Bizarre Foods: It’s in the Eye of the Beholder

Several years ago an American colleague narrated a culinary encounter in one of the countries where our organization was operating. Over dinner he told our local counterparts how he would eat shrimp by severing its head and sucking the juices out. The locals looked at him in utter disgust. And all the while they were feasting. On boiled grasshoppers. A dish that even the late great Anthony Bourdain couldn’t swallow.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so the saying goes. It’s the same for exotic, or to put it more bluntly, bizarre foods. Throughout our travels we’ve often encountered culinary fare considered perfectly normal by the locals that somehow repel visitors. Here are some of them.

fried water bugs and grasshoppers at street stalls in Thailand

Left: Giant water bugs at a Thai street stall. Photo by Takoradee via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Fried grasshoppers at a Bangkok food stall. Photo by Thomas Schoch via Wikimedia Commons.

Grasshoppers aren’t really bad. But they’re probably better fried instead of boiled or steamed. They’ve even become a popular snack at Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners’ games a few years back. Another American colleague asked Leo to accompany him on an insect-eating adventure in Bangkok some time ago. They came across a street vendor selling large cockroach-looking critters (they were actually huge water bugs), ant eggs and the ubiquitous grasshoppers. Leo was secretly hoping our friend wouldn’t choose the water bugs and they fortunately ended up getting the grasshoppers. According to Leo these were crispy and tasty. The only problem was he didn’t remove the spiny hind legs which got stuck on his throat and had to be washed down. Turns out that the hind legs are usually removed by other vendors before the grasshopper is cooked.

ant eggs as food in Isan, Thailand and Mexico

Left: Ant eggs (on leaves) at a market in the Isan Region, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Bertrand Man via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Ant eggs are also eaten in Mexico where they are known as escamoles. Photo courtesy of Carlos Valenzuela via Wikimedia Commons. In the Philippines’ Ilocos region, the eggs of the weaver ant are called abuos and are often sautéed in garlic or cooked adobo-style.

One of our favorite dishes before we switched to a plant-based diet is beef rendang from Indonesia which Nina occasionally makes for friends. While on a trip to South Sulawesi, Leo was presented with a dish that looked like rendang but with meat that obviously wasn’t beef or goat. Our Indonesian friends assured him they would reveal the mystery ingredient after lunch – a rather ominous sign. The meat tasted somewhat gamy and it was only much later that Leo realized that it was a dog.

rintek wuuk dog dish from Indonesia

This rintek wuuk dog dish was very similar to the one Leo had in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Gunawan Kartapranata via Wikimedia Commons.

You’ll often hear Filipinos say that no part of an animal gets thrown away when cooked here. You can expect a few other Asian countries to do the same. Parts of a pig’s head, especially the ears and cheek skin, make up a popular Filipino grilled dish called sisig. Sure enough we encountered a Thai salad dish called yam hu mu made with cooked sliced pig ears. The ears looked like they were boiled (here we go again) but the dish was actually quite delicious.

sisig from the Philippines and yam mu hu from Thailand

Left: Sisig is a popular Filipino dish that originated from Pampanga. Right: Yam mu hu, a Thai salad featuring pig ears. Photo courtesy of Takeaway via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps it’s a result of our resourcefulness as a people inured to hardship but we Filipinos have learned to utilize every part of a chicken, pig, goat or cow for food. Walk along Manila’s streets and you’ll encounter barbecued chicken or pork parts with curious-sounding names like IUD (grilled chicken intestines), Betamax (grilled coagulated chicken or pork blood), Helmet (chicken head), Adidas (chicken feet) and Walkman (grilled pig’s ears chopped into bite-sized pieces). There’s also fried one-day old chick – male chicks rejected by poultry farms since they’re useless for egg production and don’t grow as fast as female chicks grown for meat. Throw in barbecued chicken butt, liver and gizzard and you’ll have a good representation of the country’s street food scene.

barbecued animal parts at a street stall in Manila, Philippines

Pinoy barbecued street food: ‘Walkman’ in the foreground and ‘IUDs’ in the background. Photo courtesy of Judge Florentino Floro via Wikimedia Commons.

Cooked chicken feet is actually common in many countries and a dish that may be found in many Chinese restaurants. It’s one of our favorite dim sum dishes before we shifted to a plant-based diet. It is usually cooked by removing the hard outer skin layer leaving softer skin and tendons that have a gelatinous texture.

sauteed chicken feet at the North Park restaurant, Metro Manila, Philippines

Sauteed chicken feet at a Chinese restaurant in Manila.

