As the popular saying goes, let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.
After reading so much about how good the paleo diet is for you, I have decided to start my 30 day challenge this weekend. I am really quite excited to test myself and only hope I can stick to it long enough for me to judge the effects. That got me thinking – all over the world, people have turned easily available ingredients into their food, many for their health properties – exactly how far would humans go to get perceived nutritional benefits? So in order to psyche myself to survive the paleo diet I did some digging – I guarantee you, after this I will never turn up my nose at a green salad again! Come and take an armchair trip with me to sample some of the worlds strangest (not so) edible offerings….
- ‘Penis Fish’ : Our first stop is in Korea to sample a popular food called Korean Penis Fish which is not really a penis or a fish but a spoon worm that looks surprisingly like a penis. This phallic shaped sea worm can be easily bought from the seafood markets while freshly caught or be eaten at restaurants where they are stored in fish tanks. Penis fish is served seasoned usually with salt and the ever popular sesame oil, and is eaten while raw and alive. They have a reportedly chewy texture and surprisingly a salty sea water taste that is quite pleasant. Why would anyone want to eat this you wonder? Here’s why….
Health Benefits: Like many other foods that are believed to strengthen the body parts they look like, not surprisingly the Penis Fish is eaten for its aphrodisiacal effects. It is believed that eating this will help men increase both their libido and performance.
- Sannakji: Still in Korea, our next dish is one of a long list of foods referred to as ‘Korean Viagra’. Nothing sexy about this dish though – simply explained, it’s a plateful of raw octopus that is still moving as you try to eat it. Usually served in restaurants, the chef will carve out pieces from a small octopus while you watch and serve it to you while alive and kicking. You can then season it with salt and sesame oil, dunk it into a dipping sauce of your choice and pop into your mouth. The actual eating is not as easy as it sounds – While many foods are eaten raw, the difference here is eating something that actively tries to escape from your mouth.
Health Benefits: Octopus is good source of iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, selenium, vitamin C, vitamin A and several B vitamins, as well as some omega-3 fatty acids. Eating fresh octopus is best and can decrease the chances of heart disease, as well as cancer and depression.
- Baby mice wine. Need something to wash out the taste from the snacks above? Maybe a glass of baby mice wine will hit the spot. This is a traditional beverage in China and Korea and as the name suggests, it is made by taking new born and hairless baby mice that are no more than 2 or 3 days old and placing these baby mice into a bottle of rice wine while they are still alive. The mice then drown and ferment in the wine for 12 to 14 months and can be found at the bottom of the bottle. Baby mice wine reportedly tastes like foul gasoline but is potent enough to get you high on just a small cup.
Health benefits: The common custom is to eat the mice once you reach the end of the bottle. This beverage is regarded as a health tonic and is believed to be a cure for a variety of diseases, including liver disease and asthma.
- Black Ivory coffee: Move aside Kopi Luwak – a new shit coffee is in town. Recently there has been a trend of animals like the Civet eating the coffee beans then defecating them a day later only for humans to harvest these dropped coffee beans to produce some of the world’s most expensive coffees. Black Ivory coffee is produced in the same way with elephants instead of the civet cat. In the hills of northern Thailand, a herd of 20 elephants are hard at their job of eating and defecating these coffee beans that are then collected and ground into an exotic brew. This speciality coffee is only available at a few luxury locations around the world as yet. The brand claims its taste is chocolaty and smooth, infused with earthy and unique flavours.
Health Benefits: Aside from helping you wake up in the mornings and get alert, studies have shown that coffee may have other health benefits, including protecting against Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and liver disease. Coffee also appears to improve cognitive function and decrease the risk of depression.
- Fried spiders: If you have arachnophobia my advice would be to stop reading this list. Right. Now. Still with me? Okay, let’s take a detour in Cambodia and stop off at the village of Skuon which is famous for its big, juicy, fried spiders. Yes, that’s right spiders – tarantulas to be precise. No one knows exactly how this tradition started, with some speculation that it was born from desperation due to scarcity of food during famine and war. Here you will find market vendors with baskets full of fried tarantula, which are grown and harvested just for this purpose, seasoned with salt, garlic and sugar; deep fried till crunchy then served with a lime and black pepper dip.
