Weird Food Compendium

Octopi hors d'oeuvre, Sendai, JapanPolitically correct note: “weirdness” is in the eye of the beholder, and I’m obviously writing this from a Western perspective. It’s instructive to remember that a Chinese colleague of mine still finds cheese of any type to be tough going, and considers the very idea of intentionally moldy (blue) cheese to be utterly disgusting. Without further ado…

The Raw, the Bleeding and the Squirming

Eating sushi was the first step in my transformation from a teenage picky eater to an obsessive gourmand. I fell in love with the stuff in Japan and have since eaten countless kinds of raw fish, shellfish (shrimp, lobster, crab), molluscs (oysters, cockles), etc. Some more interesting highlights, all in Japan unless otherwise noted:

  • Raw beef. Like carpaccio, only without the lime juice and spices. It’s alright, but I prefer my steaks medium rare.
  • Raw whale. Actually look and tastes quite similar to raw beef, but the texture is a bit fishier. Not bad.
  • Raw horse. Often known as sakuraniku (cherry blossom meat) or umeniku (plum meat), but in Tokyo it’s just basashi, sliced horse. Very thinly sliced and served on a bed of ice, with minced garlic as a dipping sauce. When still frozen, the taste is very mild and the texture melts in your mouth; when it melts, it becomes a stringy mess of horse.
  • Raw goat, in Abu Dhabi. Known as kibbeh nayyeh, this is a Syrian speciality that consists of finely minced goat meat, bulghur wheat and a bit of olive oil, all blended together into a big bowl o’ meat. Eaten with pita bread, it’s considered a very manly breakfast, and it tastes, well, meaty and goaty. I think trying it once was enough.
  • Raw chicken. At a specialty chicken restaurant in Japan that breeds their own. Tasted like, well, chicken. Not particularly enjoyable, but not particularly disgusting either.
  • Live octopus (sannakji), Korea. It’s not really live, as the tentacles are hacked off before serving, but they do keep moving for a good half hour afterwards. The weird bit is that they’re still conscious on some level: if you try to pick them up with chopsticks, they start wriggling furiously and/or attach their suction cups to the plate. Dousing in soy and wasabi helps calm them down, and they actually taste quite nice. Just don’t bite off more than you can chew, as these suckers can and do choke people to death every year.


320px-sea_pineapple_sashimiSpare Parts (Fish, Amphibian and Reptile Edition)

