Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.
What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten? Was it that ant you were dared to eat in Kindergarten? Or were you traveling abroad when you decided you felt like monkey might be the right dish for you? I like to try all sorts of different things, and to be honest not all of them go down easy! Of course, I don't eat any non-poultry meat so I get a free pass on many of these things, but that's not to say I haven't had my share of gross foods.
In Paris, I stopped in at a Greek-run diner and since no one could speak a common language we all started playing, "Let's eat that thing." Suffice to say the little gelatinous cube they handed me in the last round wasn't exactly wonderful—it was like a honey bee had a one night stand with a gummy bear. It was stuck in my teeth and for the sake of courtesy, I had to swallow it. Noooo! OK, so that was gross. Still, I am happy I wasn't handed any of the things I am about to mention.
1. Gooey Duck
I'll start off our little adventure lightly here with some seafood. Gooey ducks are strange animals that burrow in the sand at the bottom of shallow ocean water. They grow upwards like a plant, up to six feet tall, so that their mouths can reach the surface of the sand and get some food. None of this is particularly strange, and I am sure gooey ducks taste wonderful, but there is just something about them. Maybe its the name: gooey duck. That doesn't sound really appetizing. Or maybe its the fact they look like they should have a big black box censoring them. I don't know. . .
Who hasn't eaten eggs? They're everywhere. They're scrambled, poached, deviled, fried, and even boiled like our next food, balut. First off, balut is a duck egg, not a chicken egg, but not to worry, they taste similar and many Americans still eat duck eggs today.
The main difference is they eat the duck egg before it starts developing or when it's not fertilized. Not the good people of the Philippines. Their street vendors buy eggs that are 17-21 days old, that could potentially be just hours away from actually hatching. Then they boil them and sell them to people walking by who crack them open, suck out the juices, and then eat the embryo, which by that time might have bones, beak, and feathers. Crunch. Mmmm. It's like a full soup, in an eggshell! Not surprisingly, other countries that also cook balut have a tendency to serve them with beer. Lots and lots of beer.
3. Bush Meat
Most bush meat is technically illegal but still sustains a large population in Africa where hunters go out into the jungles, shoot something tasty, and bring it home for dinner. It seems simple enough, but what if what they shoot is a monkey or a chimpanzee? Could you eat something that looks like a little hairy child with fingers and toes?
India has a large farming community that is plagued by rats, as is much of the world. Their solution to this was not to employ kitties but instead to employ humans, not exterminators as we know them, but a class of severely impoverished people who would be paid in the rats' meat. That's right, they go around giving away this service essentially for free, so long as they get to eat the carcasses. Rats don't have much meat on them and are fantastic disease vectors. For these and many other reasons, most people would find it pretty damn offensive to feed them to peasants. Hell, most people wouldn't feed rat meat to their dogs here.
And hey if you're not satisfied with eating rat meat why not try eating after rats? Also in India, at the Karni Devi, the rat temple, people from all over the world go to visit millions of wild rats, thought to be the reincarnations of loved ones. The albinos on the property are thought to be the Goddess with whom the temple is dedicated. People coming into the temple must take off their shoes prior to entering and can buy milk and baked goods to share with the rats. It's supposed to be good luck and don't you dare hurt any of the rats - the punishment for doing so is to donate a solid gold replica of said rat to the temple. Interestingly enough the workers at the temple and all who lived around it survived the Black Plague. It is thought their spoiled rats defended their own territory against outsider rats who carried the deadly fleas. As a former breeder of fancy rats, this is one destination I would LOVE to go to.
5. Cobra Heart
Maybe you're too good for rats. Maybe you want to eat an animal that's dangerous and revered. How about the still-beating heart of a cobra? In Vietnam, cobras are held, have their hearts extracted with a knife while they are still alive, and while it's still beating, it is served to customers in a shot glass of cobra blood and alcohol. Bottoms up! This is for the truly hardcore and those that give very little credence to humane slaughter methods. On the plus side according to local legend, you can gain many of the snake's amazing attributes by doing this and it's not a wasteful practice as afterwards the rest of the snake is grilled up and served with lemongrass. Also its an aphrodisiac, but what nasty food isn't? Gooey duck. That's what isn't.
