Travel is all about getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things – including local delicacies. But before you embark on a tour of unusual edibles, how about some food for thought?
We asked Lonely Planet staff to spill the beans on their unforgettable encounters with weird food – from deep-fried bugs and fermented fish to igloo restaurants and death-defying sundowners.
Crispy critters in Cambodia
Over my years of travel, I’ve seen plenty of local delicacies held up for sale outside my bus window. But I’ll never forget the trays on display in Skuon, Cambodia. Piled high were deep-fried tarantulas, their contorted legs a hue of deep purple. If I hadn’t known better, I may have assumed this stringy-looking display was just a darker version of jalebi, a sugary treat found in India. But sweet these were certainly not.
As I hesitantly bit into the crispy legs of my first spider, I gave some thought to how this dish became a local staple. It’s said that during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, when famine gripped the nation, this meal was born from necessity. And by the time life took a turn for the better, the population had acquired a taste for tarantulas. I ate two – they weren’t bad!
Matt Phillips, Destination Editor for Sub-Saharan Africa. Follow his tweets @Go2MattPhillips.
A seafood fail in Portugal
Shortly before holidaying with my parents became a no-no, my 13-year-old self strolled into a restaurant in Tavira, Portugal, and ordered a plate of choquinhos à algarvia – that’s grilled cuttlefish to you – with the misplaced confidence of 1) someone who isn’t paying and 2) a teenager who considers his occasionally outré choices of food as proof of worldliness. Call it a just-watch-me-eat-this mindset. The trouble was, I couldn’t eat that: pale, tentacled, Lovecraftian horrors whose appearance brought to mind the rubber monster finger puppets I used to play with as a kid. Even in death, they resisted my fork with an appalling vigour; perhaps this is my imagination, but I also recall a faint squeak as I took my one and only bite.
James Kay, Editor for lonelyplanet.com. Follow his tweets @jameskay123.
A not-so-fruity affair in Zimbabwe
While on a game drive in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, our guide told me and my sister about a regional delicacy we had to try: mopane worms. This caterpillar of the emperor moth feeds on mopane trees (hence the name) and locals remove their innards and dry them out in the sun to enjoy as a crispy black snack.
That night we got our chance as the hotel buffet served up a feast of traditional fare, from fried crocodile tail to buffalo stew and, of course, mopane worms. We chucked one back to get it out of the way, but my sister went on to garnish her grub with many more. Assuming she’d enjoyed the first one, I didn’t question it, but her enthusiasm quickly waned... As it transpired, my sister hadn’t heard the guide’s explanation correctly and thought the ‘worms’ were actually a fruit, so had unintentionally laced her lovely dinner with a tonne of fried bugs. Multiple desserts were needed as a palate cleanser.
Louise Bastock, Assistant Editor of lonelyplanet.com. Follow her tweets @LouiseBastock.
A knock-out cocktail experience in Thailand
After spending a lovely evening reclining on a beach in Ko Tao watching a picture-perfect sunset, I was disturbed by a loud thud. It was a coconut bigger than my head and I knew this for sure because it landed just an inch from it. Having effectively cheated death, I decided the coconut was mine to claim and cheerfully took it with me to dinner. When the chef found out why I was carting this monstrosity under my arm, she got a glint in her eye and began gleefully chopping it up with a vengeful zeal and an enormous knife. Turns out her ex-boyfriend had all his teeth knocked out in a similar, not-so-lucky incident. She got closure, while my friends and I got the best, freshest piña coladas we're ever likely to have. AnneMarie 1 – coconut 0.
AnneMarie McCarthy, Social News Coordinator at Lonely Planet Travel News.
An unusual invitation in Azerbaijan
It was with some trepidation that I accepted an invite to spend Novruz, the traditional Persian festival of spring, having dinner in a shed in the last communist-style village in Azerbaijan. My enthusiasm waned further when I was told, upon sitting down to eat, that the grapes used to make that evening’s wine had been crushed by the bare feet of the stranger sitting opposite me. In fact, everything around the table – from the plump vegetables to the slabs of cheese – had been sourced from the village; or, more accurately, traded for by my host, John, an English expat who produced ‘the best Cumberland sausages in Azerbaijan’. Despite my apprehension, the food was exquisite and the atmosphere – aided by swigs of home-brewed vodka – convivial. After dinner, we all took turns jumping over a bonfire built in the garden, a traditional act said to cleanse sins. A symbolic ritual, perhaps, but I certainly finished the night feeling a lot less narrow-minded.
