Would you eat any of the following?
Each is a popular food in some part of the world, but I’m guessing you reacted negatively to all of them. Two were submitted as answers to a question we asked on a recent survey of Road Scholars: “What is the strangest or most daring thing you have eaten? Please describe the location and circumstances!”
I read through nearly 700 responses to this question, and, believe me, it was a tour through every branch of the animal and vegetable kingdoms to make Carl Linnaeus or Charles Darwin proud. I could easily have compiled a blog titled Top Ten Foods Guaranteed to Gross You Out, but the range and variety of the response raised more interesting questions, like these …
Why do we turn up our noses at food we’ve never tasted? Why is one group of people repelled by a food that to others is a delicacy? Are there foods we love in the United States that people from other parts of the world can’t imagine eating?
I looked into these questions and got quite an education in the psychology of taste and cultural tolerance, at least through the lens of food. Let’s go straight to today’s menu to see what I learned.
Kimchee. According to a website about life in Korea, 67% of Koreans living in rural areas and 58% living in urban areas eat kimchee every day. A combination of fermented cabbage, onion, garlic, fish sauce and peppers of varying heat, it has hundreds of flavors, typically built on a sour taste many Westerners recoil from. Almost every cuisine has food processed through fermentation, like lassi, the Indian yogurt drink, or the sauerkraut you put on your hot dog at a baseball game. Many fermented foods have probiotic qualities, adding “good” bacteria to your stomach’s ecosystem. While kimchee’s strong smell may be initially off-putting, it’s worth trying. If you like it, you’ve added something healthy to your diet.
Escargots. Escargots have long been a weird foot rite of passage, generating a jumble of emotions. They’re French, and we’re supposed to be impressed with French cuisine, right? Didn’t Julia Child tell us so? But snails are also garden pests that leave a slimy trail in their wake. Who would want to eat that? In the 1965 edition of Mastering the Art of Cooking, escargots aren’t even mentioned; was this because they weren’t available in U.S markets, or because Ms. Child thought Americans’ taste buds weren’t ready for this Gallic delicacy? Despite their rubbery texture, if you like butter and garlic, you’ll probably like escargots.
Guinea Pig. Dozens of Road Scholars report trying grilled guinea pig while on programs in the Andes, where they’re a common street-vendor food known as cuyes and described as “tasting like chicken.” Many Americans think of them as a furry pet rather than a foodstuff, but they’re a great marker of shifting tastes and even of environmental economics. A 2013 NPR story reported that guinea pig is beginning to appear on U.S. menus, driven by demand from “Andean expats” from Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. They also may be good for the environment, a “low-impact meat alternative to carbon-costly beef.” Curious? You can try it in Andean restaurants from Queens to San Diego, or order frozen guinea pig meat online and prepare it at home.
Grubs. Grub is slang for food, right? As in “let’s go grab some grub?” So who could object to eating actual grubs? A grub is the larva of an insect, like a beetle or a moth; several Road Scholars reported eating witchetty grubs—the caterpillar stage of a wood moth—in Aboriginal areas of Australia. They’re a staple of the hunter-gatherer diet, typically eaten after being roasted on a stick, and survival experts and people just trying to grab their 15 minutes of fame like to demonstrate their mettle by eating grubs. (Don’t believe me? Check YouTube.) According to a report from the National Geographic Society, more than a quarter of the earth’s population eats insects (crickets and other types, as well as grubs), they can be farmed with low environmental impact, and they’re an excellent source of protein. You may never eat an insect, but, in an increasingly crowded planet, it’s quite likely that your children or grandchildren will.
