Trying local dishes is inherent to travel. There’s really no escaping it… and nor should you want to! Some of the most amazing meals of my life have been consumed while traveling – Indian curries, Japanese sushi, Cambodian Amok, Chinese duck – the list is long. These are the meals that have left their mark on me for their deliciousness… they’re the stuff my hunger-fueled daydreams are made of, they’re what keep me trying new foods everywhere I go.
But then there are those dishes that are memorable for other reasons; for the significant challenge they posed to my stomach and gag-reflex, for making me want to cry at the prospect of eating them, for their downright grossness. Some look much worse than they tasted, others tasted worse than they look, but they all took a lot of mental-conditioning to put into my mouth and they’re all reasonably common dishes in their local sphere. It is to these foods that this week’s Friday Fives is dedicated.
#1. Silkworm Larvae, South Korea:
I’m really not sure what it is about the words ‘larvae’, ‘pupae’ or ‘chrysalis’ that would entice anyone to ingest such a creature, but in South Korea, silkworm larvae (known as beondegi) is one of the more popular street-vendor snacks on offer. For us foreigners, well, we use beondegi as the ultimate decider in Fear Factor-esque food challenges. I personally have never been able to keep a single pupa down but most Koreans can’t get enough of it… go figure.
Aside from sounding and looking incredibly grim, the aroma of beondegi being steamed at roadside snack stalls is something akin to rotting garbage floating in stagnant sewerage – a thick, pungent stench that smacks you in the back of your throat and lingers in your sinuses for longer than is bearable. I became accustomed to zigzagging across the street to avoid the smell – its that bad.
(click here for one of the most hilarious accounts of beondegi tasting to date).
#2: Cod fish sperm, Japan:
I tried ‘shirako‘ in Tokyo earlier this year before I actually knew what shirako was. In the spirit of trying not to vomit in the restaurant, I had to ask that its true identity be kept secret from me until I’d finished eating it. I’m not good with stuff like this – it’s much easier when you don’t have mental images taunting you as you chew.
As with all the food on this list, I can’t quite grasp why anyone would look at a the nether-regions of a Cod fish and think “Oooh, that sack of sperm looks mighty appetizing, I’m going to eat it”… seriously? For starters, it looks like brains. It’s squishy, it’s wobbly… it’s fish jizz for heaven’s sake! But, it’s a popular delicacy in Japan that is said to improve a man’s virility – you can find it on the menu at many an Izakaya. Honestly, it doesn’t taste quite as bad as it sounds… It’s a fishy, eggy, creamy mix with a texture that’s not unlike lumpy custard… ok, yes, it’s gross.
#3. Fried Bugs, Cambodia:
These protein-rich spiders, grasshoppers, cockroaches and god-knows what else are sold by the bag-full around Cambodia. I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to try one of those giant, hairy Tarantulas (nor do I imagine I ever will), but I have sampled a few of the other bugs on offer. Fried scorpion would have to be the pick of the bunch – it just tasted like an overcooked crispy french-fry, minus the potato… That was until I unknowingly bit into its gut sack which squirted down the back of my throat as I did so, causing me to dry heave for a solid 10 minutes.
While busing about in Cambodia last year, we made a pit-stop in the town of Skuon, just north of Phnom Penh. Skuon is also known as ‘spider town’ as it is the epicenter of Cambodia’s arachnid farming and distribution (get me the hell out of there, I say). As the bus pulled into the stop, dozens of spider-wielding vendors clambered on to sell their jumpy snacks to the passengers. I watched in horror as the guy next to me bought a bag of spiders to munch on for the remainder of our journey – I know they’re dead, but what if their friends come back to avenge their murder? More horrific still was the sound and sight of this dude eating his eight-legged snacks – the image of spider guts dribbling down his chin is forever burned on my brain.
#4. Bamboo Grubs, Laos:
Sometimes they’re called Bamboo worms, but I prefer to go with ‘grub’ (I find it less repulsive). Regardless of the name, these little fellas are without a doubt the best gross food I’ve tried yet. A gross food success story at last! It probably helps that I was very drunk and hungry when I ate them (as I recall it, I was at about bar #5 on the Vang Vieng tubing route), but if these little guys came in packs with a freshness seal, I’d totally buy and eat them again (although it is possible that my ‘beer goggle’ memory has dolled them up a bit).
I’ve heard of these being served steamed – this, I would not be so keen to try – but the deep-fried version was a crispy, salty delight… kind of like popcorn or salty rice bubbles. Definitely gross to look at, surprisingly good to eat!
#5 Whole Lizard, Japan:
These ‘Sanshōo’, as I believe they are called, would have to be my most challenging meal ever. Let’s keep in mind that I tried these the same night I ate the cod fish sperm I was talking about earlier. Needless to say it was a traumatizing time for me, gastronomically speaking.
As you may have gathered from the photo, Sanshōo are whole lizards (guts, bones and all), grilled on sticks. They are sold as yet another virility-improving delicacy in Japanese eateries and they make for a truly horrible dining experience. In reality, they didn’t taste as bad as I thought they would – a bit like chicken, a bit like fish… a bit like bones – it was more of a mental aversion than anything else (I am terrified of all reptiles, great and small – dead or alive – and call me picky, but I’m also not a fan of guts and bones in general). The memory of crunching their delicate little skulls between my teeth is something that will haunt me until the end of my days.