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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I’m proud to say that I actually caught a puffer fish down off the gulf coast of Texas on a regular old fishing rod. (I thought I’d caught an egg.) I wowed my fishing partner with that catch…needless to say, we didn’t eat it. Just tossed it back into the sea. So cool….
While I have never even been fishing! For me it brings up images of standing on river banks in soggy waders, for hours on end on rainy Sunday mornings.
Your version sounds far more exciting.
But of course I’ve eaten #7, the fugu (the poisonous blowfish). My first taste of it was in Shimonoseki, fugu capital of the world! By the time I made it to Shimonoseki (westernmost city on Honshu Island), I’d lived in Japan so long I’d do anything for a frisson of excitement. (No one will understand this unless they are long-term residents of Japan.)
And you know something else? The fish is pretty tasteless! It’s the sauces that make it nice. (No one will understand this unless they are Japanese.)
But something I do love, retained from my Japan days, is fugu no hire sake, sake with burnt fugu fin. To die for — I don’t mean that literally… On the contrary, I would maintain that if you haven’t had that sake, you haven’t lived!!!
yikes!! no thanks to ALL of these…
No. 3 sounds a little like the Icelandic dish Hakarl, but Hakarl is made with shark rather salmon which only serves to make it more awesome.
I’m always keen to try new things. I thought Durian is interesting and not as bad as people male out.
Things that have made me nauseous recently. Dried fish as you find in Nordic supermarkets. Tried it, not for me, like bonnita flakes you give a cat.
My worst experiences have been with drinks. Had some parsnip wine I bought at Scotch corner. Had a bouquet of halitosis, burnt dog hair and despair.
But the absolute worst thing I’ve ever tried is the Bud Light and Clamato mix. Awful flavors combined into one proccessed taste.
ML and her poisonous fugu? Pah! The bravery medal goes to you for Bud Light and Clamato. Quite possibly the nastiest food invention out there…must have been quite an office party at the Bud factory to come up with that one.
I’m half Swedish, so surströmming is just what we eat every summer when the new season opens in late August. Everyone anticipates the release of the year’s surströmming with an odd delight. I have to admit that being only half Swedish and not having lived there much, my experience with it is limited and it was definitely an acquired taste. It may smell putrid (some compare it to durian) but it will never poison or kill you. Sweden is still a pretty safe place! 🙂 It doesn’t really taste like much. Probably because you put tiny little slices of it on a mound of mashed potato slathered with onion on top of a piece of hard bread. Northern Swedes swear by this “delicacy” and I myself can’t wait for this year’s surströmmingsfest! (Always held outside or in a cabin, to avoid bringing the smell into the place where you live and sleep! Oh, and all butter, bread and other food present at these parties are thrown away after, for obvious reasons.) I keep promising my husband he’ll get to try this specialty, but for some reason he keeps trying to avoid it… hmmm…
I suspect airlines banned the food not because the cans could cause a midair explosion, as was suggested, but rather if one did burst it would cause some very unpleasant traveling conditions that no amount of air freshener would rectify!
@Anna Maria Moore
Interesting that you say it “doesn’t really taste like much.” Same with fugu! Seems strange, given all the fuss!
So I guess your husband isn’t Swedish? Perhaps it’s something you have to be born, or semi-born, eating, rather like Marmite in the UK (Kate knows all about that!) or natto (fermented soybeans) in Japan. Both come under the rubric of acquired tastes — I never managed to acquire them despite years of living in both places.
Fantastic piece! Sannakji seems like the strangest of all these things. The idea of the tentacles grabbing hold of my tonsils is terrifying! :S
Yes, that was the dish that grabbed me — so to speak — when I was looking for items for this post. And there were so many other fascinating dishes without any element of danger…the picture of a whole sheep’s head on a plate is not one I can easily forget. Baaa.
Living in Japan I too have eaten everything. The only thing I really didn’t enjoy was a glass full of fish eyeballs of some sort. Mixed together they formed a gelatinous mass. I was supposed to drink these in one gulp as they eyed me from below, however, there were too many to get down. I had to bite the mass in half mid swallow thus releasing a cacophony of exploding eyes. “Drinking” that made me break out in a sweat.