Pufferfish from Japan: a life-and-death gourmet experience
Pufferfish is not something you would ordinarily want on your plate, as the little bloater is extremely poisonous. It has a powerful nerve agent that can cause heart attacks when ingested. In Japan, however, the pufferfish, better known as fugu, is one of the most expensive and sought-after delicacies. Connoisseurs crave the little kick, the tantalising tingle on the tongue and, of course, the unique flavour. To prepare fugu safely, the chef has to have an extremely delicate touch and years of experience to carefully fillet out the parts of the fish that contain little or no poison. There is huge demand for pufferfish in Japan – so high, in fact, that it is now on the endangered list. Only 10% of the pufferfish eaten today are caught in the wild and 90% are farmed. Farmed fugu is significantly cheaper – and depending on the species and the way it is raised, can be non-toxic. But proud fugu chefs prefer the toxic wild fish, not least for its firmer flesh.
Sardinian maggot cheese: it’s ready when it’s teeming
When the cheese flies have begun to lay their eggs in a wheel of cheese , this is usually a sign that the cheese should no longer be eaten. But in Sardinian casu marzu, they have a special task: they enhance the pecorino, which is not considered ripe until the maggots have eaten most of it. They process the cheese by digesting it. It develops a powerful aroma and becomes soft and spreadable. Casu marzu is served with red wine, flatbread – and with the live maggots. They are part of the taste experience. Since 2005, the production and sale of the cheese has been banned under EU law. Some producers are working on a hygienically produced version. If swallowed, live maggots can cause harm. The larvae are sometimes resistant to stomach acid and can attack the lining of the stomach and intestines, causing nausea, vomiting, pain and bloody diarrhoea. Closing your eyes and quickly swallowing is not an option either. Casu marzu and its inhabitants have to be chewed thoroughly – or you can smear them onto bread like a processed maggoty cheese spread.
Icelandic hákarl: let fermenting fish lie
The Greenland shark is a living fossil, as it is estimated to live up to 400 years. The Icelandic dish hákarl is made from the flesh of this shark in a process that is not for the impatient. The shark is gutted and its cartilage removed, and the meat is cleaned and washed. Without any spices or preservatives, the shark meat is then buried in a pit of gravelly sand where it is left to dry for 6 to 7 weeks in summer or as long as 2 to 3 months in winter. It is then hung in an open drying hut to reduce the strong ammonia smell. The shark remains there for another 2 to 4 months, until it is firm and dry. Without fermentation the shark is inedible and toxic to humans because of the urea content in the meat. In the past, the locals hunted these sharks specially. But because the population is small and the sharks do not reach sexual maturity until they are 150 years old, they are now an endangered species and so most of the sharks used to produce this delicacy today come from the by-catch of fisheries.
Surströmming from Sweden: rotten fish that blows up the can
Surströmming is not unknown: most people have heard of this legendary stinking fish from Sweden that comes in a small, round tin. The Baltic herring, pickled in brine, is fermented by lactic acid bacteria. Around 1 month before the ‘surströmming premiere’, the start of the season, the fish is packed into cans, where the fermenting process continues. That’s what makes the bottom and top of the can bulge. The fermentation process gives the fish its unique, very strong smell, which many people find disgusting. Incidentally, some airlines explicitly prohibit the carriage of surströmming cans because of the risk of explosion – although proud Swedes insist that surströmming cannot explode.
Goose barnacles from Spain: harvest at your own risk
For this expensive Spanish delicacy – 1 kilo costs around €150 – people have to scale the rocky cliffs of the coasts at great personal risk. This is the only place where goose barnacles (known as percebes in Spanish) can be found. Collecting the rare delicacy is such a hazardous activity that many goose barnacle fishermen have lost their lives in the attempt. The crustaceans are long and tube shaped, and look a little like the neck of a goose. They are served on a plate with garnish and eaten with both hands. With one hand, you hold the small, drop-shaped bottom and press hard underneath the hard shell with the thumb. The other hand grasps the stalk, and then you press and twist until the skin comes off the stem and the flesh emerges.
Durian fruit from Southeast Asia: king of the stinkers
In Asia it is an expensive delicacy, but its smell is feared around the world. The spiny durian is known as the ‘king of fruits’ because it is so delicious and nutritious, but also as ‘vomit fruit’ because it absolutely stinks. It grows on trees, primarily in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, and is used for jam, cakes, ice-cream, juice and in curries. Its creamy, sweet flesh is enticing, but many daring tourists fail the durian test. It is said that it takes 3 goes to overcome the gag reflex and be able to enjoy the flavour. As the fruit ripens, the amino acid methionine forms sulphurous compounds – closely related in chemical terms to bad breath, but more disgusting. Now for the horrible part: even low concentrations of this fruit spread the stink of rotten onions and bad eggs far and wide. Wherever the fruit is, it smells of trouble. It is banned from public transport, has been known to cause evacuations from aircraft and in the German city of Schweinfurt once triggered a chemical alert in a post office. Police, firefighters and ambulances rushed to the scene. All 60 post office employees fled their place of work because of an unbearable smell that filled the whole building and 6 were taken to hospital as a precaution. Finally, the first responders found a package containing 4 durians.
Balut from Southeast Asia: chicken for strong stomachs
You need strong nerves to eat balut. Consumed mainly in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, this delicacy consists of a developing chicken or duck egg embryo that is boiled. The egg is traditionally eaten while it is still warm after boiling, by removing a piece of the shell, adding salt and perhaps a dash of vinegar or soy sauce and first drinking the broth. The beak and feathers of the chicken or duck are clearly recognisable, which makes them a definite no-no for many people. Balut is said to be an aphrodisiac and to increase virility – although this is not scientifically proven.
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