Destinations for Adventurous Eaters

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to eat something completely off-the-wall. Some foreign destinations make that easy thanks to immigrant populations that influence local cuisine, unusual flora and fauna and historical necessity. Here are some great places in Australia, New Zealand and Iceland where I’ve used my tastebuds as crash-test dummies – and I know other adventurous eaters will have fun at any one of these.

Australia for Adventurous Eaters

Being close to Asia gives Australia some wonderfully spicy treats. Though you can get many Asian flavors in any major U.S. city, it’s still worth diving into any Indian, Thai or Indonesian restaurants you can find.

ADVENTUROUS EATERS
One of the many delights waiting for adventurous eaters in Australia is the black sapote, aka chocolate pudding fruit.

But it’s Australia’s abundant wildlife, one odd import and its fruit that will interest adventurous eaters. It’s not at all unusual to see salt-water crocodile, emu and kangaroo on the menu. At the Australian Heritage Hotel in Sydney, I found all three as pizza toppings. Less common is camel, which I found turned into schnitzel at the Wharf Precinct in the Northern Territory outpost of Darwin.

Let’s say you’re a vegetarian. There’s still plenty for you in Australia. See, the country’s really not all desert. The province of Queensland is incredibly lush. There, you’ll find the Cape Trib Exotic Fruitfarm a few hours north of Cairns. The Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm hosts tastings, where you’ll learn about and sample a pretty overwhelming array of unusual fruits – takes notes and photos if you want to remember them. On my tasting list was black sapote, dragonfruit, jackfruit, sapodilla star fruit, mangosteen and soursop. And I’m leaving out many.

Can Adventurous Eaters Bear Finland?

The food in Finland is pretty agreeable stuff that won’t challenge adventurous eaters. You’ll see more game meat on the menu than in the United States, and there are kitschy places offering “viking” style foods. As you might imagine, good seafood isn’t hard to find.

There’s one place that might interest adventurous eaters, though: On the island of Suomenlinna, I found a place called Panimo serving bear sausage. They also had some decent craft beer there – I remember the IPA being particularly good.

Exotic Options in New Zealand

Travel writers have slammed the culinary efforts in New Zealand. That amazes me. It’s home to some great local lamb and outstanding seafood. And it’s certainly a great place to find unusual flavors. Like Australia, Asian immigrants have brought the spice. But even aside from that, adventurous eaters will find plenty of fun.

adventurous eaters
Look for Aggys Shack a few steps away from Lake Wakatipu.

During a bus ride from Nelson to Franz Josef Glacier, our driver told us all about the possum pie at the Sandfly Cafe in Pukekura. Despite his assurances that it’s “easy to eat,” I was the only one to get a personal-size pie stuffed with stringy bits of possum. It’s not great nor revolting – but it’s fun to say you’ve eaten possum.

On the South Island, whitebait is another local favorite – and possibly a test of a traveler’s willingness to try anything. They’re recently hatched freshwater fish, usually mixed in with egg. Whitebait is fairly pricey, probably because it’s fairly labor-intensive to catch them.

Finally, Queenstown is a great stop to try unusual bites. There, I discovered that Aggys Shack, Fish & Chips is the only place I’ve ever seen where you can order a whole smoked eel. Skip the fish & chips (even thought they’re also tasty) and pick the eel and a nice order of fresh green-lipped mussels. Sitting on the shore of Lake Wakatipu while eating mussels and eel from Aggys Shack is a great eating experience.

Iceland for Wild Eaters

Talk about a harsh, barren place: According to Wikipedia’s statistics, less than one percent of Iceland’s land area is arable. The rest is lava flows and glaciers. That makes for some gastronomic ingenuity.

Take hakarl (pronounced “howker” – and be sure to check out the link so you can see video of me eating hakarl, and find out what I did with the leftovers). Early settlers in Iceland were so pressed for food that they had to discover ways to make the toxic flesh of the Greenland shark fit for eating.

Here’s what they did – gut the shark, bury it for a few months, exhume it, cut it into strips, let it hang a few months more, and enjoy. The result is rubbery and smells like cat urine. This is an ultimate “been there, eaten that” food for adventurous eaters.

adventurous eaters
Some Greenland shark putrefying Icelandic style.

Then there’s the excellent smoked trout available just about everywhere in Iceland. What makes it unusual? Well, it’s smoked over fires produced by burning dried lamb dung.

There are also certain places where Icelanders eat pickled rams testicles and entire sheep heads with the eyes still planted in the skull.

Larva and More in South Korea

People who are not adventurous eaters are really frightened of kimchi, the famous, spicy fermented cabbage that seems to be South Korea’s best-known food. I even know people who can’t stomach bi bim bap, that delicious bend of marinated meat, vegetables and rice.

I’d hate to see what happened if they ever tried boiled silkworm larva. This little delicacy is available from sidewalk vendors all over Seoul. I bought a cup to share with my very lucky wife. The taste was a combination of leather and liver. But the worst part was that the larvae absorbed the water they were cooked in.

Each sizable larva exploded when I bit down, squirting larva just in my mouth with an audible “plup” sound. We only ate half our bowl, but it was still fun doing it. I’d prefer them fried, like in the photo above.

So, what about you? What are your favorite places to dig into weird foods? Have you tried anything I’ve mentioned?

An earlier version of this story appeared on the now-defunct Yahoo! Voices site.

Battle of the Gross Fish: Gefilte Fish Versus Hákarl

Some Greenland shark putrefying Icelandic style.

In an earlier post complete with video, you got to see me eat the rancid Icelandic shark meat known as hákarl. The whole experience made me think of gefilte fish, which I consider the other major abomination of seafood.

