I have recently returned from Japan, where some friends and I enjoyed a five day cycling trip in a remote southern corner of the country. It was magnificent. Each day we would cycle around 100 kilometers, mainly following quiet roads along stunning coastline. Although in between we would grind our way up steep mountain passes, pushing ourselves far beyond the innate capabilities of our slightly unfit, slightly overweight, middle-aged bodies. And each night we would recover in a hot tub where, along with an assortment of Japanese office workers, we would strip naked, scrub ourselves raw, and then drop our aching carcasses into a pool of steamy thermal water.
Of course, we also ate. Because Japan is an eater’s paradise – one of the most seriously food committed nations on earth. At the one end of the food spectrum, home to more 3-Star Michelin restaurants than anywhere else on the planet. And on the other end, home to more casual eateries than you can possibly imagine. If you had a thousand lifetimes available, you wouldn’t be able to eat your way through even a small proportion of Japan’s dining options. And which are, almost always decent, no matter whether a noodle bar, a bakery, or even a vending machine.
Take for example Japanese 7-Eleven stores, at which we stopped regularly to buy water and coffee. In Australia or America, roadside convenience stores offer a fairly uninspiring selection of packaged crisps, chocolate bars, and if you are lucky, sad day-old sausages to fill awful factory-made hotdog buns with. Whereas in Japan it was fridges filled with high quality packaged meals, and stuffed seaweed-wrapped sushi triangles that were made fresh daily and tasted amazing. There was also always a hot food bar offering delicious teriyaki chicken sticks, ramen noodle soups and steamed gyoza, and the shelves included not just chocolates and chips, but an assortment of other odd nibbles for the journey ahead. Things like packs of dried and salted baby fish.
And then there was also the weird stuff.
Thus, at one roadside stall, we ate crab, kind of. More precisely, inside the upturned shell of a crab a few bits of crab meat had been mixed in with the crab’s brains, and the whole thing (ie: brains + crab meat) had been heated into a soup of sorts, which we ate with a spoon. Sounds not so great, but it was spectacular: like putting the ocean into my mouth.
At another place, we ate chicken sashimi. Yes, thin slices of 100% raw chicken, which just like with fish sashimi, we dipped in soy sauce and wasabi before eating. No, we didn’t die immediately of salmonella. And yes, it tasted like chicken.
Although hands down the bizarre foods winner from this recent trip to Japan came at a small hole-in-the-wall place in Osaka that served only chicken bits on sticks. Things began tamely enough, with a skewer each of broiled chicken thigh, chicken wings, and grilled chicken breast wrapped in a local basil leaf – fabulous. After which we moved on to a trio of more exotic skewers – chicken skin, chicken gizzard, and chicken hearts – slightly more off beat, but all of them really tasty.
But then, by way of grand finale, the waitress brought us out the house special: a pair of sticks on which good-sized hunks of chicken liver had been skewered. The whole dish was covered in a thick layer of chopped spring onion, so it was only on closer inspection that we discovered the livers in question had, in fact, not been cooked. Rather, they had been lightly seared for a few seconds, meaning that apart from a very thin outer char those hunks of liver were totally, completely raw.
This, let me tell you, was a serious challenge. I love weird foods – I have previously written about eating everything from spiders in China to bugs in Mexico to bumble bee ice cream in London. And I can normally manage to eat most stuff: for me, sampling local delicacies is one of the great joys of travel; even if I don’t especially like something I will normally be able to finish a plate.
Yet for some reason after only two mouthfuls of that raw liver I was completely floored, and absolutely unable to take another bite. Because it was seriously horrible – a dense and chewy texture that was God awful, coupled with an even more God awful “acquired” taste. A food I found so sickeningly gross it immediately vaulted itself into position number five on my list of “All Time Weirdest Foods”.
Perhaps begging the question: if raw liver is only Number Five, what could possibly be numbers One to Four?
First Runner Up: Sea Horse in Beijing
In the center of Beijing is Wangfujang, a long street of retail shops and literally thousands of eating options: restaurants, small kitchens, street stalls. It is a food lover’s paradise where you can wander about for days, sampling an endless assortment of Chinese food, everything from roast duck to hot pot to traditional teas.
And each night just off to the side of Wangfujang you will find Hua Men Night Market, where once the sun goes down a long line of movable food carts set up for business, and at which all the weirder food shit that China has to offer will come out to play. So, if you are in the mood for a bit of a challenge (like offal or testicles), or a hardcore adventure (think: snake, scorpion or spider), then this is the place for you. Oh, and also barbecued starfish (crunchy and kind of blah), and silkworm cocoons roasted on an open flame (actually quite sweet and tasty).
But nothing can really prepare you for the food carts that offer wooden skewers on which live seahorses have been impaled. `You point to a stick with a writhing seahorse on it, the guy manning the food cart will grab the stick, plunge it into a vat of bubbling oil for a few moments, and then hand it to you. The poor little seahorse will now be cooked and ready for the eating.
The Chinese think that eating seahorse in this way is good for blood circulation. Which may be so, but from a food perspective, it was all crunch and no taste – no different to munching on a pretty bland potato chip. And honestly, apart from a small nibble so as not to be rude (I had been taken especially to try seahorse by a Chinese work colleague), I just couldn’t do it. I mean, I’m no eating prude, but the little critter – frozen in place but fully alive not 15 seconds before – was still looking at me imploringly with its big, soulful, recently flash-fried eyes. It was all just too much for me – even I have my limits.