Hákarl. Now here’s a food that I’ve never eaten and, frankly, I’m not inclined to try. Hákarl is what you get when you bury a shark carcass in the sand for several months until it ferments, then hang it up to dry. It’s a traditional food of Iceland, and you can just imagine Viking explorers caching a dead shark on a remote beach for the next time they pass that way. Hákarl has a powerful ammonia smell, and one Road Scholar describes eating hákarl in Iceland outside a horse stable where the air was already foul and the rotten smell of the fish wasn’t as noticeable! The intrepid chef Anthony Bourdain describes it as “unspeakably nasty” and “probably the single worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.” Experts in the psychology of taste make a distinction between “distaste” and “disgust.” The biological root of disgust is a reaction to protect ourselves from harm; think of how your face contorts when you imagine something you find disgusting— your nose curls up and you might stick your tongue and say “yuck” in a simulated act of oral expulsion, mimicking the reflexive response to putting something poisonous in your mouth. Most people, including, as it turns out, many Icelanders, react that way to hákarl.
Haggis. Haggis, Scotland’s national dish, is made by mixing and cooking sheep organ meats (heart, liver, lungs, sometimes tongue) with onion, oatmeal, herbs and spices, and stuffing it all into the sheep’s stomach before boiling the whole concoction for three hours. I’ve heard it described as a “poor man’s sausage,” and it certainly is a laudable example of the waste-not- want-not approach toward food that the disadvantaged have by necessity adopted. One Road Scholar said they had tried haggis on a program in Scotland and that the taste was improved by a generous pour of Scotch whiskey.
Sea Urchin. Sea urchin, or uni on the sushi bar menu, is something you either love or hate. One Road Scholar described it as “awful, having the color of yellow mustard, the appearance of the surface of one’s tongue and sliminess beyond my imagination.” One website, on the other hand, says that “uni is firm but melts in your mouth with its rich and creamy sweetness.” You can try it and decide for yourself.
Baloot, or Balut. Baloot is a common street food in the Philippines and Southeast Asia made from a duck’s egg that’s been fertilized for about 17 days before being boiled. It’s said to taste like a boiled egg with the added crunch from the partially developed feathers and bones. Think for a moment about baloot in contrast to hákarl. The reaction of disgust we have to the idea of rotten shark reeking of ammonia is based on an instinctual self-preservation from something our senses tell us might be poisonous. But my (and perhaps your) reaction to baloot is something different. We’ve all eaten eggs, and many of us have eaten duck, so the ingredients of baloot aren’t inherently disgusting. So it’s something about the very idea that’s off-putting, perhaps a strong cultural bias against eating what’s basically a baby duck.
Cheese. Cheese? Yes, cheese or, as I deliberately misdirected in my opening, the “rotted, bacteria-filled, bodily fluid of an ungulate.” Cheese is made by coagulating proteins in milk from cows, sheep, goats, buffalo or other animals, a process started with bacteria (including bacteria from the Streptococcus family!), and the finished product often includes a healthy dose of mold. Sounds pretty disgusting when you put it that way, right? It turns out that many people around the world find cheese repulsive, and it’s a good reminder of how food tastes and preferences are largely determined by culture.
Food is an important window into culture, and trying new foods when we travel is a great way to expand our comfort zone and confront our prejudices. I’m not suggesting that you seek out these specific foods, but I hope you agree that a great way to stretch your mind is by challenging your palate.
Are there any foods from this list that you wouldn’t eat? Add your comments telling us which, or write about your own interesting food experiences!
On a jungle hike in Belize, the guide poked a stick into a termite nest and brought out live, wiggly insects for us to sample. He pronounced that they taste just like carrots. It was a mind over matter experience to put the living critters into my mouth, but in fact, they do taste just like carrots.
I was sorry I did not get to try witchetty grubs on my trip to Australia. Have loved Kimchee ever since I first tried it but haven't been too successful making it myself. Had been warned about Hakarl before the cruise around Iceland, but, other than the smell, found it was as tasty as really rotten cheese. Read about escargots many years ago and thought I would like them. The first opportunity I had to try them, I found them to be a real treat.(Plus, they are easy to prepare.) Because they were mentioned, I tried guinea pig in Peru. The only food not mentioned above which has a bad rep (largely because of the smell) is durian. It is like custard.