TRY BEFORE YOU DIE
For those who dare, the world offers a host of strange and exotic dishes to test your nerves as well as your palate, writes Dominic Bliss
Dishes strictly for culinary adventureseekers
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 you 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. The cephalopod is cut into pieces before consumption, but nerve activity causes its tentacles to writhe, and its suckers to keep on sucking after death. Forget to chew and 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 find the Western fondness for cheese very peculiar, in South Korea, certain restaurants serve a dish you’ll never find in the West. On the Korean Peninsula, man’s best friend occasionally
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. “The 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.) “The 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. The 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 offered to me. It’s still pumping, a tiny pink-andwhite 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 into strips and hanging it out to dry for several more months. The 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 horrific things I’ve ever breathed in my life. That’s hard-core,” he emphasised.
Talking of hard-core, what about extra-strong chilli peppers? Their heat is determined by the concentration of capsaicin, usually in the pith and seeds. The 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 ratified 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. They 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 flour. They 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. “Fifteen years ago, raw fish 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 flavoured with the likes of smoked onion, paprika, soy sauce, garlic and cumin. There are, however, a few wings to contend with.
Above: Organs within the puffer fish contain tetrodotoxin, small amounts of which will paralyse your muscles
Below: ‘The snake heart, still beating, is placed gently into the white cup and offered to me. I bring it to my lips’
Above: Dog is sometimes eaten as a celebratory meal in a few countries in East Asia
Below: Crispy tarantulas – a gimmick for the tourists, but edible