I’m always baffled when I visit exotic locations and see tourists in Hawaiian shirts and fanny packs gravitating toward the rows of identical restaurants serving the same toned-down versions of the local cuisine. Even when people travel halfway around the world to “get away,” they crave the familiarity and comfort of food that isn’t too out of the ordinary.
Tourists gorging on plates of tasteless “authentic” dishes are missing out on the more daring foods served in mom-and-pop restaurants and street vendor stalls. These dishes speak volumes about the country’s culture, people, history, and heritage — things you cannot experience fully without eating as the locals do.
As a chef traveling around the world, I’ve learned that eating in new places can be just as exciting as the food itself, and every new experience is an inspiration. These dishes are not for the fainthearted eater, but they each embody the essence of their unique culture and should be on any adventurous traveler’s bucket list.
Balut, Southeast Asia
This street food staple is a fertilized duck egg between 19 and 21 days old, which is cooked and served with lime, chilies, and salt. Once you crack off the top of the shell, you see a tiny baby duck head with a beak and sometimes feathers. The lower half of the egg is usually less developed. After dousing it in chili and lime, you use a spoon to break up the embryo and consume the baby duck and attached remaining yolk.
At around 60 cents per egg, balut has been a cheap snack for locals long before foreigners started turning up their noses at it. And, believe it or not, it’s delicious. The upper part tastes like something between a duck consommé and a duck confit, while the lower part tastes like a hardboiled egg. If you can get over the gag factor, you’ll love the taste.
Coal-Roasted Whole Liver Fish, Japan
These tiny fish, found only in Japanese freshwater ponds, are usually eaten as a traditional interlude during a sushi tasting. They taste like a perfectly cooked and very salty white fish with a hint of foie gras.
I first tried liver fish at Sushi Ichi in Tokyo. One of the chefs stopped by my place at the counter to show me a bamboo bucket filled with squirming live fish. He grabbed three and artfully skewered them alive before placing them on glowing coals. Then, he furiously fanned the fire and turned the fish for about ten minutes, finally serving me the simple and beautifully roasted fish to be eaten whole.
Fermented Cockles, Thailand
No Thai seafood feast is complete without cockles, whether they’re barbecued or served in a spicy salad. This particular shellfish delicacy is cured through lactic acid fermentation and can be found in most markets. The small clams usually sit out all day, so be sure to get them early. Cockles are served with chili sauce to mask the pungent taste from the fermentation process.
After sampling a wide array of delicious food in Thailand, I still think buying this dish out of a canoe in a floating market brought me closest to an understanding of Thai culture.
Beef barbecues are common across South America, but there’s no place that embraces this tradition as a social event and national identity like Argentina. Of course, in a country that considers beef its pride and symbol, you’d expect to eat the entire beast.
The affinity for eating the entrails of livestock goes back to the days of gauchos, who couldn’t afford to waste anything. Asado usually includes the intestines, pancreas, glands, heart, ribs, and other meat cooked on a grill over live coals. The taste is hearty and simply perfect.
This may be one of the hardest foods on this list to keep down, but there’s nothing more quintessential to experiencing Iceland than trying its infamous cured shark. Hákarl is made by rotting and curing Greenland shark in the elements for months. The shark’s high levels of uric acid contribute to the curing process and give it a strong ammonia smell.
During the dark winter months, hákarl was a staple in Iceland because of limited food sources. It was a means of survival and remains a testament to the hardiness of the people. My Icelandic friends say the only way to eat more than one bite of hákarl is by drinking brennivín, Icelandic vodka. I was intimidated by this dish, but once I got over the stench, the taste was similar to soft Swiss cheese with spoiled fish.
Try Something New — Wherever You Are
All these dishes have given me inspiration through different lenses. Some were created out of necessity, others from tradition, and all from regionally available ingredients. Most importantly, these unusual dishes are part of a region’s heritage and should be given a chance.
Even if you’re not headed to Thailand or Argentina anytime soon, trying food at any authentic local restaurant or food stall gives you the chance to connect with people who are often thrilled you’re willing to try something new. You’re not only contributing to the local economy, but you’re also eating recipes that have often been handed down for generations. These chefs take pride in their preparation and ingredients. If you’re intimidated by not knowing how or what to order, ask for recommendations. If you don’t speak the language, try shrugging and smiling; see what happens. You’re likely to get something delicious — especially if it’s out of your comfort zone.