The world is vast, as is its palate. Here are a few of the stranger menu items that will gross you out, intrigue you, or possibly impress you with humanity’s ingenious ability to find food in the most unlikely places.
Ant Eggs, Thailand
Weaver ants, so named because of the giant network of nests they build by “weaving” leaves together with their larval silk, are a common insect in Thailand. Both these reddish-colored ants and their whitish eggs, considered a delicacy in northern Thailand, feature in several Thai dishes, including a salad, a stir fry, and a variety of soups. Many street vendors sell ant eggs wrapped in banana leaves as a popular on-the-go snack. Weaver ant eggs are high in protein and vitamins but low in fat. They taste rich and buttery but also somewhat sweet. Thanks to a diet of fruit-tree leaves, the fully grown ants have a fresh lime taste. They can replace lemon juice or vinegar in recipes because of their natural acidity.
Guinea Pig, Ecuador
Despite their name, guinea pigs originated in South America. They were domesticated by humans more than 3,000 years ago in the Andes, where they were bred and raised for their meat by the inhabitants of some of the region’s earliest towns. Cuy is a delicacy in Ecuador and other Andean countries, where it is often served during special occasions. Traditionally, it is grilled, roasted, or deep-fried in its entirety (with the skin on but the fur removed). The meat is comparable to rabbit or the dark meat of chicken, but it derives a lot of its taste from how it’s prepared. Some modern restaurants have started adding it to casseroles or fricassees.
Alive, they strike fear into the hearts of many. Dead, they’re a popular snack in Cambodia.
Fried tarantulas can be found on menus in several areas of Cambodia. The spiders, which grow to roughly the size of a human hand, are deep fried in oil until stiff and generally seasoned with monosodium glutamate, sugar, salt, and garlic. Depending on the ratio of seasonings, tarantulas can be eaten as a savory dish or a sweet treat (similar to a lollipop). The head and body contain a bland white meat, with a brown paste of organs and eggs in the abdomen. Many Khmer women believe that due to the spiders’ high protein content, eating tarantulas will increase beauty.
Fermented Shark, Iceland
Iceland’s national dish, hákarl, receives few compliments from outsiders. This cured and fermented shark smells a lot like cleaning products, thanks to its high ammonia content. The island nation’s resourceful Vikings came up with the traditional method of preparing hákarl, which involves gutting and beheading a Greenland shark, placing stones on it to press out the liquids, and burying it in a sandy hole for up to three months while it ferments. Afterward, it’s hung outside to dry for several more months. Because of its aroma, hákarl is often served with brennivín, an Icelandic spirit that is equally powerful to the senses.
Fried Blood, Ireland
Black pudding’s somewhat charming name belies what it really is: fried congealed blood. This staple of the traditional Irish breakfast is made up of pig blood, fat, oatmeal (or groats), seasonings, and some pork, formed into a blood sausage and sliced into rounds. For the uninitiated, there is also white pudding, which has the same ingredients minus the blood. Both black and white pudding are served in a traditional Irish breakfast alongside sausage, rashers (bacon), fried eggs, baked beans, a fried tomato, and brown bread.
Drisheen is another traditional Irish dish made from a mixture of blood (from sheep, cow, and pig), fat, herbs, and milk, all encased in pig or sheep intestine. It is more gelatinous than black pudding.
Termite mounds can be especially large in Namibia, sometimes growing more than 20 feet tall and extending several feet underground. Millions of termites live inside these hardened, sand-colored structures, and Namibians have long enjoyed the termites as delicacies. After being slightly roasted, they taste a lot like crunchy peanut butter.
Large, edible mushrooms called Omajova grow on termite mounds. They are a sought-after, elusive delicacy that appears after the rains in March and April. They often grow in excess of 10 inches in diameter and are served fried with butter, dried, or in soups and stews.
From its intimidating spikes to its off-putting smell, everything about the durian says, “Don’t eat me”—people have very strong opinions about it. Most believe its smell to be repulsive, using terms like “rotting corpse” or “raw sewage” to describe it. Others think the durian smells sweet and fruity. When it comes to eating the raw pulp of this fruit, opinions are just as wildly diverse. In parts of Southeast Asia, the durian has been banned from some hotels and public transportation because of its upsetting aromas.
Sheep’s Lung, Scotland
The United States has banned importation of Scotland’s national dish since 1971, specifically because of one ingredient: sheep’s lung, which constitutes roughly one-tenth of the haggis recipe. Haggis is a mixture of sheep’s pluck—heart, liver, and lungs—combined with onions, raw fat, oatmeal, and spices, all encased in sheep stomach. Haggis may have originated as a means of combatting food spoilage, and dishes similar to it were historically part of the traditional cuisines of a number of different European cultures; however, this type of food came to be more closely associated with Scotland than with anywhere else after Robert Burns published his 1787 poem Address to a Haggis.
Brown, bulbous, and sausage-like in appearance, this dish is classified as a pudding and has a nutty texture and piquant flavor. It is commonly served with neeps and tatties (rutabagas and potatoes).
Reindeer is a staple in Norwegian cuisine. The meat is leaner and milder than other game meats but healthier due to the reindeer’s diet of herbs, berries, and lichen. Reindeer is widely available in Norwegian grocery stores year-round.
One of Norway’s traditional dishes is a reindeer stew called finnbiff, which uses thin shavings of reindeer meat, bacon, and mushrooms to create a stock, followed by a mixture of juniper berries, sour cream, milk, thyme, and goat cheese.
Reindeer is also served roasted and as meatballs, carpaccio, jerky, and steak.
Sheep’s Head, Morocco
In Morocco, dining on a lamb or sheep’s head is a traditional part of the Id al-Adha celebration. After a home slaughter, the sheep’s head is first blackened over coals so the fur can be removed and then drained. It is boiled or steamed in its entirety and prepared with onions, salt, pepper, and cumin.
Sheep heads are also served at street markets—with or without eyes—and typically with the brains removed (brains are a separate delicacy). They are usually served with the skull cut in half but can also be cut into sections. Diners scrape the meat off the skull or cut the head into pieces.
Australia’s national animal is becoming a trendy dinner option. Kangaroo has been a food staple for indigenous Australians for millennia. It was traditionally roasted in earth ovens after cutting off the tail and feet. Kangaroo is now more widely sold in grocery stores as minced meat, steaks, or sausages.
Around 70 percent of kangaroo meat is exported to more than 50 countries. Kangaroo is prepared in a variety of ways, similar to beef—burgers, steaks, sausages, and pizza toppings—but it has a very gamey taste. It is high in protein and low in fat.