Part of the thrill of traveling is learning about unfamiliar cultures and customs. Most travelers have heard of popular international foods like escargot, tapas, or gelato. The real thrill is stepping out of your comfort zone, and diving into foods that you’ve never tried or even heard of before. Some of the most intriguing travel experiences focus on a destination’s delicious — though often unusual or visually unappealing — cuisine. Sampling obscure-sounding foods is an adventure, especially in an exotic, unique locale.
The most expensive seafood in the world, percebes are crustaceans that attach themselves to rocks along the coast in the eastern Atlantic, from France to Morocco, the Canary Islands, and the Cape Verde Islands. Harvesting these delicacies is a hazardous and expensive endeavor. You’ll find percebes primarily on the Iberian Peninsula. The only edible parts are the stems, which chefs boil in salty water and a bay leaf for a few seconds. They serve no side dishes with it, only a dash of olive oil. People describe the flavor as salty, but fresh, and similar to crab.
The Aztecs regarded this dish as a delicacy. Today, this traditional Mexican dish is a pricey, but delicious venture into unusual international cuisine. The ingredients include the ant larva of the Liometopum apiculatum, or velvety tree ant, which cooks then fry with butter, chili, and onion and serve in tacos, omelets, or with a side of tortillas and guacamole. Most people describe the flavors as buttery, nutty, and tasty.
For centuries, insects have been a mainstay of international cuisine. They’re high-protein, nutrient-rich food sources. In the Shan State in northern Myanmar, one of the rarer edible insects is the hornet. Harvesting them can be quite dangerous, so they’re expensive. The preparers don’t batter the hornets. Instead, they fry the hornets so that there is a delicate crunch when you bite into them. Those who’ve tried them say they taste a bit like chicken.
This interesting sweet dish is also called “Raindrop Cake” in Japan. Its visual presentation is graceful and elegant, and once prepared, you must eat it within 30 minutes or it will melt. Chefs start with a funazara, or bamboo boat plate. The “raindrop” that sits on the plate consists of water and agar powder and resembles a droplet of rain on a leaf. They serve it with kinako, a soybean powder, and kuromitsu, brown sugar syrup creating a lightly sweet creation.
Most people have heard of black pudding. They also think twice about trying it once they discover how it’s made. But this ancient and traditional breakfast food is a delicious sausage that you’d never suspect contains pig’s blood and pork fat. Maybe it’s the onions, herbs, spices, and groats that make it so appealing. Fans say black pudding is savory, nutty, earthy, and sometimes a bit spicy. It’s a bit chunkier than typical sausage and some people enjoy crumbling it up into pieces and mixing it with mashed potatoes.
You’re most likely to see this popular food in a Middle Eastern market or at an Asian food stall, often on wooden skewers so that you can eat them on the move. But high-end, gourmet restaurants serve them as well. To prepare them, pull off the head, the short legs, and the wings, but keep the longer legs. Fry the locust in a light flour or tempura batter. They’re plump and delicious. Chefs say they taste like a mixture of quail meat and sunflower seeds.
It should be no surprise that in the “Land of the Horse People,” the national beverage of Mongolia is airag, or mare’s milk. Traditionally, the people filter the milk through a cloth and pour it into a Khukhuur, a large leather sack. They hang the full bags near the front door of their yurt and stir it over the next one to two days while it ferments. The slightly sour taste is both refreshing and nourishing. It also contains up to 2% alcohol, so beware of drinking too much.
A delicacy both raw and pan-fried, the witchetty grub is a food native to Australia and a famous item on the Bush tucker or Bush Food menu. For generations, Aboriginal communities have eaten the cossid wood moth during its larval caterpillar stage, a rich source of protein. The grubs grow to about five inches in length. The grub’s name comes from its diet, the woody roots, and sap of the Witchetty bush. Its center is liquid and most people compare its flavor to that of almonds. When cooked, they have a taste similar to chicken or prawns in peanut sauce.
Boiled or steamed beondegi is a popular South Korean snack food and can be sweet or savory, spicy, salted, or candied. Beondegi is silkworm pupae that is served in disposable cups with toothpicks. It has a fishy or nutty taste, with a tad of crunch and chewiness which some culinary explorers say reminds them of boiled peanuts. You can purchase Beondegi from food vendors or supermarkets.
In this island paradise, divers plunge to the sea beds to harvest an island delicacy, the sea egg. These sea urchins have spines that can extend to six inches long and can easily cause injury to those who gather them. After harvesting, the preparer cracks the egg with a spoon to open it. The roe inside the egg is the only edible part of the urchin. Some people eat them raw with a squeeze of lemon juice. Chefs and traditional cooks either fry, stew, or sauté them.
This bumpy, pale green fruit has hundreds of names across the different Polynesian cultures, including “vomit fruit” or “cheese fruit.” The smell of this fruit is strong and unpleasant, similar to a smelly, ripened cheese. It has a tart flavor. Most people consume it raw, while others season noni fruit with salt before eating it. Cooks often add it to curries or serve it with rice. They may also extract the seeds and roast them. Thai cooks stew noni leaves in coconut milk to prepare a dish called kaeng bai-yo. INoni fruit is high in potassium and antioxidants but also has a mild laxative effect.
Most culinarians have heard of tripe dishes, but haven’t been brave enough to try them. Shkembe is a popular Bulgarian soup. Cooks start with minced tripe, then boil it in milk. They add oil, garlic, and vinegar, spice it up with both paprika and chili. Traditionally, they serve it with a side of warm bread and a shot of a popular spirit called rakija or a beer. Shkembe is also a traditional hangover cure.
Fried tarantula, anyone? This dish helped fend off starvation for many Cambodians due to the Pol Pot regime’s takeover of the country in the late 1970s. Today, this fried arthropod dish, which cooks serve with a side of lime dip and an ample dusting of black pepper, is a delicacy. Not everyone eats the stomach section, which may contain cobwebs. According to some food explorers, the taste is similar to fried crab.
If you love earthy, salty flavors, with slightly sweet and tangy undertones, you’ll probably enjoy stinky tofu. You’ll have to get by the acrid smell first, though. Steaming, frying, and barbecue-style are popular cooking methods. But if you travel to China’s Hunan province, you’ll find a Changsha-style version, a super-spicy concoction with fermented bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, and a type of mold, koji. Foodies who enjoy aged cheeses will probably enjoy stinky tofu, too.
A traditional Inuit meal, muktuk is frozen bowhead or beluga whale skin and blubber which is usually pickled or served raw. Different tribes may season it differently. Some cooks dice it, bread it, deep fry it, and serve it with soy sauce. The skin, though rubbery and elastic, tastes surprisingly like hazelnuts but can be difficult to chew. The blubber generally melts in the mouth as you chew it, releasing a subtle, yet somewhat oily, seafood flavor. Others say it tastes more like fried eggs. Muktuk is high in vitamins C and D. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely worth trying if you get the opportunity.