  • Anglerfish milt (shirako), Singapore. “Milt”, or the even more euphemistic “soft roe”, is actually the fish equivalent of sperm. The Japanese consider it a delicacy and serve it chilled with a light ponzu sauce and some scallions, and to my surprise, it was actually rather tasty: it’s firmer than you’d think, the texture is smooth (not gooey at all), the taste is milky (and not fishy or, uhh, genital-y).
  • Crocodile kebabs, Australia. Dry but surprisingly meaty and un-stringy, would pass for a lean cut of pork.
  • Eel liver soup (kimosui), Japan. Eel livers look like something out of Alien, but they taste like any other liver.
  • Fish head curry, Singapore. This is a Singaporean classic, and with reason. The heads used are gigantic and, while the bones are not eaten, there’s plenty of succulent meat lurking in the crevices.
  • Frog legs, Singapore. The notionally weird but actually very bland food that the phrase “tastes like chicken” was invented for.
  • Geoduck siphon, USA.  A geoduck is a type of a mollusk, whose siphon is rather rude-looking and consequently an expensive delicacy that can be eaten cooked or raw.  I tried it as sushi, and it doesn’t really taste much different from any other clam.
  • Giant shrimp heads, Japan. After eating the innards as sashimi, an izakaya pub I used to frequent would deep-fry the heads and serve them up. They look pretty creepy, but you can eat the whole thing like a potato chip: remember to take a look inside the head to see the multiple rows of little teeth. Mmm!
  • Jellyfish, Singapore. Very popular Chinese appetizer occasionally eaten in Japan as well, prepared with a complicated process that makes them a little crunchy and entirely tasteless.
  • Miniature octopi, Japan. Served whole, coated with a sesame-oil-based sauce. Oddly enough, these are called chuka tako (Chinese octopus) in Japan, but I’ve never seen them in China (or Singapore) outside Japanese sushi restaurants.
  • Miniature squid, Japan. An essential topping for Nagasaki chanpon seafood noodles. Even my otherwise tentacle-phobic Pakistani colleague in Tokyo liked these.
  • Monkfish liver (ankimo), Indonesia. Monkfish are nasty-looking creatures, which is why it’s rather amazing that their (natural) livers taste almost exactly like French force-fed goose foie gras. Very much a favorite of mine.
  • Sea pineapple (hoya), Japan.  I wrote the Wikipedia entry for this back in 2007, but it took almost 10 years for me to have a chance to try it out.  Even most Japanese will tell you it’s horrible, but the one I had fresh, crunchy (not rubbery) and rather pleasant at first bite, especially with vinegared soy sauce to dip it into.  However, the ammonia/iodine aftertaste is lingering and rather unpleasant.
  • Sea urchin gonads (uni), Japan. Most sushi menus will tell you this is roe, but nope, it’s the closest thing a sea urchin has to a sex organ. The sweet, greasy taste is difficult to describe and, in my book, tolerable but not entirely pleasant, especially if you get some past its prime. However, Italians can make this into a very decent creamy pasta.
  • Shark’s fin soup, Singapore. Cruel, insanely expensive and completely tasteless. The bane of Chinese weddings everywhere.
  • Snow frog fallopian tubes (hasma), Singapore. Yes, this is painstakingly prepared by extracting, drying and then reconstituting amphibian ovaries. The end result is a completely flavorless white jelly occasionally used in expensive Chinese desserts, useful for feeding to people you don’t particularly like. “I ate WHAT?”
  • Squid ink, Japan. Often found in Italian pastas and risottos. Tastes creamy, but best avoided on dates as it dyes your mouth black.
  • Turtle soup, Singapore. Surprisingly meaty but unsurprisingly chewy. I also tried the skin (fatty) and the intestines (chewy), but alas, they were out of eggs.

Spare Parts (Mammal & Poultry Edition)

  • IMG_20160118_214744.jpgBear meatballs, Finland. At close to $5 a pop, they ain’t cheap, but they sure are tasty.
  • Bird’s nest soup, Singapore. Made from the congealed, regurgigated spit of a certain species of Borneo swallow. No distinguishable taste, as it’s always served in syrup.
  • Blood sausage & blood pancakes, Finland. I vant to suck your blood. Especially if you’re a pig, since then I can whip it up into a batter, fry it until it’s crispy and serve with lingonberry jam. Slurp.
  • Blood soup, Thailand. An essential ingredient of kuaytiow hang reua (boat noodles), used both as the base of the dark broth and in boiled, tofulike chunks of congealed blood floating in the soup.
  • Chicken breast cartilage (nankotsu), Japan. You know that weird Y-shaped chunk of cartilage in chicken breasts? It’s a favorite Japanese snack. Excessively crunchy and thoroughly tasteless.
  • Chicken gizzards, Indonesia. When chickens swallow small rocks, they enter this organ, which uses them to grind seeds into flour. Describing gizzards as “tough” would thus be a bit of an understatement.
  • Chicken feet, Malaysia. These look a bit creepy, but the problem with eating them is not so much the taste as the fact that they’re full of tiny little bones. But they’re fairly popular over here, and I’ve now learned to nibble away at the skin and fat without getting too many toe bones in my mouth.
  • Chicken ovaries (kinkan), Japan. Served skewered and grilled, two to a stick. Once again, tastes like chicken, and to my surprise not at all stringy or chewy.
  • Dog meat soup (boshintang), Korea. Theoretically illegal, so finding it took a little legwork, but the taste was a positive surprise: it tasted like well-stewed beef or veal. Recommended.
  • Fertilized duck eggs (balut), Philippines.  Yes, these are unborn duck chicks complete with feathers, bones, beak etc, cooked in the shell and eaten with beer.  Despite the remarkably gnarly appearance, they taste just like eggs yolks, and I’m actually kinda craving one as I type this.  Yum!
  • Kangaroo steak, Australia. Tastes like somewhat gamey, somewhat chewy meat. But nobody would notice if you used this in a doner kebab (a method by which I have probably eaten camel in the Middle East).
  • Lamb brains, Australia.  Magaj, spicy curried lamb brains, is actually a classic Pakistani dish, I just happened to find it on the menu at a restaurant in Sydney.  Very tasty too, with a smooth texture, although any taste is largely overpowered by the chilli and spices.
  • Pig face and lungs (sisig), Philippines.  Chopped up finely, spiced up and grilled on a hot plate.  Crunchy, greasy and, to be quite honest, not that great.
  • Pig intestines, Thailand and elsewhere. I keep running into these things, and sticking them into a good bowl of boat noodle soup (see Blood above) makes ’em pretty palatable. The French style of turning them into andouillette sausages also works, although the smell is… distinct.  Singaporean kway chap, with a clear, tasteless broth, doesn’t do much for me.
  • Pork blood stew (dinuguan), Philippines.  Probably my favorite Pinoy dish when done right, with a complex spicy chilli and vinegar kick.  Goes great with puto rice cakes.
  • Pork trotters, Singapore. The Chinese go gaga over this stuff, especially when slow-cooked in black vinegar. To me it just tastes like fat and mysterious gummy bits holding together nails and bones.
  • Sheep testicles, Egypt. Spiced, grilled and served sliced up so that you could still see the original shape. Slightly gritty texture, but overall not bad at all and I’d happily eat them again.
  • Smoked elk steak, Finland. This was genuinely good, without the smell of horse or the taste of venison.
  • Tripe goulash, Hungary. A cautionary tale of what can happen if you only think you understand what the daily special in the Hungarian-only menu is.
  • Yak meat, Tibet.  Ubiquitous in Tibet, since cows can’t really hack 4,000 meters of altitude.  Served up as dumplings, soups, steaks, jerky and more, but always tastes like beef, only a touch gamier.