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6. Animal Wines
So maybe you'd rather drink a cobra in the form of alcohol. No problem, this practice is pretty common throughout parts of Asia. A cobra, or another animal, is captured, killed, and then sealed in a bottle of alcohol for at least a year. At this point, it will get you drunk off your ass while also tasting like you just licked a pet shop. Don't be surprised if you find something besides cobras. Everything can be made into wine! Squirrels, bears, baby mice, you name it. In fact, in Chinese medicine baby mice wine is great for all that ails you! All you need is several baby mice, no older than three days old, and a bottle of rice moonshine. Drown the mice in the moonshine and then sit and wait for their magical powers to seep out. It's easy.
7. Worm Cheese
OK, enough with the weird meats, let's have some weird cheese! In Italy, worm cheese is something that happens by chance and something that is technically illegal to sell. That said, it fetches high prices on the black market. Everyone loves worm cheese, it's great on crackers. So what is worm cheese? Worm cheese is regular cheese made by good old Italian farmers who first put the cheese in a round mold to make a wheel and then let it sit and cure on a shelf before its ready to eat. Usually, this takes some time and sometimes one of the cheese wheels will crack. Suddenly the soft insides are reachable by flies who lay their eggs in there and then a few days later baby flies, also known as maggots, start wriggling out and eating it. In the meanwhile, their saliva softens the cheese even more and they start to crap out whatever they've eaten. The whole chemistry of this process makes the cheese very soft and easy to spread. When the cheese is obtained the aim is not to eat around the maggots, it is to eat everything while it's still squirming. Delicious.
8. Head Cheese
Life as a peasant isn't easy. When you get meat, you get really bad cuts of it. So what is one to do when all they have is the head of a cow, sheep, or pig? Make head cheese! Head cheese isn't real cheese; it's a "meat jelly" made of all the parts of the animal's head no one wants to eat. Sometimes feet are included as well. It's like mixing the texture of jello with the mysteries of a hot dog and then eating it cold on your next sandwich. Scrumptious.
Iranians have their own use for sheep and goat heads. They make kale pache, a traditional dish using the head of a sheep or goat (as well as the hooves and stomach) which is boiled in spices—I am guessing to get rid of that dirty feet smell.
9. Guinea Pigs, Bunnies, Pigeons, and Parakeets
Sometimes, when you walk into a pet store you can't help but thinking, "Hmm, that one looks delicious." Or maybe not. As Americans, we have completely lost sight of the fact that many of our pet animals were domesticated to be eaten. Pigeons can be shown, raced, given messages to deliver, or roasted for dinner. In fact, people have been eating squab (the pigeon version of veal) for at least 2,000 years, likely much longer. Bunnies weren't far behind and became domesticated as meat animals - a great alternative to poaching wild rabbits off the king's land.
Today, our intense breeding of these critters has resulted in at least one breed (the Flemish Giant) that can exceed twenty pounds by adulthood. That's quite a mouthful! Guinea pigs, on the other hand, were domesticated in Ecuador where a segment of the population kept them as a cheap source or meat. Generally, they'd be allowed to run loose through their homes and whenever dinner needed to be served someone would muckle a hold of however many they needed and roast them on a spit. The dish is called Cuy and has made its way to some gourmet restaurants in the states. Parakeets remain one of the funniest animals I know because of their name. When white settlers made their way to Australia they asked the Aboriginal people what the strange hopping animals were. They said "Kangaroo" which translates as, "What did you just say?" Similarly, when they asked what the parakeets were called they replied "Budgerigar" which apparently means "tasty treat." Traditionally these tiny birds were hunted with none else than boomerangs.
