In Florida and other Deep South states, you can eat alligator tail (which tastes like chicken), and in Arizona some restaurants have rattlesnake on the menu. I’ve heard of people eating chocolate-covered ants and, after a bit of internet research, was surprised to discover www.edibleinsects.com, where you can purchase ant wafers (“Four Wafers of White Chocolate swirled with real ants and milk chocolate packaged in a window box”), chocolate-covered scorpions, roasted crickets, barbeque mealworms, giant water bugs, and other insects in a variety of flavors: coffee, basil, lemon, sour cream & onion, jalapeno cheddar, bacon chipotle, dragon fruit, honey mustard, mango habanero, and Italian lasagna. Judging by the variety, I concluded that insect cuisine is a far larger industry than I realized. Indeed, according to most estimates, more than 2 billion people in the world routinely eat insects.
The practice of eating insects is called entomophagy. To some extent, we are all entomophagists. The FDA allows a certain amount of insect fragments in many of the packaged and canned foods you eat. You may also have eaten rat fragments and feces (it’s hard to keep rats out of the corn), and if you use packaged flour in your kitchen, you are likely at some point to have consumed tiny flour weevils. If a female weevil finds its way into your bag of flour at the mill, she will lay thousands of eggs. Left undisturbed, those baby weevils will eat some of the flour, and you may later discover, when opening an old bag of flour, some black specks among the white flour. Those are tiny weevils, and if you aren’t squeamish, you can bake them in your loaf of bread. Eating them won’t kill you, and you might be able pass off those tiny black specks as pepper.
The people who promote entomophagy say it is good for the planet. Insects are a great source of protein, and they don’t produce the greenhouse gases of your typical cow. Insects are easy to farm and harvest, and if you can get over what you’re crunching on, insects can be a healthy source of nutrients, particularly protein. Anthropologists say that our distant, cave-dwelling ancestors ate insects routinely. It was an important part of their diet. Some people argue that as Earth’s population grows, most people will once again consume insects regularly. Other food sources may become scarce or too expensive. Maybe so, but I am still queasy at the thought of biting into a chocolate-covered scorpion or serving ant wafers when I have friends over for dinner.
Crispy Critters and Rotten Eggs
However, chocolate scorpions may be the least disgusting of the disgusting foods some people eat. If you are in Cambodia, you may be approached by a street vendor selling fried tarantulas on a stick. They deep-fry the complete giant spider—hair, legs, guts, and fangs. If you are fortunate, you may be able to pick out your tarantula from a cage of the beasts and watch as it is dusted, legs wriggling, with flour and spices and then fried with garlic and hot sauce. I haven’t tried this Asian delicacy, but I’m told it is crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside, with a flavor, some say, like crab and others say like crickets or (what else?) chicken.
In Japan, a common delicacy in the winter is shirako, which translates to “white children.” Don’t panic.
No children were harmed in the writing of this article. Shirako is a dish made from the sperm sacs of male cod. On the plate, shirako looks like puffy, soft white rice or little white globs of goo. Its texture and taste are apparently acquired. Some Japanese don’t care for it, but when it’s in season, you can order it in finer restaurants throughout Japan. I couldn’t bring myself to order it, although I will confess to eating and enjoying caviar, which are the eggs from female fish. Is it sexist that I would eat caviar but not shirako?
If you are squeamish about eating caviar, then you should definitely avoid Chinese century eggs. They are not actually a hundred years old, but these fermented chicken, duck, or quail eggs are buried for several months in clay, quicklime, or ash and salt, after which time they are supremely rotten. The yolk turns dark green and floats in a brown, gelatinous muck that smells like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Sound appetizing? Before eating it, you have to get it past your nose without gagging.
In Laos and Thailand, you can order Gaeng Kai Mot Daeng, or ant egg soup. This summer dish consists of phak wan pa (a local vegetable), ant eggs (sometimes supplemented with ant embryos and baby ants), pickled fish, hairy basil leaves, fish sauce, and shredded kaffir lime leaves. The soup may be served with curry paste and star gooseberries. This dish originated during a season when other foods were scarce, but it’s become favorite year round. The ants may be either the white or red variety.
