Weird foods of the world

Business Traveller (India) - - CONTENTS - WORDS DO­MINIC BLISS

Be­ware the dreaded fugu puffer fish. This aquatic del­i­cacy, which you’ll find on restau­rant menus all over Ja­pan, con­tains a lethal neu­ro­toxin called tetrodotoxin. Ja­pa­nese chefs have to un­dergo years of train­ing, pass a tough exam and ob­tain a li­cence be­fore they’re al­lowed loose on the crea­ture – which is re­as­sur­ing to know, since just one slip of the knife can re­sult in death at the din­ner table.

Or­gans within the puffer fish, such as the liver, con­tain the toxin, small amounts of which will paral­yse your muscles, stop your breath­ing and ul­ti­mately as­phyx­i­ate you.

Tetrodotoxin is taste­less, odour­less and there’s no known an­ti­dote. One of the most fa­mous cases of death by fugu was in 1975, when cel­e­brated Ja­pa­nese ac­tor Bando Mit­sug­oro VIII in­sisted on be­ing served the fish’s liver, claim­ing he was im­mune to the poi­son. It was to be his fi­nale.

Nowa­days, thanks to strict reg­u­la­tions, deaths are rare – but not un­known. Cocky am­a­teur chefs and fish­er­men who con­fuse species come a crop­per from time to time.

The at­trac­tion of fugu is hard to fathom – it doesn’t even taste that good, and has a chewy tex­ture, like a raw car­ti­lagi­nous fish such as skate.

Don­ald Richie, the (late) au­thor of A Taste of Ja­pan, summed it up well: “There is a sense of oc­ca­sion when you go to eat it, height­ened by the chance that it could be the last sup­per. It’s also a form of gus­ta­tory con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion be­cause fugu is ex­pen­sive. I sup­pose you could call it ‘event eating’; the chef has an ‘off ’ night and you’re cur­tains.”

At least fugu is dead when you eat it. Some food­stuffs are con­sumed while still alive, oys­ters be­ing an ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple. In China, you might see “drunken shrimp” on the menu – live fresh­wa­ter prawns served in al­co­hol. In Ja­pan, there’s a method of pre­sent­ing sashimi called ik­izukuri, whereby fish are pre­sented still mov­ing at the table. On the Ital­ian is­land of Sar­dinia, lo­cals swear by a cheese called casu marzu, which is eaten along with hun­dreds of wrig­gling fly lar­vae, whose ex­cre­tions sup­pos­edly add to the flavour. Al­though banned by the Euro­pean Union, black mar­ket sup­plies can be found by lo­cals, some of whom claim it’s an aphro­disiac. Just be sure to chew

be­fore you swal­low or risk hav­ing mag­gots wrig­gling inside your stom­ach.

In South Korea, they’re used to a bit of wrig­gling – they eat a raw baby oc­to­pus dish called san-nakji. e cephalo­pod is cut into pieces be­fore con­sump­tion, but nerve ac­tiv­ity causes its ten­ta­cles to writhe, and its suck­ers to keep on suck­ing a er death. For­get to chew as said suck­ers can latch on to your throat as they go down.

Foods that pass for every­day in one cul­ture can be dis­dained or even taboo in another, and the bound­aries we cre­ate between the ed­i­ble and the dis­gust­ing are largely ar­bi­trary. While East Asians nd the Western fond­ness for cheese very pe­cu­liar, in South Korea, cer­tain restau­rants serve a dish you’ll never nd in the West. On the Korean Penin­sula, man’s best friend oc­ca­sion­ally be­comes man’s next sup­per. Not just any dog, but one that’s bred for hu­man con­sump­tion: the nure­ongi. For­tu­nately, in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism means there has been a clamp-down on its pro­duc­tion, ahead of the 2018 Win­ter Olympic Games.

In his book The Year of Eating Dan­ger­ously food writer (and son of Camilla, Duchess of Corn­wall) Tom Parker Bowles spends an un­com­fort­able few days in Seoul psych­ing him­self up and even­tu­ally eating dog soup. “e meat is chewy and stringy, but fairly in­nocu­ous with a slight gamey tang,” he writes. “It could be cheap beef brisket.”

If you’re feel­ing re­ally ad­ven­tur­ous you could head to Viet­nam where you can con­sume the gall blad­der – or in­deed the beat­ing heart – of a snake (sup­pos­edly another aphro­disiac). Amer­i­can food writer An­thony Bour­dain de­scribes this spe­cial­ity in his book A Cook’s Tour. (If you’re squea­mish, look away now.)

