“Katie will try it….” is a typical response when walking past unusual food. You see, I’m an adventure eater and quick to try anything and everything whether it flies, swims, hops, or slithers. The weirder the better! Unique foods are often linked with a culture’s customs and history, and eating what the locals eat is one of my favorite ways to connect with a foreign place.
A question I frequently get is , “What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?”
“Weird’ is a relative term that is shaped by each individual. What’s “weird” to me is an everyday meal to someone else. With that being said, here are four of oddest eats I’ve encountered! Enjoy!
Scorpions on sticks is a common street food item in China. However, the display of the giant arachnida slowly moving their limbs always looked like a tourist trap to me… how long have they been on that stick anyways? If I’m going to eat scorpions, I want them to be fresh!
One day in Qingdao, China, I happened upon a different type of scorpion stall down a side street. There were four plastic bins with different types of scorpions furiously moving around. A local woman in front of us quickly ordered and starting throwing them back, so I trusted I wouldn’t die.
Given the language barrier, we couldn’t figure out what the different types of scorpions were, so we pointed to one of the mid-range bins that was 12 for 20 Yuan (a little under $3 usd). He scooped them out and stuck them into a small, bubbling pot for about 3 minutes, occasionally stirring them with chopsticks. He grunted some indistinguishable question while pointing at a shaker, so we nodded resulting in a light dusting of spice.
There wasn’t an obvious bug taste apart from a mild earthiness. Deep-frying inevitably neutralizes flavor, making the most distinguishable taste “crunchy”. I actually quite enjoyed it if I’m being honest. I’d imagine a scorpion taco might be delightful.
I’d recommend giving scorpion a try, the appearance packs more sting than the taste.
I had no idea Starfish was edible until walking down a street food market in Qingdao, China. There were stalls serving all sorts of strange seafood that looked fairly unappetizing including conch shells, urchin, and multiple varieties of snails. One moment I would get a whiff of delectable dumplings, the next would be stinky tofu, followed by sweet mango, replaced by a completely new smell my nose had never sniffed before; it was an overwhelming olfactory experience to say the least.
Countless stalls had starfish on sticks ready to be thrown on the grill. One echinoderm knocked me back $5, which is incredibly steep for Chinese street food, but how could I pass it up? The woman manning the stall used charades to demonstrate the proper eating technique by opening up the legs and digging out the meat. The texture and taste were similar to riced cauliflower with a slightly fishy, briny flavor. It mostly tasted like air, and there was a low payoff of flavor for the effort of digging out a suitable bite.
A starfish’s regenerative ability could end world hunger; just chop off a leg and dig in while a new one grows back! Too bad it doesn’t taste better…..
While onboard the Westerdam, we docked in Manila. For the crew, this meant massive family reunions, for me, this meant trying out Filipino food and local delicacies, with the strangest being balut. Balut is a partly fertilized bird egg, meaning you might get a few feathers down the hatch given the fact you are eating an actual fetal bird.
The men in black (what we call the stage crew) met us in the cress mess following the show with balut at the ready. Step one is to crack the top of the egg and suck out the fluid, which tastes like chicken noodle soup. Step two is to the pop the bad boy in and enjoy. While the crew ate the egg in one bite, I wasn’t as brave. I took a couple bites, which was enough to get a mouthful of the crunchy bird inside. It tasted like chicken and the flavor was quite nice, but it was admittedly the first food experience I couldn’t fully stomach given the appearance.
Squab isn’t admittedly too strange, but the journey of getting said squab is what earns it a place on this list. Halong Bay is an iconic destination in Vietnam, known for the stunning limestone islands and beautiful water. Halong Bay is NOT, however, a great place for a foodie, and I never ended up finding killer spring rolls or mind blowing pho.
My first time going, my friend Chris and I ended up at Sam Sam Au Vet after 30 minutes of digging for online recommendations. We took a seat on the kiddie plastic chairs (the norm for Vietnam), and pointed at a couple pictures on the wall when a lady came over to take our order. Next, she quickly squatted down next to two pots of yellow liquid on the floor and poured the hot substance into two glasses over ice. It took us 3 minutes to identify the familiar flavor, corn! She proceeded to slop two big soup bowls full of ramen noodles and some sort of fowl in front of us along with a little condiment dish holding limes, peppers, and some sort of spice.
As I put the toppings into my bowl, she quickly ran over squawking in disapproval. She took matters into her own hands as she pulled up a chair, took a seat, and squirted the lime into the seasoning and peppers, motioning for us to dip the meat into it. My first bite was full of bones that I quickly spit out once she left. Apparently, we ordered a second course, and the woman placed two full baby squabs in front of us along with a pair of scissors. We looked at each other, looked at the scissors, and Chris starting cutting into the meat. Once again the woman came over in protest and began savagely hacking the birds into quarters with the scissors. Once I got over the full faces and finger nails, the squab was quite good. However, it was a lot of work for only a little bit of meat that was akin to tough chicken.
The woman routinely checked in with judgmental eyes at our attempts to eat the meal. She gave a tsk tsk at my inability to finish my huge bowl of noodles as we asked for the check. The food wasn’t particularly good and I can’t say thinking about it has me salivating for more, but the experience was one for the books.
What makes a food “strange” is relative. Western culture tends to cringe at the idea of eating bugs and atypical seafood while people elsewhere in the world don’t think twice about chowing down on snails and meal worms. Culture and society shape was food is “normal”, and when traveling, it’s important to remember that different and unusual isn’t “wrong”. You may be shocked and disgusted at the sight of dog meat at a market in Cambodia, but people from other countries would be equally repulsed by seeing a cattle or pig farm in the United States. Dogs, cows, and pigs are all intelligent animals that can be kept as pets, and where you are in the world will dictate which of the three is “right” and “wrong” to consume.
Embracing local foods that are atypical to the western palate is one of my favorite parts about traveling. Besides, it’s only a matter of time before bugs become the new dining #trend.
Are you ready to get eating but intimidated by taking on the street food scene? Check out my How to Order Food in Asia guide!