If there are meat dishes from a host country that are outright repulsive to a tourist, then perhaps fruits would be more palatable. Unfortunately that is not the case for the notorious durian. Looking like a deadly spiked medieval weapon on the outside, the durian is even more lethal taste-wise for many rookie eaters. While we have grown to enjoy it – durian is actually Leo’s favorite fruit – others are not so accommodating. Bizarre foods king Andrew Zimmern has eaten and enjoyed anything from cow placenta to worms but durian is one of the foods he will not touch. He almost threw up trying one in Thailand. However, we think it’s the durian’s pungent smell that has a psychological effect on people trying it for the first time (even animals are repelled by its smell). Really, it’s like eating blue cheese; the rotten smell might turn you off but get past that and you begin to enjoy its rich, creamy taste.

exterior and interior views of durian

Durian: exterior and interior views of the smelly fruit. These durian are from Davao City in the Philippines.

Even drinks are not spared from the clutches of the bizarre. On our first visits to China and Vietnam we encountered local wines that had something in them. On closer inspection we realized they were snakes and they were supposed to give the drink curative and invigorative powers (which always seems to be the case with exotic foods or drinks). The more venomous the snake, the better. Some even went as far as putting in overgrown scorpions for good measure. Fortunately the venom of these deadly creatures are neutralized by the ethanol in the wine, making the latter safe (but not always safe) to drink.

snake wine

Left: Snake wine from Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Khương Việt Hà via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Adding a huge scorpion to increase this wine’s potency. Photo courtesy of Jorge Lascar via Wikimedia Commons.

But back to our native Philippines which has no shortage of eccentric cuisine. By now many people have heard about the balut, a common Filipino street food which is a developing duck embryo boiled and eaten directly from the shell. The allowed incubation period varies from 14 to 21 days resulting in a balut where the embryo is almost featureless to one where the head, beak and feet are clearly recognizable but is soft enough to eat as a whole. Balut was brought to the Philippines by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. The town of Pateros where Leo comes from (and where his ancestors who brought the balut with them from China settled) excelled in balut production and made this egg from a mallard duck famous. In our travels to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, we’ve seen varieties of the balut. A balut from Vietnam is even made from the much smaller quail egg.

balut and balut penoy in the Philippines

Left: Balut Penoy – a balut variety which is an unfertilized duck egg. Visiting foreigners fearful of the balut and “required” by their Filipino hosts to eat one may opt for this less challenging variety. Photo courtesy of Judge Florentino Floro via Wikimedia Commons. Right: A developed duck embryo, the more classic balut variety. You can begin recognizing the features of the duck at this stage. Photo courtesy of Marshall Astor via Wikimedia Commons.

Raw meat is another category of the exotic and the bizarre. In recent years however, raw meat has become accepted world-wide, depending on what is prepared of course. Sushi and sashimi as well as ceviche are not just accepted but have also become culinary favorites. Some type of preparation is involved to make them more palatable and presentable. However, in our island travels locally, we’ve had the chance to eat seafood straight from the water such as the sea urchins featured below.

sea urchins from the Gigantes Islands, Iloilo

Sea urchins caught off the Gigantes Islands in northern Iloilo, Philippines where we ate a handful.

There are some stuff out there that could be downright deadly if not prepared correctly. The puffer fish has enough toxins in its tiny body to kill up to 30 people. This fish happens to be a popular delicacy in Japan but even with stringent measures in place to ensure safety, about 20-44 people in Japan have been poisoned every year with some of them eventually dying. We chanced upon a fisherman who caught the puffer fish below in Bolinao, Pangasinan almost 10 years ago and who said they will prepare this as a kinilaw or local ceviche, with the toxins removed of course.

a puffer fish at Patar Beach, Bolinao, Pangasinan

Dining with death: a live puffer fish about to be turned into ceviche. We actually felt sorry for this guy.

Pampanga province, where Nina’s ancestors come from, is considered the Philippine’s culinary capital. Kapampangan cuisine is a rich and varied cuisine influenced by Indian, Chinese and Spanish cooking. But it has challenging dishes too such as calderetang barag or bayawak (stewed monitor lizard) and adobong kamaro or mole crickets sautéed in vinegar and garlic. We had a small bite of the latter when someone brought us this dish once but it somehow never caught on with us.

mole cricket and adobong kamaro

Left: A mole cricket. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Right: Adobong kamaro from Fely J Restaurant. Photo courtesy of Yvette Tan via Wikimedia Commons.

An exotic Pampanga dish that we did enjoy was betute tugak or frog stuffed with minced pork. However we had a hard time convincing some of our friends how good betute really is when this was the photo that showed up on our Facebook page:

betute tugak or stuffed frog at a restaurant in Pampanga, Philippines

It’s delicious but… “it looks like a human being,” retorted one of Leo’s high school classmates upon seeing this photo.

Happy dining everyone!

3 thoughts on “Bizarre Foods: It’s in the Eye of the Beholder

  1. I remember Andrew Zimmern and his adventures in the Philippines and Southeast Asia because of this post… so cool!

    As for me, the most exotic I can take is eating frogs, nothing scaly or slithering…

    1. Andrew Zimmern and the late Anthony Bourdain were our inspirations for this post. Our only regret was not being able to take more photos of these exotic stuff. Next time…

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