“e han­dler takes the scis­sors,” he writes, “in­serts a blade into the co­bra’s chest, and snips out the heart, a rush of dark red blood spilling into the metal dish as he does so. e blood is poured into a glass and mixed with a lit­tle rice wine. And the heart, still beat­ing, is placed gen­tly into the small white cup and o ered to me. It’s still pumping, a tiny pink-and-white ob­ject, mov­ing up and down at a reg­u­lar pace in a small pool of blood at the bot­tom of the cup. I bring it to my lips, tilt my head back, and swal­low. I give it one light chew, but the heart still beats… and beats… and beats. All the way down.”

Co­bra heart may seem like the eas­ier op­tion if you’ve ever tried Ice­landic dish hakarl. Meat from the Green­land shark, is poi­sonous to eat when fresh but Ice­landers solve this prob­lem by bury­ing it be­neath gravel for a few months, then slic­ing it

We’ll all be eating in­sects one day very soon, it’s just a ques­tions of train­ing our palates

into strips and hang­ing it out to dry for sev­eral more months. e end prod­uct has a vi­ciously pun­gent am­mo­nia smell to it, and is eaten in su­gar cube-sized lumps as a bar snack.

On the Amer­i­can TV show Bizarre Foods, An­drew Zim­mern said the smell of hakarl re­minded him of “some of the most horri c things I’ve ever breathed in my life. “at’s hard­core,” he em­pha­sised.

Talk­ing of hard­core, what about ex­tra-strong chilli pep­pers? eir heat is de­ter­mined by the con­cen­tra­tion of cap­saicin, usu­ally in the pith and seeds.

e more vi­cious chilli species can burn lips, mouths and stom­achs, and cause tears, pro­fuse sweat­ing, vom­it­ing, and even body spasms.

Cap­saicin con­tent and chilli fe­roc­ity can be mea­sured ac­cord­ing to the Scov­ille scale. Paprika comes in at between 100 and 1,000 SHU (Scov­ille Heat Units), while cayenne pep­per mea­sures between 30,000 and 50,000. Ac­cord­ing to the Guin­ness World Records, the hottest chilli ever recorded was a va­ri­ety called the Carolina Reaper at a whop­ping 1.57 mil­lion SHU. But Pep­per X has since su­per­seded this at 3.18 mil­lion SHU – yet to be rati ed by Guin­ness.

Per­haps “weird” food is some­thing we’re go­ing to have to get used to. As the world’s pop­u­la­tion grows, and we have more and more mouths to feed, we’re go­ing to have to over­come some of our culi­nary prej­u­dices. One so­lu­tion to our ex­pand­ing global pop­u­la­tion might be to start farm­ing in­sects on a grand scale.

French chefs Clement Scel­lier and Bastien Rabas­tens are al­ready one step ahead of the game. ey rear in­sects in the Nether­lands and mar­ket them as snacks for hu­man con­sump­tion un­der their brand Ji­mini’s. Within the range are whole grasshop­pers, meal­worms and crick­ets, as well as fruit and al­mond bars con­tain­ing cricket our.

ey point out how in­sect farm­ing uses far less food and wa­ter than meat farm­ing, and “gen­er­ates 99 times less green­house gas emis­sions”. We’ll all be eating in­sects one day very soon, they claim. It’s just a ques­tion of train­ing our palates.

“Euro­pean consumers are not used to eating in­sects but it does not mean they will never do it,” says Scel­lier. “Fi een years ago, raw sh was not a tra­di­tion in Europe. Nowa­days, peo­ple eat sushi reg­u­larly and it is no longer con­sid­ered ad­ven­tur­ous. It shows that tra­di­tion can be changed.”

But what do they taste like? In­sect-shy consumers will be glad to hear the snacks are strongly avoured with the likes of smoked onion, paprika, soy sauce, gar­lic and cumin. ere are, how­ever, a few wings to con­tend with. While aca­demics and pol­i­cy­mak­ers wring their hands over the food se­cu­rity of our na­tions and planet, there’s one food­stu we’ll never be short of: jelly sh. Eaten by the Chi­nese for mil­len­nia and served as sashimi in Ja­pan, the world’s warm­ing oceans are in­creas­ingly re­plete with this un­der- ap­pre­ci­ated an­i­mal. Fuch­sia Dun­lop, the lead­ing writer on Chi­nese food, says: “Jelly sh has no taste at all. In China, it is prized for its slip­pery-crisp tex­ture. e smooth hood of the crea­ture, known as ‘jelly sh skin’ is usu­ally cut into rib­bons, dressed and eaten like a sal­ady ap­pe­tiser, while the frilly oral arms, known as ‘jelly sh head’, have an even crisper tex­ture and are served as they are, with a sprightly vine­gar dip.” Just make sure you can iden­tify the ed­i­ble species cor­rectly: some, such as the Por­tuguese man o’ war, has ten­ta­cles so ven­omous that they can cause death.

PRE­VI­OUS PAGE: fugu sashimiCLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: crispy taran­tu­las; dog meat; jel­ly­fish salad; and raw baby oc­to­pus

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