Bronze Medal: Rotted Shark in Iceland
The national dish of Iceland, believe it or not, is rotten shark. They call it Hakarl, and basically what happens is the whole body of a local Greenland shark (minus its head) is placed into a hole dug in sand, covered over with pebbles, and left there for about 12 weeks to “cure”. During this time, the shark slowly “ferments” (that is, rots), and the fluids in the body of the shark are expelled. Once this process is complete the rotted shark meat is cut into strips and hung out to dry for a further five months. After which it is ready – simply take a strip of dried shark, peel off the brown crust that has formed, cut small cubes of the rotted meat, and eat on a toothpick. Oh, yum.
Why, you may well ask, would anyone do this? Well, it turns out that due to a high content of urea and other nasties, fresh Greenland shark is poisonous. But after this form of extended preparation, it is rendered edible. Although “edible” is a fairly generous description here, because whilst eating this food won’t kill you it is seriously, truly, unimaginably horrid. And don’t just take my word for it – even the experts agree.
Like Gordon Ramsey, who when he tried it literally spat it out. And like the late Anthony Bourdain, who described Iceland’s fermented shark delicacy as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’d ever eaten.
Silver Medal: Live Wriggly Fish in Tokyo
I have already mentioned that the Japanese are prone to eating some seriously weird shit. Take for example shirako, a dish consisting entirely of the male genitalia of fish, only still filled up with semen. That is weird in and of itself, but what it truly weird is that this is not considered a weird food at all in Japan. Rather, it is a bog standard snack you can ask for in pubs, all over the country.
But of all the Japanese food oddities out there, the one that is the hardest to fathom is odorigui – “dancing while being eaten”. A rather poetic way of describing the bizarre practice of consuming seafood while it is still alive, or at least where a part of the animal is still moving, with the whole point being to feel the animal move around inside of your mouth and tummy as you eat it. Octopus is the most common, where a small octopus is eaten while it is still wriggling – aficionados say there is nothing quite like the feeling of the tentacles grasping at your esophagus as it goes down.
Although my odorigui experience involved shirouo, tiny transparent fish (otherwise known as ice gobies) that were in a shot glass of water, which a colleague passed to me and then told me to drink. To be honest, I didn’t even fully comprehend at the time that what was inside the glass was fish or, for that matter, alive – it looked a bit like a clump of translucent strands of seaweed. And by the time I did, it was too late, as I had already done what I was told and was thus already feeling what shirouo is all about: the sensation of the little fish wriggling around in my mouth.
Immediately my colleague passed me some sake, and instructed me to drink. I took a sip, and the alcohol caused the shirouo, now inside of me, to go into a final death spasm. It was perhaps the strangest physical sensation of all time, and definitely not something I’d ever want to try again. But as weird food experiences go, right up there with the best.
And the Gold medal goes to….
So once – about 15 years ago – I went to the Inner Mongolia region of China, on a work trip to check out a meat processing plant. Inner Mongolia is where much of China’s beef and pork comes from, and I was there as a guest of a wealthy businessman from Beijing who was a part-owner of the plant.
Once our tour of the plant was over, we were invited to a banquet dinner at a nearby village, hosted for us by the local bigwigs: mainly party members and Government officials. Banqueting is a fact of doing business in China and I had been to countless such dinners before, so I knew what to expect. There would be a never-ending assortment of foods delivered to the table (some of which I knew would be strange and unfamiliar), accompanied by endless rounds of toasting that would go on until everyone was blind drunk.
At one point in the evening, a large heaped platter, of what appeared to be a stir-fried dish of sorts, was brought out and placed in front of me. As the guest of honor I was expected to take the first portion. So I did, placing a goodly sized serving on my plate, and I began eating.
It was, I have to say, pretty delicious: crispy fried round rings of protein tossed with vegetables in a slightly sweet, slightly chili sauce. I didn’t know what it was, but I assumed it was calamari, or at least some form of seafood. The other guests at the table watched me hoe in, and then when they saw me eating they tucked in too, pleased that their Western guest was happy.
My host, sitting to my right, turned and asked me: “Good?”
I nodded, and to show my respect, took a bit more from the platter. “Very good,” I said, “what is it?”
At which point my host called over the translator who had been accompanying me. They exchanged a few words, both looking very earnest. After which my translator walked to the side of the room, consulted a small book (I assume a dictionary), and then came over to where I was sitting and pointed to the platter I had asked about.
And then, absolutely matter-of-factly, she said: “This dish is specialty of the village. It is rectum.”
Yep. You heard me: butt holes.
Which, apparently, is even something that happens in America: according to an investigation by the NPR show This American Life, pig rectum (otherwise known as “pork bung”) is sometimes packaged and sold as imitation calamari.
But whilst I had fully been expecting weird food at that particular Chinese banquet, I had not been expecting something so truly off-the-charts weird, and I almost choked on my mouthful. Suffice it to say, I didn’t have any more after that. Even if, as I mentioned, it was actually really good, and until the instant I was told of the dish’s strange provenance, I had really been enjoying it….
So there you have them: my current Bizarre Food Top Five: raw liver, flash-fried seahorse, rotten shark, live fish, and anal ring stir-fry.
A pretty good selection, if I may say so myself, although not one I’d suggest anyone try at home. In the words of Andrew Zimmern (host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods – so a professional weird food eater and my all-time weird food idol), when he tried rotted shark for himself:
“That’s hardcore. That’s serious food. You don’t want to mess with that. That’s not for beginners.”