10. Rocky Mountain Oysters
Speaking of unappetizing cuts, what about some good old fashioned cow nads? Who hasn't looked at a bull and thought, "Wow, those dangly bits look delicious! I want to try some!" Of course, it'll have to be deep-fried and served on a big platter as this is the American way of making anything and everything edible. Ketchup?
11. Fermented Meat
Remember when I said it sucks to be a peasant? Well, sometimes it's even worse to be an Inuit. I mean you got all the luxuries of being a peasant plus unrelenting near-constant snow! How is one to survive in such unbearable conditions? Well, you can bury your food like foxes do. The thing is foxes have a bit tougher gut than humans. None the less fermented fish heads are still considered a delicacy to older Inuits today. The fish heads are caught in the brief summer and buried underground where they are allowed to ferment for weeks before being dug up and eaten sushi-style. The only difference being at this point the fish is slightly liquified and you can suck the eyeballs and meat right off the bones! If you'd rather eat mammal meat that's no problem. Inuits also catch walrus, whale, and seal and bury them in the same fashion, allowing them to sit from Summer, through winter, and finally digging them up the following Spring. Other countries have similar traditions. In fact, an Icelandic tradition catches cold water basking sharks which are poisonous fresh because their blood contains anti-freeze-like properties. After being buried for weeks the fermented meat is said to smell strongly of ammonia (otherwise known a the intoxicating aroma of piss!) Apparently it tastes like it smells.
12. Dog and Horse
Dogs and horses have been with humanity since we started civilization. We've been inseparable and with dogs tending our flocks and hunting with us and horses helping us til fields and travel we've grown a certain bond with these animals that makes them somehow taboo to eat, but this is not a global attitude.
In Korea and China, dogs are raised on farms, much like chickens and cows, in order to be slaughtered for their meat. Their meat is supposed to imbibe diners with all the lovable characteristics of a dog. Meanwhile in France horses are raised for the same reason, for slaughter. While there are both a specific breed of dog and horse for this purpose, supply isn't always there to fulfill demands and well, meat is meat. Ever wonder why elderly horses are so rare in the United States? Its because whenever they have outlived their purpose they are sent to the slaughterhouse and their meat is exported to other countries, including but not limited to France. As of yet, no such program is in place for all the dogs we put down at the shelter. Shame, it seems so wasteful just to kill them and do nothing with their sorry carcasses.
13. Fetus Soup
So what happens when you have to slaughter a pregnant sheep, goat, or cow? It seems quite obvious: Make fetal soup! Basically the whole fetus is taken, chopped into bits, and thrown into a stew like it's chicken or beef. Although I know of the soup's existence I couldn't find a good photo because someone thought it'd be hilarious to post a bunch of photoshopped images of human fetuses floating around soup bowls. Great gag guys but you're obviously missing out on some key details, i.e. real fetus soup doesn't throw in a whole fetus and call it good! Eesh. Amateurs.
14. Soylent Green
OK, Soylent Green isn't real, but people have been eating other people since, well, it's hard to say. Scientists are doing new studies suggesting that many diseases that plagued our ancestors may not plague us today because we were all eating each other at some point.
Analysis of petrified human poo in Chaco Canyon has reveled human DNA in them and that doesn't happen unless whoever left it ate a human. And then there were the Aztecs who were said to have harvested thousands of enemies to sacrifice to the sun god but then what happened to the victims? Some people think they may have been sold to the populous like a pig carcass, being called "long pork" due to its flavor.
One modern-day tribe had to stop eating all of their loved ones because of a protozoa, Kufu, that proliferated among them like mad cow disease (which is caused by - you guessed it! Feeding dead sick cows to other cows!) Nowadays the only time you really hear about cannibalism is in extreme survival situations (like if your plane crashes in the Andes mountains) or from serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer or the Rotenburg Cannibal who found someone over the internet who wanted to be eaten. I mean completely. That's life I guess, or death, or something else entirely. I'm not really sure anymore.