Homosapiens have spread to every corner of the earth, creating a spectrum of cultures of incredible diversity. One of the things that makes the modern world so wonderful is the ease with which we can engage with these cultures via their cuisine, without ever leaving our homes.
But what about the dishes less common, those that only make sense to those that grew up with them? One Small World looks at the strange things the people of the world put in their mouths.
Kicking off the list at Number 7:
Caganer – Poop candy
The Spanish are a devout lot; in 2013 over 70% of Spaniards declared themselves to be Roman Catholic. You would think that this would result in Christmas being treated with a certain…sanctity.
Not in Catalonia, where pooping is more than just a passing fancy (pun!) over the holiday season. In this part of Spain it is traditional to have a pooping man present in your nativity scene. The little guy is known as the Caganer and the tradition in the region dates back to at least the late 17th century, though no one really knows the significance.
So as Christmas comes around the Catalonians start producing little popping statues – traditionally of peasants, but now of politicians, popes, celebrities and sporting stars.
In 2005 the city of Barcelona excluded the Caganer from the traditional Christmas displays, causing an absolute uproar. The little defecating man was back in all displays in 2006. Only 5 years later Barcelona produced the worlds largest Caganer, 19 feet high, who was laying down a curly, almost a metre tall.
But of course this is a countdown of food traditions. Well, the Caganer tradition has spawned a curious food tradition where, over the Christmas period you can buy candies and pastries shaped like faeces; the proverbial Yuletide log.
At number 6:
Balut – Wow, this duck egg is crunchy…
Common on the streets of southeast asia, a Balut is a developing duck embryo boiled alive in the shell. According to Wikipedia, the eggs are appreciated for their balance of texture and flavour. In Filipino and Malay, the word ‘balut’ means ‘wrapped’.
..’5 golden rings’…
Penis – Farmyard of phalluses
We men have been obsessed with our own virility for thousands of years. We have applied potions for prowess, slaughtered fearsome animals to prove our manliness, and have stuck ridiculous things in our gob, all in the name of increasing our sexual potency. Given that the global population is accelerating out of control, maybe it worked.
Perhaps because of this lengthy history, many cultures don’t seem to find the idea strange that you would eat something else’s ding-dong in order to make your own ding-dong work better.
Sheep, goat, deer, whale – if Blue Whale was on the menu you could have 10 feet of penisy goodness – seal, cow, dog, yak, the list goes on. Eaten deep fried or steamed, in soups or stews, no matter the wang that you want, it is likely that it is available.
For the sake of cultural sensitivity we won’t point out the obvious homo-bestial overtones of the whole thing…oops.
And locked in at number 4 of the world’s strangest foods:
Escamole – Insect Caviar
Though caviar itself is a pretty strange prospect for most people, Escamole probably takes the proverbial animal-spawn cake.
Harvested from the roots of tequila or mescal agave plants, Escamole is the fancy name for ant larvae. To many people in Mexico, Escamole is considered a delicacy, used much as you would rice or quinoa, though the prospect of eating them in a taco with guacamole makes the idea considerably more palatable.
Described as having a cottage-cheese type texture and a nutty, buttery taste, Escamole is sometime know as ‘insect caviar’.
Drunken Shrimp – alive and drinking
A shrimp walks into a bar…where he is summarily plied with strong alcohol and then, once unable to function much beyond rolling his eyeballs and groaning, is eaten as a Chinese delicacy.
If you like the feeling of live seafood in your mouth but don’t like the idea of giving your meal a fighting chance, then Drunken Shrimp is for you! For the traditional Drunken Shrimp connoisseur, the shrimp are stunned in a strong liquor and then eaten, alive but too wasted to care.
Number 2, so close now:
Surströmming – Swedish rotting fish
Popular in some parts of Sweden, surströmming holds the title of the most putrid smelling food on the planet. Baltic herring is left to ferment (which is the nice way of saying ‘rot’) for two months in brine-filled barrels and then canned… and left to ferment further in the can for another 6 months.
The resulting fish has as smell so strong that it is enough to make people vomit at a whiff, let alone actually get it into their mouths. The German food critic Wolfgang Fassbender once wrote that “the biggest challenge when eating surströmming is to vomit only after the first bite, as opposed to before.”
The cans, swelling with the juices and gases of decomposition, are banned on many airlines for their propensity to explode, no doubt for fear that the resultant mass suicide of passengers stuck in a confined space with the smell, would be bad for business. Not surprisingly the foodstuff comes with the unwritten rule that it be eaten outside.
But the last word on this Swedish delight should go to a nameless Swedish man on the internet who described the smell of surströmming as “like a dumpster full of fish, diapers and medical waste that has not been emptied for a month in the highest heat imaginable.”
For those people who get a tickle out of a bit of schadenfreude – there are plenty of videos on the net of people opening a can for the first time, and suffering the consequences.
Numero Uno on OSW’s list of strangest food traditions goes to:
Casu Marzu – The Cheese of Nightmares
Cheese holds a special place in my heart – figuratively as well as literally, I suspect – but I had never considered the need to wear protective eyewear when eating it. Meet Casu Marzu (or as it is translated for effect, ‘The maggot cheese of the Mediterranean’), perhaps the only cheese ever to have been outlawed.
Casu Marzu is a traditional Sardinian sheep milk cheese (all good so far), which is impregnated with live maggots (woah, that went west quickly).
Made from Pecorino, the cheese is left out in the sun so that flies can seed it with their eggs. But, for those people who just can’t wait for their tasty, cheesy, squirmy mouthful to be naturally laid upon by your friendly neighbourhood flies, it is possible to introduce cheese fly larvae to the cheese yourself…
By chowing down on the cheese, the acid in the maggots’ digestive system dissolve the fat within your previously delicious piece of pecorino, creating a very soft cheese that has a very strong, burning taste that can stay with you for hours. Some people attempt to remove the thousands of maggots before eating but really, if you’re going to eat something that has been dissolved by the intestinal juices of an insect, is eating the insect itself really going too far?
In fact Sardinians consider the cheese safe to eat ONLY when the maggots are alive because if they have died then it’s likely the cheese will be toxic.
Yet this demon cheese may present a second risk with the live maggots able to survive the trip into your intestines, burrowing into your stomach lining and getting sweet, sweet ironic revenge for eating them in the first place. How much of this is folklore is not something I’ll be endeavouring to find out.
To add to the horror, most Casu Marzu eaters will wear face protection while eating. Why?, I hear you ask. Well, because of the maggots’ propensity to jump up to 15 centimetres into the air when disturbed, making the cheese startlingly like living popping candy.
The cheese is served on special occasions, no less, such as weddings and birthdays, just when you’d like to have the lingering smell of decomposition on your breath.
Casu Marzu has previously been banned under EU health regulations, but it now permissible as a ‘traditional’ foodstuff, and exempt from the regulations, because it has been made in the same manner for more than 25 years.
After all that, are you hungry for more?
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Tags: balut, bizarre, caganer, casu marzu, cheese, drunken shrimp, escamole, odd, penis, strange, strange food, surstromming, top 10, top 5, weird, weird food, world's most bizarre food, World's strangest food
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