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Like most people who’d been born and raised in Singapore, I am obsessed with food. A bulk of our conversations with friends involve what and where to eat, and then after we’ve had food, what to eat next. I’m not ashamed to admit that my camera usually “eats” first, and have amassed thousands of food photos. When I am out exploring the world, I planned a lot of my itinerary based on the best local food the city has to offer. I’ve also come across some strange local delicacies that were delicious and some I’d remember for the rest of my life. Here are seven weird food from around the world I’ve eaten while travelling.
1. Kitfo (Ethiopia)
Before I went to Addis Ababa, the thought of eating raw beef (i.e. beef tartare) terrified me. However, Kitfo is one of Ethiopia’s most renowned dishes. It’s not often that one gets to go to Addis Ababa, so I decided to gather my guts and give it a try. It was amazing, to say the least. The raw beef is prepared with mitmita (chilli spices blend), salt, pepper and clarified butter, and served atop a large banana leaf. The meat is usually accompanied by a mild cheese and a generous dollop of cooked greens. Before eating, you’d want to wrap the meat in a traditional Ethiopian flatbread called Injera (Trypophobia trigger warning).
This was the very first time I experienced meat literally melting in my mouth. It was buttery and soft, deliciously spiced and no a hint of that blood-iron taste I was so afraid of. The greens reminded me of spinach in coconut sauce back home, and the bread (even though the back of it looks like the stuff nightmares are made of) was spongey, soft and somewhat sour-ish.
Where to eat Kitfo:
Yohannes Kitfo Hayahulet | ዬሀንስ ክትፎ ሃያሁለት
Address: 2Q6M+6MW, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Opening Hours: 8 am – 11 pm (Hours may differ)
Contact: +251 91 152 8876
2. Live Awabi (Japan)
Japanese cuisine is by far my favourite of all that I’ve ever experienced. From the fresh, flavourful belly sashimi to the rich and umami flavours of ramen, I love them all. As much as I love fresh sashimi, they are already sliced up and presented nicely on a plate before being served. I was on a day trip to Wakayama with a former colleague and she took me to her favourite sushi place in her hometown. That was where she introduced – forced on me, rather – awabi (Japanese abalone) to me.
Awabi are fist-sized sea snails that are caught by skin divers. These divers swim down to a depth of approximately 20-metres with face masks and flippers, without a portable breathing device. I didn’t know then – because she treated me to that meal – but awabis are rare and require a lot of effort to catch, hence they are expensive. The awabi I had was fresh from its shell, and very much alive. My colleague told me the best way to eat it was on its own, without sauces or condiments. I took a bite of the sea snail and felt it wriggling and sticking to my tongue. It was definitely not for the faint-hearted, but the awabi was meaty, quite delicious, tastes like the ocean and super, super fresh.
3. Deep fried worms (Thailand and Cambodia)
Next on the list of weird food from around the world is deep-fried worms. Any traveller who’d been to Thailand, or other Southeast Asian countries such as Laos and Cambodia is familiar with the street carts selling an assortment of bugs and creepy crawlies. They are sold mostly in touristy areas like the backpackers’ haven Khao San Road, attracting tourists who are searching for an “exotic” experience. I had my first experience with these bugs at 18, on a school-organised community service trip to Cambodia. Our guide bought bags of assorted bugs and we got to try some. I avoided the creepier ones like scorpions and cockroaches and tried the less scary looking ones like the mealworms.
As Timon, our friendly meerkat from The Lion King says: “Tastes like chicken.”
For the uninitiated, the bugs are not to be eaten raw. This street food is like a Pick and Mix where you choose the bug you want and the vendor will fry them with some vinegar, salt and pepper. The fatter bugs like silkworms are meatier, and slim bugs such as mealworms are crunchy like popcorn. Definitely some of the weirdest foods I’ve ever tasted.
4. Leche de Tigre (Peru)
Leche de Tigre is literally translated to “Tiger’s Milk” in English. Fortunately, it doesn’t come from milking a tiger (I don’t know if it’s wise to even try). It is a mix of lime, chilli, aromatics such as garlic and cilantro, and fish stock flavours that’s an integral part of a classic Peruvian fish dish called Ceviche.