Dairy, Dairy, Quite Contrary

  • MVIMG_20180707_165534.jpgDried yak cheese (aaruul), Mongolia.  Looks like pasta, but tastes like dried-up, moldy Parmesan rind.
  • Fermented mare’s milk (airag), Mongolia.  Brewed in a blue plastic barrel in a random dude’s yurt, served out of unwashed cups and flecked with appetizing bits of mold.  This stuff is famed for causing explosive diarrhea even when done right, so I chickened out and only downed half a cup.
  • Stretchy yogurt (viili), Finland.  The mutant offspring of chewing gum and yogurt.  Looks weird, acts weird, tastes like yogurt.
  • Yak butter tea, Tibet.  Take strong black tea, add a big pinch of salt, a large chunk of rancid cultured yak butter, and blend.  Looks like chai, tastes like drinking salty butter.  Quite edible when eaten mixed with tsampa barley flour.
  • Yak milk vodka (arkhi), Mongolia.  Clear and smooth, with a 20%-ish hit and a mild yogurt aftertaste.  Surprisingly pleasant!

Weird Veggies

  • Bracken flour balls (warabimochi), Japan. Translucent balls cooked in boiling water, slathered with syrup and soy bean flour, then poked with toothpicks and eaten. Yum!
  • Maheu, Zambia. It’s maize! It’s porridge! It’s yogurt! It tastes like a mix of all three! For extra credit, you can let it ferment for a while and you’ll have masese/ucwala/chibuku, the East African version of beer.
  • Mofongo, Puerto Rico. Mash plantains. Deep-fry them. Mash them again. Deep-fry them again. Repeat this for a while, then add in bacon bits and serve. Now we know where J-Lo got her callipygean curves.
  • Mämmi, Finland. A traditional Easter dish, this is barley porridge cooked slowly in an oven until it looks like a vat of steaming poop. Fortunately it tastes much better than it looks.

Creepy-Crawlies

1280px-ile_des_pins_snails_cookedI used to draw the line at insects, but of course I had to cross the line once to see what I was missing out on. (Not much, it seems.)

  • Snails (escargot), Belgium. Fine, they’re not insects, but they’re honorary cardholders. Chewy, practically no taste.
  • Giant land snails (bulime), New Caledonia.  Same as above, only much larger.  Also technically an endangered species, although they’re farmed locally.
  • Steamed silkworms (beondegi), Korea. They look like the disgusting little grubs they are and are filled with musty but flavorless gray mush.

