A Briton abroad spends a surprising amount of time defending his native national cuisine. I remember going to a steak house in Connecticut where the waitress, upon taking our order and hearing our accents, said brightly, “From England, huh? I hear you don’t get anything good to eat over there. ” When she brought the filet mignon to the table, she did so with the pitying smile of one delivering alms to the starving.
British super-chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver may be taking the US by storm, but still this delusion of bad food persists. To which I say: whatever the perceived faults of English cuisine, at least no one has to take out extra life insurance before eating Yorkshire pudding.
Yet there are quite a few delicacies from countries without this dismal food reputation, where a top-up premium might be useful before you take that first bite.
In ascending order of danger or toxicity:
7. Snake wine – Vietnam, Southeast Asian, Southern China.
An assortment of herbs, small snakes, and a large venomous snake are steeped for many months in a glass jar of rice wine, then consumed in small shots for medicinal purposes. Fortunately, the ethanol renders snake venom harmless.
6. Surströmming – Sweden.
Fermented Baltic herring. Stored in cans, where the fermentation continues, causing the cans to bulge. In 2006, Air France and British Airways banned surstromming from their flights because they said the cans were potentially explosive. According to a Japanese study, the smell of this Scandinavian rotten fish is the most putrid food smell in the world.
5. Fried tarantula – Cambodia.
Tarantulas, tossed in MSG, sugar, and salt, are fried with garlic until their legs are stiff and the abdomen contents less liquid. The flesh tastes a little like chicken or white fish, and the body is gooey inside. Certain breeds of tarantula have urticating hairs on their abdomen, which they use for self-defense. If the spiders are not prepared properly – i.e., if the offending hairs are not removed with a blow torch or similar – these hairs can cause pharyngeal irritation in the consumer.
4. Sannakji – Korea.
Small, live, wriggling octopus, seasoned with sesame and sesame oil. The suction cups are still active, so bits of tentacle may stick to your throat as you swallow, especially if you’ve had one too many drinks before dinner. The trick is to chew thoroughly so no piece is big enough to take hold of your tonsils. Some veteran sannakji eaters, however, enjoy the feel of longer pieces of writhing arm and are prepared to take the risk.
3. Stinkhead – Alaska
Heads of salmon, left to ferment in a hole in the ground for a few weeks. Traditionally, the fish was wrapped in long grasses and fermented in cool temperatures, but then someone discovered Baggies and plastic buckets, which increase the speed of the process. Unfortunately, they also increase the number of botulism cases.
2. Casu Marzu – Sardinia
Made by introducing the eggs of the cheese fly to whole Pecorino cheese (hard cheese made from sheep’s milk) and letting the cheese ferment to a stage of terminal decomposition. Locally, the cheese is considered dangerous to eat when the maggots are dead, so you eat them live and squirming. As the larvae can jump six inches in the air, it is advisable to cover your cheese sandwich with your hand while eating to prevent being smacked in the face by grubs. An alternative is to put the cheese in a paper bag to suffocate the maggots, then eat it straight away. The maggots will jump around in the bag for a while, making a sound, I imagine, not unlike that of popcorn in the microwave. Although the European Union outlawed this food for a while, it has since been classified as a “traditional” food and therefore exempt from EU food hygiene regulations.
1. Fugu (Puffer fish) – Japan
Considered to be the second most toxic vertebrate in the world, puffer fish is a delicacy in Japan, but preparation of the food is strictly controlled, with only specially trained chefs in licensed restaurants permitted to deal with the fish. Fugu contains tetrodotoxin, a poison about 1200 times stronger than cyanide, which is most highly concentrated in the fish’s liver – the tastiest part. Sadly, for gourmets who like to live life on the edge, fugu liver in restaurants was banned in Japan in 1984.
Question: What is the most adventurous dish you’ve ever eaten?
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Img: “Fried Spiders,” by Stanley Wood
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