We’ll admit it: we travel to eat. We’ve done nearly sixty food tours and hit lots of food halls and markets, and we believe that the local cuisine is the best (and most enjoyable) way to get to know a culture. Sometimes street food is the best food, and trying new things goes with the territory. But sometimes the ‘new’ veers off into the ‘weird,’ and sometimes it shoots way beyond the comfort zone. How far do we go in the name of adventurous eating?
My personal policy is “If I can’t find it at home, I have to try it.” What is a ‘weird’ food anyway? Sometimes it’s a strange texture, sometimes it’s simply what you’re not used to. One man’s weird is another man’s Wednesday lunch. Often it’s mental; sometimes you just have to plunge in without thinking too hard about what it is. Here are some of the more unusual foods I’ve sampled along the way.
Unusual Foods (Fear Factor: Travel Edition)
- Gooseneck barnacles. Known as percebes in Spain and Portugal, these are delicacies there where they grow on the rocks below the waterline and taste like the sea.
- Chipsi mayai. The most popular street food in Tanzania is basically a potato and egg omelet… but I had it at this roadside stand (I was with a trusted Tanzanian):
- Minke whale. Although declining in popularity, minke whale is a delicacy at restaurants in Iceland. Hákarl, or fermented shark, is the national dish of Iceland (and one I have not tried. Yet.)
- Crickets. Widely available in Asia, Africa and Latin America, I tried these salty fried snacks in Chiang Mai, Thailand and found them to be quite tasty. Plus, protein!
- Haggis. I’d heard horrible things about the national dish of Scotland (minced, spiced offal cooked inside a sheep’s stomach) but it turns out “haggis, neeps and tatties” makes for a delicious meal.
- Stingray. We’ve eaten stingray filets and in soups in Portugal’s Algarve.
- Kudu. An antelope and reputedly one of the world’s best-tasting game meats, I enjoyed a kudu filet in South Africa.
- Sprinkbok. On a safari in Zimbabwe I had braised springbok shank, which was delicious.
- Century egg. Popular in Asian cuisine, a century egg is an egg (duck, chicken or quail) that has been fermented in a specific preparation for several weeks or even months, which preserves the egg and turns it black and gelatinous. I got to try one in Thailand. The flavor is similar to a jammy ramen egg but more pungent.
- Termites. I snarfed these during a hike in Costa Rica at the behest of our local guide. While tiny and hardly filling, they did taste a bit like peanut butter.
- Reindeer. We tried this once on a food tour in Estonia in the form of reindeer sausage.
- Guinea fowl. I ordered this from a menu in southern Portugal and it was so delicious.
- Eels. I’ve always loved freshwater eel (unagi) and saltwater or conger eel (anago); in Japan, you can buy a big portion on a stick, which is so delicious. In South Africa, I tried the kingklip, which is a species of cusk eel that tastes similar to monkfish. Once in Portugal I found moray eel jerkey.
- Alligator. In Texas, this ain’t no big deal. Cajun restaurants regularly offer fried alligator and it is tasty, sort of like chicken.
- Camel. We tried camel burgers while on a food tour in Dubai and they didn’t taste much different than beef.
- Pig Ear and Heart. We had these in Thailand in a local soup and noodle dish. I’ll be honest, the whole thing tasted amazing and I couldn’t even discern which were the ear and heart!
- Tako tamago. Baby octopus, stuffed with a boiled quail egg, this is a popular street food in Kyoto.
- Marlin. Although uncommon in the U.S., we’ve eaten it in tacos in Mexico.
- Durian. This fruit is so odious that Asian hotels and aircraft do not allow them inside. The taste wasn’t terrible, just very sharp and pungent; the smell was very off-putting; but it was the texture that we didn’t anticipate. It’s soft and creamy (some generously call it “custardy”), but I would liken it to the putrid flesh of a rotting corpse. (Try these exotic fruits instead!)
- Vegemite. With apologies to our friends in Australia, I have to add this to the list. A thick, dark brown spread made from leftover brewers’ yeast extract with various vegetable and spice additives, Vegemite has a strong, bitter, malty umami flavor and is apparently an acquired taste. I sample it every few years but just can’t get it going.
Adventurous Eating Safely Around the World
Of all our years of travel and adventurous eating, we’ve had very few problems. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had food poisoning (and you can even get it from a nice restaurant in the U.S. if you’re unlucky), and I’ve drank from fountains in the town square in Czechia and rivers in Croatia, and I’ve eaten raw beef and egg in Brazil.
Some of the guidelines we follow include reading restaurant reviews on Google, checking to see if staff are serving with gloves, looking for places with lots of locals or lines, and avoiding places with no customers. Some stands (like Singapore hawker markets) have to post their health rating, which is very helpful. (Look for the A!) Food tour local guides are familiar with the restaurants and stands they frequent and can offer further guidance.
Know Your Destination
Read up on where you are traveling. Once, in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), the local water was not safe and we were instructed to brush our teeth with Sprite. In parts of Mexico, fresh produce needs to be cleaned and disinfected before consuming. It is typically fine in big hotels, restaurants, and resorts catering to tourists, but outside those areas you definitely want to soak produce with an iodine-based vegetable wash like Microdyn, widely available in stores.
Travelers’ Diarrhea (TD)
It’s very common for travelers to get traveler’s diarrhea, due to different hygiene standards as well as lack of resistance to unfamiliar bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “Attack rates range from 30%–70% of travelers during a 2-week period, depending on the destination and season of travel.” We recommend bringing along Imodium and considering getting an antibiotic such as azithromycin or cipro from your doctor prior to travel. These can generally be found over the counter in overseas pharmacies if you forget or run out.
8 Tips Before Your Next Trip
Food safety is really important and the challenge is to take it seriously without being too paranoid. Here are some suggestions:
- Research your destination. Learn if the local water supply is safe to drink and see what food-related issues might be prevalent in the city or country. Check to see if any vaccinations are recommended.
- See your doctor. Get any recommended vaccinations, including Hepatitis A, which is spread by contaminated food and water. We always travel with Cipro, a powerful antibiotic, in case of infection. Diarrhea at home is usually viral, whereas diarrhea while traveling is usually bacterial, and Cipro has helped us out on more than one occasion. If you forget or run out, you can typically buy it overseas from a pharmacy.
- Pack wisely. Carry sanitizer and wipes with you to clean up before snacking or dining, and bring along non-perishable snacks in case you get hungry while traveling or on tours. Pack over-the-counter meds for any gastrointestinal distress you may experience.
- Avoid raw foods. Uncooked meat, fish, shellfish, eggs and produce can cause food-borne illness. Use your judgment here; raw fish in upscale sushi restaurants is generally safe.
- Wash your hands. The COVID-19 pandemic drove this practice home; washing your hands often can prevent illnesses.
- Take care of yourself. If you get sick, stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. Visit a local pharmacy if you need assistance; some larger international pharmacies and hotels may even have a physician on call.
- Stick to bottled water. When in doubt, don’t drink the tap or well water; go with manufacturer-sealed water instead.
- Avoid room temperature food. Hot or cold foods may be the safest; steer clear of foods that have been sitting at room temperature for long periods of time.
Conclusion: Adventurous Eating is Exciting, Fun, and Delicious
We believe that food is the best way to get to know a culture, and adventurous eating can be both delicious and exciting. While traveling, challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone and try things you normally wouldn’t try while following basic food safety guidelines. You just might discover your new favorite food.