One is a motley conglomeration of ingredients ground up together and pressed into patties. The other is just a shark that is left to rot, hung out to dry and sliced into cubes. You’ll find neither on the menu at any fine dining establishments. Since neither is appetizing, I decided to rate which one is more fun to eat. Here are the results (I suppose the winner of this bracket will one day go on the face off against lutefisk)!

Who Eats It?

Gefilte Fish – Just about every Jewish family at Passover – and possibly housecats.

Hákarl – Vikings, Icelanders

Winner: Hákarl, because helmets with horns on them look way cooler than yarmulkes. (Yes, I know Vikings didn’t really wear those, but still … )

Preparation

Gefilte Fish – Grind up carp, matzoh and anything else you can find. Form into patties. Pack it in jar with gelatinous fish broth.

Hákarl- Gut and behead a shark. Bury it for 12 weeks – exhume, and hang out to dry for several months. Slice into cubes and enjoy with brenevin, a strong Icelandic spirit. The intent of the preperation is to press out toxin’s in the shark’s flesh.

Winner: Hákarl. Because sharks are awesome. Carp, not so much.

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Eating Hákarl in Iceland

Fermented shark, hákarl, is an example of a cu...
Fermented shark, hákarl, is an example of a culinary tradition that has continued from the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century to this day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the reasons I went to Iceland was to try the country’s “delicacy” (just in case the quotes don’t make it clear enough, this is using the term very loosely) known as hákarl. This translates simply into “shark.” You pronounce it as “HOW-ker.”

But it’s more than that: It’s a shark that’s spent months decomposing underground to begin draining it of toxins. These toxins, according to National Geographic, act as antifreeze so it can live in cold waters around Iceland and Greenland. The curing process makes it safe for humans to eat. After being buried, it’s then exhumed, hung up for a few months, sliced and eaten raw.

I couldn’t wait to give it a go. Watch the video to see what happens, and be sure to read my conclusion at the bottom of this post.

 

Okay, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. I’d eat hákarl before I’d eat gefilte fish, for sure. It’s far cooler. But after the video was shot, my wife looked pretty grossed out, and I half-expected her to abandon me in the south of Iceland if I didn’t dispose of the shark immediately.

So I carried the remained out into the streets looking for a trash can. The two bins I found appeared to be for recycling only. Then I saw a large red bin, which usually means a big truck comes, picks it up and dumps the contents into its garbage-holding area. So I flung the bag up over the walls.

Or so I thought.

The “trash bin” was a storage shed, and it was too big for me to get on top and recover the bag from its roof. So some grocery store storage shed now has a bag of hákarl aging on top of it. Oof. Sorry to my friends in Iceland. I promise I was trying to do the right thing!

 

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Can You Survive These 5 Foods?

When I travel, I make it a point to find something weird to eat. I’d prefer it not be something I can get just anywhere – I scoured Web sites for a way to get a fresh black sapote fruit here in Arizona, but no dice: I had to chase that all the way to Cape Tribulation in Queensland, Australia.

But I encounter the weirdest purely by accident. Here are a few wild foods that can delight or disgust, depending on your palette.

Dangerous Delectables from Down Under

As you might guess, they’ll eat just about anything in New Zealand – especially it’s #1 pest,

Have a bite of possum pie, mate!
Have a bite of possum pie, mate!

the imported possum. While exploring the South Island of New Zealand, be sure to stop in Pukekura at the Sandfly Cafe. There, you can sample a personal-sized possum pie. Yeah, it’s a big ol’ ratlike marsupial. But, as Naked Bus driver Renee says, “It’s easy to eat!” It really doesn’t taste that different from beef. But you know it’s possum, and that makes it fun.

Australia gets two entries on my list of must-try whacky foods. If you’ve just arrived in Sydney, check out the Australian Heritage Hotel and its excellent restaurant. If you’re up for a liberal and exotic interpretation of a pizza, pick from emu, kangaroo or salt-water crocodile toppings. I chose the croc, and got a chicken-like texture with a briny hint of billabong. I hope your plans take you to Darwin in the Top End – it’s the starting point for awesome adventures into the Kakadu. It’s also home to the Wharf Precinct, where you can pick up a tasty camel schniztel. I expected it to be tough and stringy, but was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t far different from veal – but I still get lots of “ewwwww” factor when I tell people about it.

Get Teste With Me

Now, my own home state of Arizona boasts more than a few crazy treats - pit-cooked javelina (a wild pig) and fried rattlesnake, to name just two. But neither can compete with what you’ll eat at the Rock Springs Cafe monthly Hogs ‘n’ Heat BBQ and Nut Fry. You can play it safe with steaks and such, or dive into the namesake “nuts.” No, we’re not talking pecans and almonds here. This is all about Rocky Mountain oysters, bovine  gonads, bull bollocks. Dig in, cowboy!

Delicious on pizza ... but don't tell him yet.
Delicious on pizza ... but don't tell him yet.

A Fishy Treat for an Iron Stomach

I’ve saved the grossest for last, and we’re visiting Iceland for this diabolical delicacy: rotten shark meat! The Icelandic folks call it hakarl, and devouring it is a show of fortitude. Or, if reports are to be believed, a sign of completely non-functional tastebuds. I fully intend to eat this when I get to Iceland. After all, a few moments of gagging is fully worth telling people about this and watching them gag just from hearing about it. With its ammonia content, this stuff must taste like cat pee, but I can’t resist a challenge.  It doesn’t sound like you can just roll into any old grocery store and pick some up, but this blog post gives some clues.