I had the pleasure of trying Ceviche for the first time in our Peruvian friend’s home in Singapore. It is usually fish or other seafood cured in fresh citrus juice served as an appetizer. He first made the spicy, tangy sauce by extracting the flavours from a fresh white fish (e.g. seabass, flounder or sole) widely available in the nearby market. While the sauce is literally chilling in the fridge, he chops up the fish into bite-sized pieces and then marinates it in the sauce. The acid from the lime changes the structure of the proteins in the fish, effectively “cooking” it without the use of heat. Ceviche is usually paired with crunchy tortilla chips or tostadas, and even saltine crackers. I wouldn’t exactly consider Ceviche to be a weird food from around the world, but the sauce it’s cured in is.
In Leipzig, Mexican restaurant Gallo Negro has the best Ceviche tacos I’ve ever had. Fresh cubed white fish in flavourful sauce atop crunchy tostadas. It’s my go-to dish whenever I visit and almost always ask my husband to pack it home whenever he visits… which is often. Unfortunately, the restaurant is currently closed due to the partial lockdown, will update when it opens again!
5. Stinky Tofu (China, Hong Kong and Taiwan)
Stinky Tofu or Chou Doufu is a fermented tofu dish that’s deep-fried and served in a disposable bowl, drizzled with a sweet-spicy-savoury sauce and coriander. It’s most commonly found in street stalls and night markets, making it a popular snack to have while walking around.
Traditionally, the dish is fermented in a brine with vegetables and meat for months at a time. However, this dish may be off-putting to many due to its pungent smell akin to wet socks. Once you get past the smell, the savoury tofu is usually eaten freshly deep-fried – the smell less unpleasant – accompanied by the yummy sauce with crunchy vegetable bits and my least favourite, but fragrant, coriander leaves. I have yet to find a travel partner who loves Chou Doufu as much as I do.
6. Sea Urchin + Squid Ink Bun (Japan)
Once again, food from Japan has made this list of weird food from around the world. I first came across this snack when searching for the best foods to eat while at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. It is essentially a charcoal black steamed bun as a deep bowl, filled with sea urchin cream and topped with fresh sea urchin pieces. It definitely ranked high on my list of dodgy-looking food, but I love sea urchin or Uni as the Japanese called it.
The charcoal bun tastes like any other steamed bun, soft, moist and a little sweet. The sea urchin cream was dense and sweet, and the sea urchin itself was its gritty, briny, tastes of the ocean self. Sea urchin sashimi is expensive in Japan, even more so in other parts of the world. Some that are not so fresh tastes bitter and unpleasant. But the fresh ones are slippery, sweet and melt in your mouth.
Where to eat Charcoal Uni bun:
Tsukiji Fish Market – the stall is called Hamada Shoten (浜田商店)
Address: 5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan
7. Tapai (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines)
The last item on my list of weird food around the world comes from a place close to home, our neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia. Tapai is a traditional fermented white or glutinous rice or other starchy foods such as cassava. Tapai is produced by inoculating a carbohydrate source (e.g tapioca or sweet potatoes) with the necessary microorganisms from a starter culture and fermented in jars. Depending on its fermentation time, the end result is sticky, pungent and sweet-sourish.
Tapai can be eaten on its own as an accompaniment to afternoon tea. Or with desserts such as roasted cassava tapai served with grated coconut flakes and liquid palm sugar. It can also be a topping on a favourite iced dessert: Ice Kacang.
The older generations (i.e. my parents and grandparents) enjoy tapai, but as much as I love food with intense flavour, tapai isn’t for me. My first impression of tapai in all its pungent aroma had put me off slightly, but it’s the sourish taste and gooey texture that sealed the deal. I took one bite, and never again.
Personally, local food is the representation of the local culture. While some may be a little too outlandish for my taste, I try to appreciate them as they give me an insight into what the locals have eaten and loved for generations. The most authentic cultural experience is when you come across a dodgy-looking restaurant and come get served an authentic local dish and come out wowed by their yummiest dish.
Hope you’ve enjoyed my list of weird foods from around the world, and do give them a chance when you encounter them during your travels! Be adventurous and experience things you never would back home, but also be safe. It’s the worst to fall ill when you’re travelling.