I was in my twenties the first time I tried escargot. I thought I had truly broken all culinary barriers as I savored the garlic-infused gastropod in the name of gastronomy. Thirty-something years later I often find myself ordering the strangest things on menus around the world. After all, there's a reason that travel shows about food are among the most popular; everyone knows how to eat and the world is full of interesting choices. How far are you willing to step out of your palate's comfort zone?
Sitting in a beach bar in Nicaragua I noticed that sea cockroach ceviche was being offered as a specialty dish on the menu. Nothing with the word "roach" in it sounds appetizing yet I found myself extremely curious. After all, one never knows when you'll find yourself writing an article about strange foods around the world and have to admit you never took a chance. My mantra in these situations is: How bad can it be? Worst case scenario, you spit it out. Think about it this way—somebody likes it or it wouldn't still be on the menu.
I don't know what was worse. The fact that sea cockroach ceviche wasn't cooked, or that I made the mistake of Googling images of the little crustacean before the dish arrived. It turns out that the animal looks like a roach regardless of the fact that it's more closely related to a crab. It wasn't the worst thing that's ever been in my mouth, but the gummy texture didn't help the experience. I gagged a few morsels down before pushing the plate to the other side of the table. Sometimes it's better not to Google what you're eating until after the fact.
Asia is a cornucopia of culinary caution. Visit a snake restaurant and find out yourself. Venomous vipers slither around in the front window and you pick out one like you would a lobster. The chef cuts off its head, drains its blood into a cup, sautées the snake with a little garlic and serves it with rice. What happens to the blood you ask? It's mixed with a little alcohol and drunk as a shot; sometimes the gall bladder is thrown in for luck. I must admit that python tastes better than cobra. Maybe it's because it looks more like a steak and less like a poisonous snake. Or maybe it's because I didn't personally witness the execution of the python. Either way, Vietnam also sells bottles of liquor with a whole cobra coiled in the bottle. Drinking the liquor is supposed to be good for you, though I'm less interested in its health benefits and more curious how they got the snake inside.
Most large Chinese cities have a night market and that's when the creepy-crawlies come out. In addition to strange fish and rodents being sold as late night snacks, you'll find skewers of live scorpions, sea horses and larva waiting to be served. Eating a scorpion might be the most challenging thing I've done. (Pro tip: they're nothing like the scorpion rolls at sushi restaurants.) For less than a dollar, the vendor will grab a stick with five or six live, impaled scorpions and dip it in hot oil for a few moments until the insects stop squirming. Next, he hands the stick to you and you're supposed to eat them—just right then and there. I'll admit it took me a few minutes to get the nerve to eat a fried scorpion, but in the end, peer pressure won out. What did they taste like? Exactly like pork rinds—pork rinds with little legs and stingers.
African lodges often serve exotic game and offer an opportunity to savor animals you thought only belonged in National Geographic videos. Ostrich is delicious, for instance. You might assume that it tastes like a giant turkey, but you'd be wrong. The meat is red, very lean and has nothing in common with poultry. To confuse things even more, zebra meat is white. Warthog tastes like pig and crocodile can be a little tough with a slight fishy taste. Africans have perfected the process of making jerky, called biltong in South Africa, and you'll find varieties of gemsbok, impala, kudu and almost every other African antelope packaged and ready to go for your next safari.
Scandinavia, too, has its share of bizarre food choices. Noma, named the best restaurant in the world for three consecutive years, and is famous for serving live ants. The insects are used as a seasoning on the restaurant's signature steak tartare or the "almost live" shrimp dish, served with the shrimp so fresh it's still twitching. The ants are quite alive until you swallow them and supposedly have a nice crunch to them.
Fermented fish (a.k.a. lutefisk) is a popular choice throughout Sweden and Norway, while in Iceland and Greenland shark is served after rotting and being hung to dry for months (it's poisonous otherwise). The decomposition and fermentation processes bring out a strong ammonia and fishy flavor that's extremely challenging for those unaccustomed to the taste. Maybe that why eating bite-sized cubes of hákarl are often associated with hardiness and strength (as well as sudden nausea).
Ever seen a puffin? They're cute little birds that kind of resemble penguins—and they're also on the menu here too. Whales are endangered elsewhere, but it's easy to grab a whale steak in Iceland. What does it taste like? I thought it tasted like liver and I could go the rest of my life without repeating the experience. Even Rudolph isn't safe in Scandinavia. Reindeer burgers are available from Iceland to Finland. Ever wanted to try bear? Neighboring Estonia sells it by the can.
In a few months I'll be visiting Sardinia and I have to make a difficult food choice: should I try the infamous Casu Marzu or not? This sheep's milk-based cheese is fermented by deliberately introducing maggots which digest the cheese and break it down into a softer state, leaving traces of an oozing liquid called lagrima (or "tears," like the ones you cry when confronted with a slice of wriggling Casu Marzu). These maggots are translucent and can jump six inches if startled. Some Sardinians remove them before the cheese is served while others eat the whole thing, leaping larvae and all. Eating maggot-cheese excrement sounds like the worst possible choice I could make—but can 1.5 million Sardinians really be wrong? I just have to keep reminding myself: somebody likes it or it wouldn't still be on the menu.