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World’s most unusual foods – Part Two

Kæstur hákarl (Icelandic for “fermented shark”) – Iceland

Kæstur hákarl made in traditional way

Kæstur hákarl made in traditional way

It is a Greenland (or basking) shark which has been cured with a particular fermentation process and hung to dry for 4-5 months. Hákarl for short, has a very distinctive ammonia smell and fishy taste, similar to very strong cheese. It’s so strange that many Icelanders never eat it.

The shark itself is inedible when fresh due to a high content of uric acid and trimethylamine oxide, but may be consumed after being processed.

Hákarl is rarely eaten on its own and is usually served as part of a Þorramatur, a selection of traditional Icelandic food, consisting mainly of meat and fish products cured in a traditional manner, and served at Þorrablót (a midwinter festival) in late January and February. Hákarl is also readily available in Icelandic stores all year round and some eat it in all seasons.

The traditional way of preparing Hákarl consists gutting and beheading a Greenland shark and placing it in a shallow hole dug in gravelly-sand. The shark is then covered with sand and gravel, and large stones are then placed on top of the sand in order to press the shark. The fluids from the shark are in this way pressed out of the body. The shark ferments for 6-12 weeks depending on the season in this fashion.

Kæstur hákarl bought from a shop

Kæstur hákarl bought from a shop

Following this curing period, the shark has already acquired its quite unpleasant smell, but not ready yet. It is cut into strips and hung to dry for several months. During this drying period a brown crust will develop, which is removed prior to cutting the shark into small pieces and serving.

First-timers are sometimes advised to pinch their nose while taking the first bite as the smell is much stronger than the taste. The meat is usually cut into small cubes on toothpicks and often accompanied with a shot of the local type of Akvavit, called Brennivin.

It comes in two varieties:  chewy and reddish glerhákarl from the belly, and white and soft skyrhákarl from the body.

Snake Wine – Vietnam

Vietnamese snake wine

Vietnamese snake wine

Snake wine originated in Vietnam but is also popular in some other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Why is it so popular? Because it’s considered an important curative and believed to reinvigorate a person according to Traditional Chinese medicine.

The venomous snakes are not preserved for their meat but to use their “essence” – the snake poison. The recipe is really simple: A large venomous snake is placed into a glass jar or an appropriate size of bottle and topped with rice wine,. They sometimes add smaller snakes and medicinal herbs, before they leave for many months. The wine is drunk as a curative in small shots or cups. How is it not poisonous? Because snake venom is protein-based, it is modified by the ethanol, contained in wine and its proteins are unfolded and therefore inactivated.

Cheers!

Kopi Luwak (or Civet coffee) – the most expensive coffee in the world – Sumatra, Indonesia

Civet on a coffee tree

Civet on a coffee tree

Ok, I will fire this one straight away. Kopi Luwak are coffee beans that come from Civet poo. Civet is a cat-sized mammal native to South-east Asia and Southern China, and lives in the foliage of coffee plantations. But if you’re looking for exclusive coffee with ultimate taste then this might just be it. Kopi Luwak (also known as Civet Coffee) is probably the rarest coffee you can get. This coffee has an intense but delicate flavor and no aftertaste, which is unique in coffee. This flavor is due to the fact that the coffee has been partially fermented by passing through the system of the Civet.

The story goes like this: These fussy eaters pick the best and ripest coffee berries. Thus there is a natural selection for the ripest coffee beans. During the digestion, the coffee beans receive a unique treatment – the combination of enzymes in the stomach of the Civet adds to the coffee’s flavor by breaking down the proteins that give coffee its bitter taste. The animals then expel the beans and workers collect them from the ground. The beans are washed, and given only a light roast so as not to destroy the complex flavors that develop through the process. Light roasting is considered particularly desirable in coffees that do not exhibit bitterness.

Luxury Kopi Luwak coffee

Luxury Kopi Luwak coffee

Although it is increasingly becoming available elsewhere in the world, it is said that only around 500 kg of Kopi Luwak is produced each year, making it rare and expensive.

So no wonder, Kopi Luwak was the most expensive coffee in the world, selling for between $1000 and $1300 USD per kilo, and is sold mainly in Japan and the United States.

In Heritage Tea Rooms cafe, in Queensland, Australia, a cup (!) of Kopi Luwak coffee costs A$50. In London’s Sloane Square, at the brasserie of Peter Jones department store, a cup of a blend of Kopi Luwak and Blue Mountain coffee, called Caffe Raro, costs £50.

How would you like it, ristretto or doppio?

Caterpilla Fungus – Tibet, Nepal, China

Caterpilla Fungus

Caterpilla Fungus

The fungus is a medicinal mushroom which is highly prized by practitioners of Tibetan medicine, Chinese medicine and traditional herbal Folk medicines, in which it is used as an aphrodisiac and as a treatment for a variety of ailments from fatigue to cancer. It is also served in soup to enhance its flavor and qualities.

The “caterpillar” (technically it is a larva ) prone to infection by the fungus lives underground on the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas at an altitude between 3,000 and 5,000 m (9,800 and 16,000 ft). The larva is attacked while feeding on roots. The fungus invades the body of the Thitarodes caterpillars, filling its entire body and eventually killing and mummifying it.

The caterpillars die near the tops of their burrows. The dark brown to black fruiting body (or mushroom) emerges from the ground in spring or early summer, always growing out of the forehead of the caterpillar. The long, usually columnar fruiting body reaches 5–15 cm above the surface and releases spores.

One kilogram trades for US$3,000 (lowest quality) to over US$18,000 (best quality equalling the largest larvae). The annual production on the Tibetan Plateau is estimated at 100–200 tons.

Ox Penis – China

If you are keen on experimenting with less popular parts of animals, which in Western countries are generally off the menu, China is the place to be.

Ox penis

Ox penis sold on a street market in Vietnam

They eat all sort of penises there – sheep penis, dog penis, tiger penis, you name it. But the ox penis is somewhat in a league of its own. Why? Because like with many other foods, it is considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac and its believed (by many Chinese) that if you eat it, you will have the same power as the animal, including in a sexual way.

The penis is generally cooked by steaming or deep frying or it becomes the key ingredient of the famed Ox Penis Soup. And some even can eat it raw.

Bird Spit (or bird’s nest) – China

Ever tried hedgehogs or cock’s combs? No? You probably haven’t been to China or if you have, the nearest Macdonald’s was your Saviour, right? Yes, China again, because probably half of the most unusual foods (at least to me) a man eats, are eaten in China. Here I will be telling you about another their delicacy – bird nest soup. Some of us are even not sure whether they will ever try frog legs or an escargot, left aside bird’s nest.

Bird's nest soup

Bird's nest soup. It actully doesn't look bad at all.

This one I think is truly bizarre and has a delicate name of “Caviar of the East” – bird’s nest soup. Served in China for over 400 years, the primary ingredient are saliva nests built by cave swifts. Among one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans it is believed to aid digestion, raise libido (as many other foodstuff), and even alleviate asthma as it is dissolved in water to create a gelatinous soup. In Hong Kong, a bowl of bird’s nest soup would cost between $10 and $30 and a kilogram of red bird’s nest for as much as $10,000! Ok, Hong Kong dollars, but it’s still a staggering sum, isn’t it?

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