Fungal Disease and Gifts from the Sea and the Bible
Huitlacoche is a culinary specialty in Mexico and parts of the United States. It is actually a corn disease caused by the fungus ustilago maydis, which turns corn kernels tumorous and black, sometimes swelling them to as much as ten or eleven inches. Also called common corn smut, huitlacoche has an earthy, smoky taste and is often mixed with other foods, like macaroni and cheese. They even make a huitlacoche ice cream. Mushrooms are also a fungus, so huitlacoche is in a league with eating mushrooms if you can stomach putting a corn disease in your mouth.
For Inuits in Greenland, a traditional meal is muktuk, which is the frozen skin and blubber of whales. The skin tastes like hazelnuts and the blubber like licorice. The fatty parts are sticky and can adhere to your teeth (pack a toothbrush for a trip to Greenland). Icelanders prefer hakarl, which is fermented shark. The shark is beheaded and gutted and then placed in a shallow hole and covered with sand and stones. It is dug up two or three months later, cut into strips, and dried. The result is probably nutritious, but it stinks to high heaven. You might need to hold your nose while biting into this Icelandic treat.
Worried about a plague of locusts? In Israel and other places, diners can feast on deep-fried or chocolate-covered locusts. Jerusalem chef Moshe Basson boils locusts in vegetable stock with a touch of turmeric. When they are cool and dry, he twists off the heads, removing the viscera, and pulls off the wings and legs. Then he rolls the carcasses in a beaten egg and coats them with seasoned flour before deep frying them until they are golden brown. Ummm good. Next time you are hankering for fried locust, though, be sure the little critters were not killed with insecticide, which is frequently the case. Fried locusts are better when they are free of toxins. Now you know what to do if you ever experience a Biblical plague of locusts: eat them.
Days of Wine and Roasted Rodents
If you are in China eating century eggs and need something to wash it down with you might ask for baby mice vodka. They don’t make the vodka from baby mice. They just add a dozen baby mice to the bottle and let it sit for months until the flavor of the dead mice becomes infused in the alcohol. If that’s not to your liking, you can travel to Vietnam, where they serve snake wine. A dead poisonous snake is placed in a bottle of rice wine and stored for months until the venom dissolves in and is neutralized by the ethanol. The Vietnamese believe that snakes have medicinal value, so snake wine, which is pinkish because of the snake’s blood, may cure what ails you—or it may permanently discourage you from drinking rice wine.
People in Laos are known to eat roasted rats. Peruvians favor grilled guinea pigs (you know, those cute, furry rodents sold in pet shops). In Indonesia, you can buy chargrilled bats, and in South America and Southeastern Asia, a favorite snack is grubs. On a trip to Ecuador, my wife and I watched an eight-year-old Indigenous girl pluck a fat grub off a canoe and plop it in her mouth. Served raw like that, grubs have a creamy taste, but they are also roasted on a spit for special occasions and then taste like bacon.
In Southern Africa, a good source of nutrients is the Mopane worm, which is not a worm at all but actually the caterpillar form of the Emperor Moth. Called Amacimbi or Madora, this popular dish originated in Zimbabwe. The worms are boiled for several hours and then cooked with tomatoes and onions and a pinch of maggi. Chefs sometimes add a teaspoon or two of peanut butter or cream and serve the dish with sadza, a form of maize, which is a staple in Zimbabwe.
Counting Sheep and Two Truly Nasty Treats
One of the favorite foods in Scotland is haggis, and my Scottish friends may fault me for including the national dish of Scotland in this article on disgusting foods. Sorry. You create haggis by making a sausage of a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs. Add onions, oatmeal, suet, and seasonings and cook the concoction in a sheep’s stomach. This crumbly sausage is eaten with mashed potatoes or turnips, accompanied, of course, by glasses of Scotch. Or, in my case, a bottle of Scotch delivered intravenously.
If you find yourself in western Norway before Christmas, you may be tempted to try smalahove or sheep’s head. The chef beheads a sheep and removes its brain. Then he burns off the fleece and skin and salts the head, which may be cooked raw or smoked and dried first. The head is typically roasted over an open fire, but it may also be soaked in brine and boiled. Smalahove is typically seasoned with white pepper and nutmeg and served with mashed rutabaga and potatoes, along with a strong beer or Akvavit, a Scandanavian spirit.