Jack Palfrey, Assistant Editor of lonelyplanet.com. Follow his tweets @JPalfers.
A controversial national dish in Iceland
I’m in a farmhouse in a valley between Iceland’s tranquil Eastfjords and desolate Highlands, and I’m eating fermented Greenland shark for breakfast.
Hákarl comes with a reputation as strong as its odour. Chef Anthony Bourdain described it as ‘the single worst, most disgusting and terrible-tasting thing’ he’d eaten. The Greenland shark can live for 500 years and grows as large as a great white, although it rarely moves faster than 3km/h. And this trundling, deep-diving cold-water giant’s flesh is toxic. To make edible hákarl, it must be pressed and hung for months.
I’d meant to try some the night before, but we were busy checking out rope bridges and reindeer. So instead it emerges on a plate after everyone’s finished their skyr and orange juice, accompanied by wooden toothpicks and a whiff of ammonia. I pop a chunk in and chew, my cheeks quivering slightly. It tastes better than it smells, like fizzy squid, with a hint of cheese. I take a couple more and wash them down with coffee. It’s not for everyone, and I’m not sure it's nice, but I don’t think hákarl deserves its fearsome legend.
James Smart, Destination Editor for Japan, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. Follow his tweets @smartbadger.
Couscous overload in Morocco
At 18 years old, three friends and I set off on our first proper adventure abroad. While everyone else went to rave it up in Magaluf post-exams, we chose to visit Morocco. Never in my life have I eaten so much couscous as I did in Morocco; it took me several years to even fathom eating it again after having it solidly for three weeks.
The most memorable couscous occasion happened when we visited the home of a Berber family in the Atlas Mountains. We watched as our smiling host sat on the mud floor of their kitchen, sieving and shaking couscous in what appeared to be the oldest, dustiest straw bowl ever. I still maintain it was the best couscous I've ever had, but my less optimistic friends feigned smiles through mouthfuls of grit. I learnt then that four people can have very different experiences of the exact same thing.
Ellie Simpson, Traveller Communications Analyst. Follow her tweets @gutsygrad.
Nose-to-tail eating for Dashain in Nepal
On one of many trips to Kathmandu in Nepal, a friend invited me to his home for the festival of Dashain, when Hindus honour the goddess Durga and celebrate the victory of good over evil with animal sacrifices and family feasts. It was a great honour to be invited, but my smile faltered slightly as a succession of elderly aunts and grandmothers piled my plate high with traditional festival delicacies – sautéed brains, boiled intestines, fried spinal cord, testicles, lungs filled with egg... As an honoured guest, I couldn't really say no, so I had to have a bit of everything. To make it through, I tried hard not to think about anatomy and concentrated instead on textures: this one is squishy, this one chewy. In terms of flavour, some items weren’t bad, but the experience overall was, shall we say, visceral.
Joe Bindloss, Destination Editor for the Indian subcontinent. Follow his tweets @joe_planet.
Ice, ice, gravy: a traditional Arctic feast in Finnish Lapland
When hunger strikes and it's -30°C outside, most people would want to find the cosiest place to chow down and thaw out their fingertips. But when I was in Saariselkä in Finnish Lapland, I couldn't pass up the chance to eat in an ice restaurant. When I stepped into the cavernous, blue-hued igloo I could still see my breath and I didn't dare take off my gloves, or any of my five layers, for the entire meal – including my thermal overalls. Despite all the furniture and even some of the glassware being made of ice or snow, it actually felt quite snug inside, and the traditional Arctic feast of creamy fish soup followed by a hearty reindeer stew thoroughly defrosted me from the inside out – much like the restaurant itself, which melted entirely with the arrival of spring, ready to be rebuilt the following winter.
Gemma Graham, Destination Editor for Northern Europe. Follow her tweets @oh_gg.