The Swedish town of Malmø is home to the Disgusting Food Museum, an unusual attempt to explore food considered delicious by some and revolting by others, challenging notions of what is edible. “Could changing our ideas of disgust help us embrace the environmentally sustainable foods of the future?” it asks.
On display are 80 items, including Sweden’s surströmming, or fermented herring, Peru’s cuy, or roasted guinea pigs, Sardinia’s Casu Martzu, or maggot-infested cheese. There’s a tasting bar with 20 items, such as insects and dung beetles. For a lot of people, their first taste of insects happens at the museum. Sixty per cent of the visitors try everything. Ninety per cent of people try something.
Andreas Ahrens, then an IT professional, and his friend Samuel West started the museum in 2018; Ahrens is now the sole owner of the space. “Both of us travelled around the world and ate everything local. It made us realise that food we find disgusting or delicious depends on where we grew up, and was shaped by society. If we open up our minds, some of these foods can be quite good,” Ahrens noted during a recent talk with Shilpa Vijayakrishnan, head of education and outreach at the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), Bengaluru, as part of the programming for the ongoing exhibition Stories On A Banana Leaf. It prompted them to set up a space to examine the social and cultural contexts that shape perceptions of food as delicious, strange, exotic and disgusting—and the politics of such perceptions.
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Disgust—one of the six fundamental emotions—is closely linked to the human history of survival, says Ahrens. “It is something we have used since time immemorial to protect ourselves from dangerous, poisonous and rotten food.”
Ahrens, who has run several startups in Sweden in the past 20 years, has ensured the display includes European items, to prevent the “othering” of non-European cultures. His team and he seek to ask pertinent questions: Why, for instance, is it seen as acceptable to eat certain animals in some cultures, while others are taboo? He cites the example of dog and guinea pig meat, possibly considered disgusting in the West because these two animals are popular as pets. Horse meat, however, is acceptable in France, with certain butchers specialising in it. Japan’s nutritious nattō, or fermented soybean, is stringy and gooey, not taboo perhaps but difficult to have if you are not used to it.
Choices evolve with time and need. Raw fish as sushi was once considered disgusting. Today, it is a food of choice worldwide. But China’s medicinal baby mouse wine, which had hairless baby mice steeped in wine, isn’t as popular today with the youth. Iceland’s fermented shark owes its popularity to the fact that hundreds of years ago, when the island nation was relatively isolated from the rest of the world, its residents were dependent on bounty from the local waters. “The Greenland sharks were poisonous if not fermented. They would urinate through their skin and they had to be fermented for at least three months to break the urine down. What started as a food for survival slowly became part of a nation’s culture,” says Ahrens.
Selections for the museum can be difficult. The team scores all foods on certain values, such as taste, smell, texture, says Ahrens. The background check shines a light on immoral and unethical production practices. Foie gras, for instance, ranks high on the immoral production value list because the ducks and geese are force-fed to enlarge their livers. A display with the image of a pig speared with injection needles, indicating the amount of antibiotics injected into meat, highlights the issue of ethics. “We want people to understand why some of these processes are unethical and encourage them to question where their food is coming from,” says Ahrens.
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“For most people, moral disgust is above everything else. Then comes taste and texture,” he adds, going on to explain how difficult it can be to pick a food for the museum Take fermented fish from Sweden. When you open a can of it, the liquid can spring up to 5m. It is a salty fish with a gooey texture.
“It is challenging to move beyond biases while making selections,” acknowledges Ahrens. “In the end, it is a human-made selection and we don’t claim to be the ultimate authority.”