Spoiled Rotten and Fermented

Radium eggs, Naruko Onsen, JapanEverything up to here is still more or less OK in my book, but some of this stuff is just foul. There’s a reason spoiled things are programmed to make us gag, dammit!

  • Blue cheese, France. Ferment the squeezings from cow mammaries and inject spores with a syringe until it’s riddled with mold and stinks to high heaven. I can tolerate it in small quantities in soups, pastas and such, but gobbling on it au naturel is too much.
  • Ika no shiokara, Japan. Fermented and pickled squid guts. This stuff made it onto Fear Factor for a reason and was, until recently (see next item), the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten.
  • Konowata, Singapore. Fermented and pickled sea cucumber intestines. As nasty as ika no shiokara, only worse because it’s even more concentrated. See review at Chikuyotei.
  • Mefun, Japan.  A classic Ainu dish made from fermented salmon liver and other internal organs.  Shiny black goo in appearance, the texture is disturbingly springy and jellylike, but the taste is surprisingly mild.  My wife had some mixed into spaghetti, and even the kids ate some!
  • Natto, Japan. This is what happens to soybeans when you leave them in a warm, humid place for too long. I’m told you have to eat it seven times until you start to like them; I’m up to four and am still waiting for a change of opinion.
  • Stinky tofu, Taiwan. With a name like that, you already have some idea of what to expect, and the stuff is, indeed, rather whiffy. It looks and feels almost entirely like normal tofu though, and tastes like it for the first second or so as you bite into it… until the distinctly fecal aftertaste hits and refuses to go away. No sir, I did not like it.
  • Thousand year eggs (pidan), Hong Kong. Traditionally prepared by soaking raw eggs in horse urine, but now they just use lye, and the soaking period has been reduced from a millennium to a few weeks max. As the exception that proves the rule, these are quite tasty when served up in Cantonese porridge.

Industrial Byproducts

  • Ammonium chloride candy, Finland. Occur naturally in volcanoes, and is used in dry batteries, soldering flux and a Finnish candy (I use the word loosely) called salmiakki. Finns also like to dissolve it in vodka and drink it.
  • Gold, Japan. A speciality of Kanazawa, where golf leaf ends up in all sorts of unlikely places, include candies and sake. Being inert, it obviously has no taste, but the weird thing it doesn’t cost much either as the quantities used are so minute.
  • Lutefisk, Finland. Lye, aka sodium hydroxide, is used for making soap, wood pulp, unblocking drains, etching aluminum and, if you’re Norwegian, soaking perfectly good fish until it’s a stinky gelatinous mess. The upside is that the taste is pretty much bleached out too — the downside is that the smell isn’t.
  • Radium eggs, Japan. You’d think the Japanese would have some hangups about radioactivity after the whole Hiroshima thing, but no, radium baths are popular cure-alls and so are radium-soaked eggs.
  • Sulphur eggs, Japan. What would you do with a pit of boiling mud that smells like rotten eggs? If you’re Japanese, you’d boil some fresh eggs in it. They’re a popular treat in Hakone, where the local vendors call them “black jewel eggs” and have come up with a legend to say that every one you eat adds seven years to your life.

How I Want A Drink, Alcoholic Of Course

  • Dongdongju, Korea. Homemade rice wine that looks and tastes like a cross between Sprite, yoghurt and mud.
  • Golden Muscle Wine, Cambodia. It’s pitch black, 40% alcohol, contains ground deer antler and costs $2 a bottle. How could you go wrong?
  • Pufferfish bone sake, Japan.  Take cheap sake, add some grilled bones from the famously toxic fugu pufferfish, heat it up, and enjoy.   Tastes fishy, but not particularly lethal.
  • Tuak, Malaysia. Jungle wine made from palm sap, found in a souvenir shop in Borneo. After a bottle of this, I understood why Dayaks liked to run amok and cut people’s heads off.

