ingestion of a bull’s phallus. After all, what better way to secure that lucrative contract than treating your new client to some boiled penis? In Japan, the bull is believed to be the most potent of animals, though in Beijing, people aren’t so cocksure and don’t mind running a gauntlet of penises to guarantee the highest probability of potency.
3. Tarantulas — Kampong Thom, Cambodia
While en route to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, an enthused woman greeted me by presenting a mound of sticky spiders in my face. Shockingly, my horror did little to break her initiative in hawking her arachnoid goodies. A legacy of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, burrowing jungle tarantulas were first dug up by starving Cambodians during the genocide that overtook the nation from 1975 to 1979. Today these resilient people still choose to eat what has become a national delicacy. Deep-fried tarantulas are covered in a batter of garlic and salt and, as many connoisseurs confess, have a very similar taste to crickets. Remember to look for that taste of the “brown paste,” possibly containing eggs, within the abdomen.
2. Balut, Duck Fetus — Manila, Philippines
As a general rule of thumb for strange foods: the worse it sounds, the better it is for your groin. In the Philippines, balut, or duck embryo, is eaten with the belief in its value as an aphrodisiac. Innocent eggs lay dormant in sand buckets next to street corners across Manila, waiting for customers to come collect the treasure within.
Balut is a recipe with origins in the Philippines, but Chinese traders were believed to have spread the idea throughout the region. Once fertilized, our soon-to-be feathered friends are ideally eaten after they’ve reached about 17 days old. They are then hard-boiled, presented warm in a bucket of sand for incubation and ready to crack open. At this age the fetus can be eaten, along with its yolk, without any visible features of a duck. However, being a dish with very region specific demands, some prefer a more matured fetus (about 17-21 days old) to add a bit more charisma — and bones — to their palate.
1. Nakji, Live Octopus — Incheon, South Korea
There have been many formidable contenders on this list, but nakji, or live octopus, has to come in at number one. This Korean delicacy with a raw zing doesn’t look as vile as a bull penis or duck fetus, but the procedure in consuming this wriggling sea creature should be left only to the truly adventurous traveler. Generally, nakji is taken straight out of the tank where it is frolicking, cut into squirming sections, and sent down the esophagus while its suction cups are still flicking about. Taking scissors to the octopus is an option that some choose to forgo.
While traveling on a weekend holiday somewhere south of Incheon, I witnessed my new Korean friends yank some live octopi out of water tanks then begin to chew tenderly on the head while the octopus flailed at their wrists for mercy. After about five minutes of ardent chewing, they entered the end of the head where the ink bladder is located. With foamy black ink freshly forming around their lips, the tentacles were then eaten intermittently with shots of Korean soju (rice wine). The tentacles must be eaten with caution as the residual nerve activity will keep them moving all the way down to your stomach acid. There have been many cases of people choking on the still writhing arms suctioning themselves to the throat. Koreans swear that if you measure your dosage of soju correctly, this raw delicacy is sure to prove a truly “moving” experience.