Several notches higher on the gross-out scale is a Sardinian delicacy called casu marzu, which translates to “rotten cheese” and is sometimes also called “maggot cheese.” Cheese fly eggs are added to rotting Pecorino cheese. When the larvae hatch, they burrow into the cheese and digest the fats, which produces a creamy texture. Casu marzu must be consumed while the maggots are still alive. If they are dead, the cheese could become toxic. Diners not only risk food poisoning, they may also suffer from an intestinal larvae infection. Because of the health hazards, casu marzu has been banned commercially, but you can find it on the black market.
The pinnacle of grossness is a treat sold in the Philippines called balut. A fertilized duck egg that is just about to hatch is boiled alive. The diner taps a hole in the shell and slurps the liquid oozing out before crunching down on the fetus—beak, feathers, bones, claws, and guts. Some people eat balut with salt and pepper, coriander, and lemon juice; others prefer chili pepper and vinegar. A warm beer completes the meal. Street vendors selling balut are as prevalent in Manila as hot dog vendors are on the streets of New York and other American cities. If you are ever tempted to eat a balut, consider yourself a grand prize winner of the “People who will eat absolutely anything” contest.
Read No Further—if You are Squeamish
I said that balut is the pinnacle of grossness, but that may not be true. Eating something that is still alive as you put it in your mouth is arguably worse. Take, for example, a Korean treat called Sannakji. This dish consists of live octopus. The chef slices off pieces of the tentacle, which are placed, still wriggling, on the diner’s plate. You pick up a slice of tentacle with your chopsticks and plop it in your mouth. You must be careful because the suckers will attach themselves to your lips, teeth, and tongue. Koreans call eating sannakji “dancing with your food” because it continues to wriggle as you chew.
Many of us are used to eating sushi and sashimi, both of which are made with raw fish or eels. But in some parts of China, they take sashimi one step further—the fish is still alive. As diners cut off pieces of the fish and eat it raw, the fish’s mouth is still moving and it may still be trying to wriggle its tailfin. For most of us, however, eating a live fish pales beside the thought of eating monkey brains from a live monkey. In China and other parts of Southeast Asia, some restaurants strap down a live monkey, cut its skull open around the crown, and serve monkey brain while the creature is still alive. Apparently, monkey brain turns bitter once the monkey dies, so the brain must be consumed in those brief moments between its life and death. For obvious reasons, I haven’t included a photo of this dish, which many people would consider grotesque.
What people eat around the world depends considerably on what they’re used to, what foods are plentiful or scarce, and how creative (desperate) they have had to be throughout their history. Imagine if we had an instrument called the “grossometer.” On one end of the scale would be “No problem—I’ll eat that and love it” and the opposite end would read “No way in hell, even if I’m starving.” No doubt, our individual grossometers would read differently. As you read the descriptions of the disgusting foods in this article, where do they land on your grossometer scale? Furthermore, have I left out any foods you have found disgusting?
Photo credits: ice cream with mealy worms (Photo 156626051 © Sarah2 | Dreamstime.com); fried tarantula (Photo 74536142 © Jeoffrey Erwin Puzon | Dreamstime.com; shirako (Photo 103534724 © Nuvisage | Dreamstime.com); Chinese century egg (Photo 21436263 © Ppy2010ha | Dreamstime.com); ant egg soup (Photo 143884221 © Amnarj2006 | Dreamstime.com); Huitlacoche (Photo 188565605 © Arturoosorno | Dreamstime.com); muktuk (Photo 195294722 © Juno Kim | Dreamstime.com); fried locusts (Photo 54924801 © Jedynakanna | Dreamstime.com); Vietnamese snake wine (Photo 163892910 © Tloventures | Dreamstime.com); grubs (Photo 140620082 © Gunung Kawi | Dreamstime.com); Mopane worms (Photo 137097328 © Hecke01 | Dreamstime.com); Haggis (Photo 11932629 © Paul Cowan | Dreamstime.com); smalahove (Photo 108078261 © Duncan Noakes | Dreamstime.com); casu marzu (Photo 162705239 © Antoniomaria Iaria | Dreamstime.com); balut (Photo 171123336 © Jurajlongauer| Dreamstime.com); octopus (Photo 183685745 © Passionphotography2018 | Dreamstime.com)