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The extraordinary world of unusual foods

From putrid smelling canned herring in Sweden to the use of animal blood in a range of Indian dishes, unusual foods are simply waiting to be savoured by the experimental diner

Balut, a Southeast Asian speciality.
Balut, a Southeast Asian speciality. (Istockphoto)

Winnow go ee stinky dofu at foo co in nai makeh!”, our food tour guide Ivy barks at my group of friends and me, in what we can only describe as an alien tongue. The only two words in that sentence, besides the verb and prepositions, that I can decipher are “stinky” and “dofu”. The latter being the Asian way of referring to tofu or soy bean curd. And both words send a shiver down my spine.

We are at Taipei, Taiwan’s famed Shilin Night Market ready to test our reluctant palates at the adjacent food court. Now, Ivy’s seemingly gibberish talk slowly makes sense. Genetically predisposed to detest both strong, pungent smelling things and flabby textured food, I’m less than enthusiastic to have a go at the tofu sitting atop a wok of hot oil that it has been recently deep fried in.

In case one is wondering, this Chinese form of fermented tofu is one that that has a strong odour, ergo the adjective. It is traditionally fermented in brine with vegetables and meat, sometimes for months. Although it is said to be more potent in its boiled and stewed form, I beg to differ. The piece of fried tofu I plop into my hesitant mouth and chew down upon explodes with a highly rancid, putrefying mouth feel. One that stays with me for hours, despite me trying to wash it down with a tall glass of chrysanthemum iced tea.

What the fish?

A few months later I found myself in Sweden partaking in another dreaded summer ritual that involves an infinitely more smellier specimen. Interestingly, this one even has its own song. Loosely translated into English as “chug it down”, Helan Går couldn’t be more appropriate when eating surströmming.

Simply put, this northern Swedish delicacy that dates back to the 16th century, originating in the Höga Kusten region of Sweden, is a super-stinky ‘appetiser’ of fermented herring. Baltic herring are caught in the spring, salted and left to ferment, before being stuffed in a tin about a month before it hits the tables and shops. The fermentation process continues in the tin; ‘souring’ as the Swedes refer to it, and results in a bulging tin of fermented herring with an aroma that is intensely pungent.

The one I ate, or tried to eat, was at a friend’s suburban Stockholm home where she teamed it with the typically Swedish circular hard bread called tunnbröd. Sitting atop which is the sour cream-like gräddfil spread is placed, along with a little bit of the stinking herring and a garnish of dill fronds, onion rings and slices of boiled potato. They really do precious little to attenuate the horrible taste of the fish.

Also read | Exploring European food, on a budget

Eggcellent Idea

Back in Asia, this time to the Philippines on a food study trip to a Manila cookery school, my fellow international classmates and I were challenged by our Pinoy counterparts to try the local delicacy of balut. Also eaten in Vietnam, balut is (my pre-emptive apologies to the squeamish!) a chicken or duck embryo, partially developed, that’s boiled alive and eaten straight from the shell.

To eat balut, just like we were instructed to do, one needs to make a hole on the top of the shell, slurp out the liquid (that’s seasoned with salt, pepper and vinegar) and then crunch down on what remains in the half cracked lower sphere. It would be remiss of me to not admit that balut isn’t actually as bad tasting as one might imagine. If you can ignore the errant bits of feather and cartilage that you might encounter, that is.

Having an offal time

But it’s not like I haven’t had my fair share of offal and off cuts of meat both here in India and abroad. In Wyoming, USA, I was literally dragooned by friends (with taunts of being a fake food writer, no less!) into trying Rocky Mountain oysters. Also called prairie oysters in Canada this is a hearty, mountain drinking snack made of bull testicles that are deep-fried after being skinned, pounded flat and then coated in seasoned flour. Surprisingly yummy and utterly more-ish.

Siri-paya, a regular Sunday delicacy at my north Indian grandmother’s Jaipur home saw an entire goat head along with its trotters stewed in a collagen-rich broth spiced with the fiery Rajasthani mathaniya chillies. We’d mop this up with a freshly made do palla roti peeling each gossamer thin side of this double sided bread. As for the family’s famous prized goat head part fights; I’d happily relinquish claim on the gelatinous eyeball for a piece of yummy, creamy brain.

Animal blood is another unusual ingredient I’ve encountered in places as disparate as both the Madurai and Kongu Nadu regions of Tamil Nadu and the North-East. In the former, I tried aattu ratha poriyal which is a delicious stir fry made with the congealed blood of a goat that is first steamed and cut into small bits. The pieces are added to spices like turmeric, ginger, garlic, chilli powder, mustard and stir fried in oil with onions and fresh coconut scrapings with plenty of curry leaves thrown in.

In the northeast, the Khasis from the Cherrapunjee area of Meghalaya also known as Sohra, make a pork pulao called ja-doh that uses pig and sometimes chicken’s blood. The dish is typically eaten at breakfast during traditional Khasi festivals like Christmas and Easter.

Similarly, India’s indigenous Nepali community who mainly live in Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Sikkim and Darjeeling, too have a ritualistic spicy goat blood dish called rakti that is had during the upcoming Hindu festival of Dashain (Dussehra) and cooked in mustard oil over a slow fire.

Also read | There is more to local food in Meghalaya than pork dishes

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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