Culture. That thing that makes one person’s beloved treat another’s source of botulism. Of course, some cultures are more daring than others when it comes to sampling life’s ‘exotic’ side. Learning what shocking culinary traditions people around the world have developed in the fullness of time can help shine a light on the fragility of our own assumptions about what’s good, what’s healthy, and even what’s safe to eat — and under what conditions.
Let your cultural filters slough off before the stomach-churning glory of the following potentially repulsive, yet potentially delicious foodways drawn from cultures the world over.
Flirting with rot: Sardinian maggot cheese
Germ-o-phobic culture leads us to err on the side of extreme caution, perhaps to a fault. Antiseptic hysterics have got many folks thinking that, by definition, all germs are bad. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, microbes are what make lots of food flavorful and tasty, not to mention digestible. All the more so in the case of fermentation…But — what happens on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia goes beyond the boundaries of fermentation. Some might say too far.
Sardinians’ embrace of a homegrown maggot-enriched cheese has earned these fearless Italians a global reputation for, well, voluntarily eating maggots — and living to tell the tale.
The maggots aren’t just any maggots, and the cheese isn’t just any old cheese. Sardinian “casu marzu” (“rotten cheese”) is made from sheep’s milk and creamed to perfection by the larvae of the “cheese fly” Piophila casei.
The fly babies are summoned simply by leaving the cheese out in the sun so local flies can lay their eggs in it. A colony of hungry legless maggots then blooms throughout the hunk, releasing a flood of enzymes which transform the cheese into a creamy, pungent mass that would make your mouth water, but for the riot of translucent worms squirming and spilling out of the pores.
Nevertheless, it’s too late to turn back now.
If you wait till the maggots die, then the window of edibility will pass you by. Dead maggots equals truly dead cheese. So, people eat the cheese, bugs and all. It tastes like not-quite-overripe Gorgonzola. Be careful, though. Occasionally the hyperactive maggots – known for their mad jumping skills – will leap out at your face en route to your mouth. Some worrywarts recommend wearing eye protection when consuming this unusual foodstuff.
Revenge of the micropus? Live baby octopus in Korea
Which is worse, food well along the highway of death – or food that, technically speaking, ain’t dead yet? While some of us are attached to the quiet, still deadness of the organisms we eat, this is no universal preference. There are many people worldwide for whom the proper death of their meal need not happen until after it is swallowed.
Unfortunately for the animal so targeted, being eaten alive may be both terrifying and painful – especially when we’re talking about an intelligent and sensitive being like the octopus. What did baby octopuses do to deserve being eaten alive? Nothing. They just taste really great, apparently. And they’re slimy. That’s the word from South Korea, where “sannakji,” live baby octopus, is the centerpiece dish of multiple high-end restaurants in Seoul.
Seasoned with sesame seeds and oil, raw sannakji is about as ‘fresh’ as it gets. The chef won’t chop the tentacles off the live creature till you place your order. As a result, the recently severed arms exhibit residual nerve activity, causing them to twitch about on your plate. In some joints, they will serve you the whole baby octopus to gobble up in one bite, head and all, making it truly live food. Just wrap it around your chopstick, dip it in some sauce, and deliver the kiss of death.
Whether you technically eat it pre- or post-death, power-chewing is a necessary skill to bring to this dish. Swallowing still-animated material could cause you to choke on the writhing micro-puses before they even get near your stomach acids. The suckers could suction onto the roof of your mouth or the sides of your throat, ultimately causing asphyxiation.
You might say the octopuses’ powerful suckers give the poor critters a means of taking post-mortem revenge on their torturers. It is said that several people die each year in exactly this manner.
Mexican caviar: Welcome to the future
Protein-rich, nutritious and loaded with that good fat, ants are the world’s best kept secret. Ants are actually a popular alt-meat in numerous cultures around the world. Their global spread encompasses plenty of variety, from winged queen ants in Brazil that taste like mint (and are amazing dipped in chocolate) and spicy fire-ant egg salad in Thailand, to nutty “Mexican caviar” and lemongrass-flavored cold cuts served out of upscale Copenhagen.
Are you grossed out by the idea of eating insects? Now might be a good time to evolve a more open mind and gut, and not just because insects are the hottest new thing in celebrity chefery. According to the UN, environmental scientists and many other sensible people, the massively unsustainable mammal meat economy is an environmental dead end that will not be able to meet the growing human population’s protein needs over the next century.
Hence, back-to-basics meat alternatives like protein-rich insects are increasingly on the menu. Like it or not, ready or not, the Age of Entomophagy is quietly dawning.
Essence of cobra, just what the doctor ordered
While certain cultures have encouraged people to fear snakes as demonic agents, there are many more that have enthusiastically embraced this mysterious creature’s paradoxical healing powers. For thousands of years, snakes have been a go-to symbolic standardbearer for bodily renewal and health rejuvenation. Still today, these extraordinary animals are believed to have certain ‘powers’ that can be transferred to humans who partake of their reptilian lifeblood.
Sadly, snake blood won’t make you into an ectotherm, but fans say drinking it does palpably boost energy levels, stimulate appetite, and make you feel stronger and healthier overall.
That’s why you’ll often see people slurping fresh snake libations on the streets of Jakarta or Hong Kong for a quick pick-me-up. In Taipei’s “Snake Alley,” a.k.a. Taiwan’s Huaxi Street Night Market, the curious converge from all corners of the globe to sample traditional Taiwanese delicacies, including the blood, bile and penis of indigenous snakes (all good for the eyes). Apparently, these pair well with turtle testicles. Go figure.
If you’re used to seeing snakes exclusively as a threat, you may be surprised to hear that science is beginning to substantiate certain folk intuitions about serpentine healing powers. Western scientists have lately been exploring the medicinal properties of snake venom, from prevention of blood clotting to subversion of cancerous cells. One recent experiment revealed that it is actually true what they say about snake blood (at least in mice) - it really does pump up your heart and metabolism in healthful ways.
Pretty cool, huh? Snakes are truly magical beings. You, too, could commune with the snake just as the wise do. But remember, tourists: you’re not automatically a badass just for drinking the blood of a cobra. For that status, you’ll have to take your shots straight – no chaser.