“I would taste any food at least once,” says Stephen Brooks, cofounder of Kopali Organics and host of the Travel Channel show Edible Adventures. “That’s why I opt not to be vegetarian or restrict my diet in a finite way. For me part of getting to know a culture is trying the food.”
Though many bizarre foods served around the world inspire comparisons to the chilled monkey brains shown in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, national dishes aren’t meant to frighten away foreigners. On the contrary, in the planet’s esoteric back alleys of gastronomy, indigenous and ethnic groups proudly narrate themselves through flavor. If you choose not to indulge, you’re missing out on a crucial travel experience.
While many of these culinary ambassadors may seem bizarre to us, they’re often delicacies in their homelands. It’s not always our fault that we find them strange. Ethnic specialties are often made more palatable as they travel overseas. We may think we know everything about a country’s cuisine, but our domestic versions may barely resemble the originals.
“Many of the foods we identify as Korean or Mexican or, say, French are in fact an American interpretation of food from that culture,” says Brooks. “And they might even be frowned upon by the originators. The Chinese have never heard of General Tso’s chicken or fortune cookies.”
Take comfort, hesitant eaters. “Strange” goes in both directions. Dairy, for example, isn’t widely consumed in Asia. One interesting exception is Mongolia's airag, a carbonated alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk. It’s the Budweiser of Ulaanbaatar.
It’s not just “exotic” or “remote” cultures that have strange national dishes. Black pudding—also known as blood pudding—is a sausage-like combination of blood and fillers that’s served alongside eggs, beans, tomatoes, and mushrooms to create the quintessential “full English breakfast.” No Englishman worth his salt will start the day until he’s had his morning fry-up—and black pudding is part of the deal.
Some national dishes are products of a gastronomically restrictive environment. Muktuk has been vital to the traditional diets of Greenland’s Inuit for thousands of years. Made from the blubber and raw skin of whales (and particularly of the narwhal, sometimes called the “unicorn of the sea”), this local delicacy is usually eaten raw—but may also be frozen, boiled, or even fermented.
These national dishes may seem strange (at best), but keep an open mind. When you travel to a new place and eat a strange local dish, you are experiencing nothing less than the interconnectedness of the human race.