Delicious world foods that won't win beauty pageants

I was feeling exceptionally cavalier many years ago when I first ordered steak tartare in a restaurant. This mood evaporated quickly when the plate arrived, looking all pink and juicy, with bits of onion, parsley and capers mixed in there. It looked like a tiger had neatly barfed up a diseased weasel. The raw egg judiciously placed on top of this hazmat scene threatened to set off my fight or flight response.

 Fresh steak tartare. Image by Jekaterina Nikitina / Flickr / Getty Images. Fresh steak tartare. Image by Jekaterina Nikitina / Flickr / Getty Images.

I took some cleansing breaths, confirmed with my companion that we still had plenty of Imodium back at the room, and tentatively dug into what ended up being one of the most memorable, eye-opening meals of my life.

There have been some bumps along the road (sea urchin), but I now cherish and even become giddy at the opportunity to eat exotic new food, no matter how many cows' stomachs it appears to have passed through.

I crowdsourced the ugliest, yet tasty can't-miss foods from veteran travellers, and here are some of the highlights.

Haggis

Haggis by zoonabar. CC BY 2.0.Haggis by zoonabar. CC BY 2.0.

Aptly described as 'a gastrointestinal explosion served on a bed of mashed potato', haggis is the food world's most popular one-word punchline. Steeling oneself for a plate of this aesthetically deficient biological matter is one of travel's great anecdotes, which, more often than not, ends with the genuinely amazed conclusion that it was delicious.

Oysters

Oyster combination plate by pointnshoot. CC BY 2.0.

Another perennial contender for most off-putting, but unexpectedly satisfying, adventure food. This one is best consumed in low light, maybe after a cocktail or two, so one can disregard that it looks like a walrus repeatedly sneezed on the plate.

Poutine

Classic poutine by jenarrr. CC BY-SA 2.0.Classic poutine by jenarrr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

It may cause Québecers to involuntarily salivate, but this aggressively unsightly bowl of soggy mush is commonly described as 'obscene' and 'evil' when people first lay eyes on it. That it's most popularly consumed as a sobering snack after a night of drinking oneself blind may explain how anyone ever choked it down in the first place. Now, of course, it's a celebrated national dish that, prepared well, is an unhealthy indulgence on par with doughnuts. Fun fact: in Québécois French slang, 'poutine' appropriately means 'a mess'.

Avocados and guacamole

Avocado by cyclonebill. CC BY-SA 2.0.Avocado by cyclonebill. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Let's see, it looks like a petrified dragon egg on the outside and the gamma radiation colour on the inside probably delayed avocados from first being ingested by humans for millennia until some poor fellow got stuck up an avocado tree for three days while starving cougars prowled below. Once that considerable hurdled had been cleared, we can understand the urge to want to make it look less toxic, though we're not sure guacamole was the best solution, being that it looks precisely like an alien was pureed in a blender. And yet, both are devoured in a volume and degree of pure joy like no other item on this list.

Black truffles

Black truffles by David Loong. CC BY-SA 2.0.Black truffles by David Loong. CC BY-SA 2.0.

What half-blind, starving simpleton first decided to put one of these things in their mouth? I'll lay odds there's a hilarious anecdote involved. And how does something that looks exactly like a ball of dirt taste so heavenly? Nevertheless, there are few close relatives I wouldn't cancel important plans on at the last second in favour of a plate of pasta liberally sprinkled with this magic fungus.

Crayfish

Crayfish by Niklas Morberg. CC BY-SA 2.0.Crayfish by Niklas Morberg. CC BY-SA 2.0.

There must be a desert island, shipwreck survival story attached to the first instance of a human consuming crayfish. It's not just that they look mean, dangerous and tedious to crack open, but the first people to come upon crayfish, if they had any imagination at all, had to consider the possibility that some kind of queen crayfish the size of a Volkswagen could be lurking nearby. Fortunately, all these obstacles were somehow navigated and now we enjoy these morsels of crustacean bliss without fear.

Tripe

Tripe by stu_spivack. CC BY-SA 2.0.Tripe by stu_spivack. CC BY-SA 2.0.

No. There's no way self-possessed people are eating something that looks like someone yanked the guts out of fresh roadkill and boiled it for six hours. It's no coincidence they group this stuff in a category of food called 'awful'. OK, my editor is telling me it's spelled 'offal', but my point stands. Amazingly, people with respectable taste in food like the French and Italians swear by this stuff, so I'm willing to disregard the possibility this is a large-scale practical joke – for now.

Honourable mentions

  • Anything with tentacles seems to be a popular heebie-jeebies trigger. This primal instinct may date back hundreds of thousands of years to an incident when a caveman was grabbed by a giant squid in shallow water, dragged out to sea and eaten raw while the whole tribe looked on in horror. Then sushi was invented in an act of revenge. Just a theory.
  • Mansaf is a highly customisable traditional dish from Jordan and Palestine, but in its basic form it's lamb cooked in a fermented dried yogurt sauce and served with rice. It's wildly popular and 'tastes like happiness', despite looking like someone threw some garnish on a small animal after flattening it with a steamroller.
  • Steinbit (aka Anarhichadidae) is kind of catfish native to the North Atlantic that grows up to two metres in length and eats clams, sea urchins and crustaceans 'which they crush with strong canine and molar teeth'. So, basically a monster that eats other monsters. The Norwegians, my people, eat this terror, because, well, they're lunatics.

Leif Pettersen is a Lonely Planet author, freelance travel writer and polyglot. He’s visited 51 countries (so far) and can be found at @leifpettersen.