From dining at restaurants to snacking on street food, eating is often a big part of travel. We of course always need to eat, but travel allows us the chance to expand our palates to new exotic flavours. Many countries are known for their famous traditional dishes which are often at the top of a traveller’s list of things to try, but then there are often more unusual gastronomic delights that will appeal to truly adventurous eaters.
When it comes to what many of us Aussies would consider bizarre foods, nowhere quite delivers like Asia. You’ll find many unconventional foods and diverse culinary traditions throughout many Asian countries that will definitely challenge the palates of some visitors.
If you’ve got the guts to sink your teeth into some truly eccentric foods which are an integral part of local Asian culinary traditions and cultural heritage, then try heading to one of the following Asian nations for an adventurous gastronomic experience.
Just remember to always make sure to practice safety and caution when consuming food overseas in terms of avoiding potentially unsafe raw or undercooked food and making sure food has been properly handled and prepared, especially when it comes to street food.
It’s always best to avoid food related illnesses while travelling, but make certain you have a travel insurance policy in place that can cover you for overseas medical care should you end up getting sick despite your best efforts to avoid it.
The Philippines offers up a wide range of peculiar foods and many of them can be found in and around Manilla. One of the most well known Filipino food challenges for foreign visitors is eating balut which is a fertilized duck egg.
If balut is a bit too much, you can try isaw which is chicken or pig intestines that are grilled and served on a skewer. Popular as a street food, it is often marinated in spicy vinegar. Alternatively, try dried cubes of coagulated chicken or pig blood that has been grilled and cut into bite-sized squares.
You may also be a bit confused by street vendors selling food labelled as Adidas or Walkman. No, you won’t find them selling fashionable runners or obsolete music players, rather Adidas are grill chicken feet while Walkman refers to grilled pig’s ears. Both foods pack a lot of flavour with their seasoning.
We Aussies are quite familiar with large spiders but would you be willing to eat some? Cambodia considers protein-packed, deep-fried tarantulas a delicacy and can especially be found being served up with chilli or other dipping sauce in the town of Skuon north of Phnom Penh.
In addition to spiders, you can also snack on a number of other fried insects that often include critters like crickets, silkworm larvae, grasshoppers, and water bugs. Crunchy seasoned deep-fried bugs are a popular snack in many locations throughout Cambodia and are likely healthier than most of our snacks here in Australia. You may also find red tree ants in your salads or soups as they add a unique tangy and citrusy flavour.
You may also come across various soups or sauces that use a fermented fish paste as a base, which has been left to ferment for months and presents a salty taste alongside a pungent odour. Known as prahok, it is used to make prahok ktis, a traditional Cambodian dish which uses the fish paste as a sort of dipping sauce that is often mixed with rice, pork or beef, coconut milk, and various vegetables.
Malaysia’s unique food offerings are especially diverse being that the country is split into two distinct regions that include Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. A great place to start with sampling bizarre foods is in Penang which is home to a melting pot of cultures which results in a diverse fusion of flavours influenced by many surrounding regions in Asia.
Durian is a fruit that you may have heard many travellers speak of. This large spiky fruit offers a creamy, custard-like flesh and is incredibly nutritious. A truly unique fruit unlike any other, it offers a mix of flavours both sweet and savoury, with many saying that it gives hints of cheese, caramel, nuts, and garlic.
While it may not sound so daring to eat durian, it is the pungent and often unpleasant odour of the fruit that puts off foreign visitors. The smell has been likened to really dirty feet or old wet socks and is so strong that many Asian nations actually ban carrying the fruit on public transport or prohibit it being taken into hotel rooms due to what many consider an offensive smell.
You may also come across century eggs in Malaysia which are actually a traditional Chinese delicacy. The eggs are fermented in a mixture of salt, clay, ash, quicklime, and rice straw for months that creates an egg prepared like you have never seen before.
What you get is a gelatinous, translucent egg white that has turned a dark brown or amber colour and a yolk that is both creamy and grainy which is dark green or grey in colour. The appearance, texture, and strong flavour often put travellers off but if you are adventurous it shouldn’t offer up too much of a challenge.
One of the more unusual culinary local ingredients you may find in several Malaysian dishes is petai or stinky beans. Known for their pervasive strong smell that can be likened to sulphur or methane, petai is often stir-fried with sambal, anchovies, or other ingredients. For something completely different, you may also wish to try belut goreng which is crunchy deep-fried eel.
Japan offers a paradise for food enthusiasts, especially in cities like Tokyo which is home to more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else in the world. While you will definitely come across common menu items like sushi, yakitori, and tempura which are far from adventurous, Japan does offer some more peculiar food items as well.
One of the more dangerous dishes to consume is the pufferfish known as fugu. The fish must be prepared with extreme care so as to remove its toxic parts, otherwise consuming the toxins can prove deadly to humans. Served as sashimi or in hot pot dishes, only highly trained chefs approved by the government are allowed to prepare the dish and you should never attempt to eat this dish from anyone other than a licensed chef.
You may also be surprised to see horse meat on Japanese menus. Known as basashi, horse meat is served raw and often accompanied by soy sauce and ginger, having been properly treated to make it safe to consume.
Fermented soybeans are often eaten with rice for breakfast but are definitely an acquired taste for foreign visitors. Meanwhile, bee larvae are often eaten as a snack and goes by the local name hachinoko. You can also challenge your tastebuds to konowata which are salted entrails of sea cucumbers.
If you want to watch your food move, try some katsu ika odori-don. The dish consists of fresh squid served over a bed of rice or noodles, whereupon its tentacles begin to move when soy sauce is poured over them due to muscle contractions caused by the reaction to sodium in the sauce.
You’ll find a wide array of dishes that may make you a bit squeamish in Thailand. You can start by seeking out crispy fried duck tongues as a snack which are often flavoured with peppers and salt in a wok. Another local favourite snack is stinky tofu which is fermented tofu. You can get it deep-fried with pickled vegetables or a spicier dish version which contains duck blood. One last bizarre snack is fried bamboo worm larvae.
Snake meat is rather common in some regions of the country and is often found grilled or stir-fried. If that will have you slithering for the exits, then how about trying pork brain soup or for a thicker and more gelatinous soup you can try pig’s blood soup.
Water bugs are also eaten and found in rice dishes or simply eaten as a snack. They are also ground up with herbs and spices to create a spicy chilli paste which makes an intriguing condiment.