To-Do List

  • Bat, Indonesia. A Manadonese speciality.
  • Dog penis, Korea. I’m told “third leg” is a speciality of Pyongyang, so here’s hoping Kim Jong Un kicks the bucket and I get a chance to try it out.
  • Fugu, Japan. Yes, this is the famous fish that is completely tasteless and will kill you if prepared incorrectly.
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Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Chikuyotei, Meritus Mandarin

Ever since I came to Singapore, I’ve kept hearing about Chikuyotei for two reasons. First, it’s Singapore’s only Japanese restaurant that specializes in eel (unagi), a dish that is quite difficult to prepare properly. Every now and then, hope has overcome bitter experience and I’ve tried my luck elsewhere, always ending up with a slab of fishy rubber coated with excessive amounts of sauce. And second, it has the reputation of being one of Singapore’s most expensive restaurants of any kind: a reporter friend of mine, who often went there on the company dime, used to tell stories of how many zeroes the bill could have at the end of a sake-soaked night. This, too, is a part of the restaurant’s 150-year heritage: the original Chikuyotei is located in the Ginza, Tokyo.

So when a friend of mine offered to return a previous favor and take me there, I jumped at the chance. The rather non-distinct restaurant is tucked away on the 5th floor of the Meritus Mandarin, one of Singapore’s older hotels, and on this New Year’s Eve was only half full, with couples enjoying a quiet splurge and one rowdy group of salarymen whooping it up in the corner.

Chikuyotei’s popularity with Japanese resident in Singapore stems from the fact that they make absolutely zero concessions to Western (or Singaporean) tastes. But unlike its Tokyo forbear, the Singapore outlet has been forced to expand its offerings beyond eel and also offers up a full range of Japanese izakaya (pub) fare: you could probably order noodles and a beer and sneak away for less than S$50 a head, but you could also order five pieces of tuna belly (S$100), some Kobe beef sukiyaki(S$123) or even ask for some wild eel (S$36/100g). Full courses start from S$110/head, but we opted to just get two dishes of Shizuokan farmed eel and a few appetizers, with a small bottle of Suigei (“Drunken Whale”), a slightly sweetish sake, to wash it down.

First up was kankoku-fu negi sarada (Korean-style spring onion salad, S$8), which consisted of chopped spring onion topped with sesame seeds, chili powder and soy-based dressing. It tasted exactly what it sounds like.

Second was ika no uni-ae (squid with sea urchin, S$15), in which a thimbleful of chopped raw squid was soaked in sea urchin roe. I’m not a great fan of either ingredient by itself, and mixing them together doesn’t much improve the result.

And third was konowata (S$10), a new acquaintance for me, served looking like a wad of phlegm dotted with a raw quail egg nestled in a spoon. I poked in a chopstick, licked, and felt ill when I remembered the last time I had tasted this nasty zing followed by a cloyingly putrid aftertaste. I’ve eaten silkworms, beef testicles, raw horse meat and dog stew, but firmly enshrined in my mind as the worst thing I’ve ever tasted is ika no shiokara, a pickle made from sliced squid soaked in fermented squid guts that has even made it onto Fear Factor. It turns out that konowata is almost exactly the same thing, except that it’s made from sea cucumber entrails, not squid. Mmm. Being the chivalrous gentleman that I am, I assisted my dining companion in tearing up the guts into eatable small chunks, then wiped my chopsticks clean and tried not to gag as I watched her slurp it down.

At this point, the restaurant’s sommelier — an acquaintance of my friend’s — showed up and kindly treated us to glasses of white wine, a fruity but dry French Chardonnay from the Loire valley. It was nice gesture, but well versed in the ways of Japanese etiquette, my friend knew we had to order two more glasses to compensate: it was a different (and very tasty) wine whose name this time escapes me, but the glasses were slightly larger and we paid $21 a pop for them. Even in Japan there ain’t no such thing as a free glass of wine…

At last the eel came. First up was the Kansai-style shiroyaki (S$38), plain old grilled eel, served with soy and wasabi on the side as a dipping sauce. It was alright, but didn’t really taste like very much, just vaguely fishy. But then came the Tokyo-style kabayaki (S$52), gently coated with sauce, and it was worth the wait. The meat was so soft it fell apart at the touch, and the skin too was so soft it could easily be pulled apart. I still prefer charcoal-grilled eel, which makes the skin and edges nice and crispy while sealing the moisture inside, but this was still far an away the best I’ve had in Singapore and made it at #3 on the all-time top eel chart.

The final bill came to S$220, which I thought was a pretty darn steep price for a rather modest quantity, but my friend thought was quite alright. “Sommelier-san is opening a new restaurant in Sentosa that will cost at least that much per head, so next time it’s your treat!”