Health benefits: The belief in Cambodia is that this snack has cosmetic properties and can enhance the natural beauty of women. Allegedly, if you eat the legs first, your hair gets long and lustrous. The Cambodians also believe that the tarantulas have medicinal properties and are very useful for soothing back aches and treating breathing problems found in children.
- Snake wine: How about a nice glass of wine from South East Asia next? Snake wine, as the name succinctly describes, is a beverage made by taking a venomous cobra snake (among others), steeping it in rice wine along with various herbs and fermenting it for a few months. Alternatively, it can also be made by mixing bodily snake fluids including blood with rice wine. While the venom from the snake is not extracted before it is steeped in wine and the poison dissolves in the wine, the drink is not dangerous as snake venom being protein based is inactivated by the alcohol. Don’t look out for it on the menu of your local Thai takeaway though, as this is made and served in Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos.
Health benefits: Allegedly, this traditional drink is believed to have excellent restorative qualities and is considered a healthy liquor with many benefits. Its medicinal traits are used to treat a wind range of ailments including overall health to sexual performance.
- Tong zi dan, China: Let’s move on to Dongyang in Zhejiang Province in China next for a very unusual snack – Boiled eggs. Boiled eggs you say? That’s not very unusual. Well, these eggs are boiled – not in water but in the urine of young virgin boys under the age of 10. This Chinese delicacy is prepared by first soaking the eggs in urine. After being brought to a boil in the steaming urine, the eggs are removed, their shells are cracked and they are placed back into the boiling urine to soak up the flavour. It is also interesting that the urine is procured fresh by placing buckets in primary schools for young boys to relieve themselves. These buckets are then picked up and used by the street vendors making this food.
Health benefits: These hard-boiled eggs blur a line somewhere between centuries old local tradition and modern medical science. According to Chinese belief, these urine boiled eggs have health benefits for a wide range of ailments from treating arthritis to preventing heat stroke.
- Casu Marzu (rotten cheese): Our next stop is Sardinia, Italy, where there is a type of local cheese that has been banned due to fear of disease. For years, the Casu Marzu was only sold on the black market; however, it persisted in the culture due to its reportedly wonderful taste. It has now been declared a traditional food and it is legal to make and sell. This cheese is made when pecorino cheese is set outside to allow cheese flies to lay eggs inside of it. Soon the thousands of larvae are breaking down the cheese’s fats and fermenting inside it; decomposing the cheese and turning it silky and runny. Some people remove the larvae before they eat this cheese and some believe that it should be eaten only when the larvae are still alive inside.
Health benefits: Cheese, like other dairy products, is high in calcium and Vitamin D, while insects are high in protein, B vitamins, and minerals like iron and zinc, plus they’re also low in fat.
Next stop Mexico – A Mexican delicacy that is also sometimes called ‘insect cavier’, this dish consists of ant larvae and pupae and are usually harvested from the roots of the agave plant, also used to make tequila. Escamoles are light in colour with a buttery and nutty taste and can be crunchy when fried. They look like white beans, with a delicate texture and a consistency like cottage cheese when cooked. They can be served as a salad where they replace rice or couscous or sprinkled over other foods like tacos for an extra protein kick!
Health Benefits: Escamoles are a rich source of proteins like almost all the insects and good fata. They contain significant amounts of vitamins A & E, minerals and salts. They are believed to help keep your eyes and eyesight strong and resistant to age.
- Hakarl: While many cultures eat fermented fish, Iceland goes even further. How? They have found a way to make a poisonous decaying fish into a (not so tasty) snack. Learning how this is done only makes this less appetizing – first a Greenland Shark is decapitated, then gutted. The fluids are squeezed out by placing the fish in a shallow gravelly hole and covered with rocks and sand for 6-12 weeks. The flesh is then cut into strips and hung for several months to dry. Cut into chunks and voila – a snack is born! While readily available in supermarkets in Iceland, this is not something you want to serve at your next soiree though. In the words of Anthony Bourdain it is “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten.
Health Benefits: While better for you than most red meats, and mostly fat free to boot, the hardest thing to overcome about eating it is the smell with some describing it ‘like eating a urinal cake’. In times of scarcity though, it is still something that would keep you alive.
What is the most disgusting food you have tried on your travels? Leave me a comment below – I’d love to hear your stories!