Travel demands an open mouth as much as it does an open mind. I say dig in, and if you can suspend judgment and preference, the world can truly be your oyster—or yak extremity.
1. Kiviak (Greenland). If you thought haggis was for the brave of heart (pun intended) consider the Greenland wintertime delicacy of kiviak. Known to Internet critics as the “turducken from hell,” a seal carcass is packed with the whole bodies of hundreds of auks—a bird that most closely resembles a miniature penguin. Once the cavity is pressed full with beaks and feathers, air is pressed out, the body is stitched together, blubber is used to seal the seal (sorry, I couldn’t resist), and the entire death sac is placed beneath a rock pile to ferment for a period of months.
2. Chicatana salsa (Oaxaca, Mexico). Chicatanas, or winged ants, get marks for exoticism and scarcity as they can only be collected once a year (at the onset of the rainy season in late June). The day-long ritual of collecting them reads like Gabriel García Márquez’s reimagining of a biblical plague. The flying insects leave their soaking nests in droves, driven toward the false warmth of street lights, and are feverishly gathered by children and adults who compete for bites and insect body counts. In preparation for making salsa, the chicatanas are left alive in water for one day to expel waste, washed and grilled, ground with a mortar and pestle, and combined with chilies, garlic, salt, and sometimes peanuts to make a rich and smoky paste.
3. Yak extremity (Beijing, China). Yak penis is served at Beijing restaurant Guo Li Zhuang—a restaurant that specializes in exotic and supposedly medicinal genital meat. The yak penis is slow roasted with herbs and presented in an arch or infinity shape around a traditional ceramic statue. The real selling point is the dish’s almost unbearably sexy name, “Dragon in the Flames of Desire,” and its reputation for being so virile that it can cause women to sprout facial hair. Guo Li Zhuang has built its reputation as a purveyor of the strange—and, some might argue, morally questionable—with other menu offerings like sheep fetus in brown garlic and fried peacock feet.
4. Pizza crunch (Scotland). Food was born to be bastardized, and few have taken it to the recklessly caloric levels of the Scottish and their fried pizza crunch. What’s better than a gluttonous, nutritionally devoid frozen pizza? A frozen pizza that has been dredged in batter, drowned in bubbling fryer oil, and served with a side of fries. The result is crackling, decadent, molten Scottish majesty.
Viewfinder Tip: Don’t be shy about trying street food on vacation; it’s one of the most delicious ways of getting to know a country’s culture.
5. Durian (Southeast Asia). Durian proliferates its stink throughout Southeast Asia; the odor of the fruit is so intense that possession or consumption of it has been banned in hotels and public transportation throughout the region. Durian enthusiasts compare the smell of the polarizing fruit to necrotic flesh simmering in a pot of fetid urine, while its taste is compared to an onion-flavored custard.
6. Tong zi dan (Dongyang, China). Speaking of fetid urine, the denizens of Dongyang, China, swear by the street food tong zi dan, roughly translated as “virgin boy eggs.” Every spring, vendors place receptacle buckets at primary schools to collect the urine of prepubescent schoolboys. Raw eggs are then boiled in the waste, their shells cracked after a time to maximize flavor absorption. The eggs have a street value double that of standard hard-boiled eggs, and both the boiling vapors and the eggs themselves are thought to alleviate seasonal allergies and improve blood flow. No word on whether the boys are compensated for their golden contributions.
7. Fried spiders (Skuon, Cambodia). The Cambodian practice of frying tarantulas was born of terrible necessity. Thought to have begun during the bloody and impoverished reign of the Khmer Rouge, the dish’s palm-sized arachnoids are deep fried until the legs stiffen and seasoned with garlic and salt. The legs are predictably crunchy while the abdomen is filled with an indiscernible pocket of brown paste. The taste compares to crab with notes of wood. Popular with locals and photo-op tourists alike, the street food is famously served in the stopover town of Skuon—affectionately known as “Spiderville.”
8. Cuy (Andean states, South America). Originally domesticated by the people of the Andes for use as a food source, cuy, or guinea pigs, were taken back to Europe by Spanish conquistadors where they found their place as exotic pets. These rodents still factor in the Andean diet, and are more environmentally sustainable than non-indigenous livestock like pigs or cattle. Cuy, usually roasted whole, is low in fat, high in protein, and tastes absolutely nothing like chicken.
9. Casu marzu (Sardinia, Italy). A Sardinian delicacy, casu marzu, or rotten cheese, is a putrefied wheel of pecorino infested with live maggots. Recommended as an aphrodisiac and as a beautiful accompaniment to a glass of grenache, the cheese is outlawed but readily available on the black market. The cheese is similar in taste to a strong Gorgonzola and should be consumed with eyes closed or shielded, as the live maggots are known to launch themselves up to six inches. Gag if you will, but naysayers be warned, there may be a magic to the maggots, as Sardinia boasts one of the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world.
Ever eaten anything weirder than kiviak or yak genitals? Let us know in the comments.
Author Reda Wigle is a middle child named after a stigmatic saint. She likes bourbon and hates pants. Her favorite place is the one she hasn’t seen yet.