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

Business Traveller (Middle East) - - Contents -

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

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