A frequent flier's views on flying and travel

Strange Food

What is/are the strangest thing(s) I’ve ever eaten?

Actually, that is not an easy question to answer, and I also admit that my threshold for “strange” or “odd” is probably a lot higher than for most people. There are a lot of people who would consider things like liver, kidneys, tripe, frog’s legs, rabbit, alligator, sea urchin, snails, eel, and snake to be odd or unusual.

Greenwich Goddards Eel pie

Eel pie, at Goddards, Greenwich England

None of those are strange or odd foods to me. Gator is a regular dish in many restaurants around Houston, and a neighbor of ours in Florida has a big old Southern fry every New Year featuring gator nuggets. Snake is something I have ordered and eaten many times, most often rattlesnake, especially around Phoenix. But it is surprisingly popular in southern Taiwan, near Tainan. Sea urchins come up with the lobster traps in Maine, and unless there are enough to be worth selling, they just get eaten on the spot. Liver, kidneys, tripe, rabbit, frog’s legs, snails, are all pretty normal foods as far as I am concerned. Yes, I do eat normal foods too, it’s just that for me new food is part of the travel adventure.

Manila Breakfast

Mango juice, salami, cheese, bacon, smoked chicken, smoked salmon, capers, pastrami, and a croissant. A great buffet breakfast at The Peninsula Hotel

My philosophy about food when traveling is that “If you can eat it, I can eat it.” I figure if it doesn’t kill you, then it won’t kill me either. I may not enjoy everything, but I will try anything. So when I say something is odd or strange, it is really going to be odd, and/or strange. I will start with the lower range of strange, and I’ll work my way up to the bizarre. Feel free to drop out anytime.

At the entry level is a South American specialty that does not bode well for a fairly common household pet. My sisters had guinea pigs growing up, and having a roasted “cuy” or “cui” on your plate has some psychological overtones. But for taste and texture, it’s really a lot like rabbit. I’ll also put capybara into this entry level stage. It’s at the other end of the ‘rodent’ extreme in South America, with large adults being over 20 Kg / 40 lbs. The ones in restaurants tend to be much smaller, younger, and less gamey.

Jump over to Scotland now for some haggis. Very unimpressed with haggis, as it really tastes like not much more than oatmeal with some chewy bits. I don’t see what all the fuss is about it, or why it is considered such an odd food. At best, it’s only borderline unusual.

Next step up is a dish I’ve only had in Singapore, duck-tongue soup. The tongues themselves are hard and chewy black ovals, and as with any soup it’s really the broth that carries the flavor. The tongues are just there for a ride. Smoked cow/ox tongue, stewed tongue, it’s all good.

Baguio Lengua con setas

Lengua con setas (Tongue & mushrooms), Baguio Luzon

Chicken feet (and duck feet) come next. I was first exposed to these in Italy, but they are much more common in Asia. Given a choice, I prefer the duck feet, but the key here again is with the skill of the chef. You also have to get pretty good at using chopsticks as you work your way down from each toe.

Roasted tarantula is starting to get high on the weird meter, but it did not taste that odd or unusual. If I had to compare it to anything, it was most similar to a charcoaled lobster tail. Which considering the close family relation between lobster/crab and spiders, should not be too surprising.

A curried fish head is a really tasty dish, especially when the curry is done right. We are talking about a large fish head here, the size of good sized cod or grouper, not some aquarium sized minnow. The cheeks of the fish are the tastiest part, and are great. As an honored guest you will typically be expected to eat the eyeballs, and although the idea may seem weird, everything just tastes like curry, so do it. You may want to use a spoon though, as getting them out can be a bit tricky for beginners.

It took a lot of work to find this next item when I was staying in Singapore, but I understand it has become more popular in recent years; braised crocodile paws. These are slow cooked for hours and hours and hours so the tough connective tissue breaks down into something more like an osso-bucco. In the end, there’s no disguising the shape of a crocodile’s foot on your plate, and the toenails are unavoidable. But it is not a bad eat at all. And you get big bragging rights about “Guess what I ate” when you go home.

I actually did not know what this next item was when I first tried it, but now it has become something I regularly look for and order. When it was given to me, I tried it, and I thought it was some sort of a version of a cellophane noodle. In fact, the dish is pickled jellyfish. These are not the jellyfish you think of in the Atlantic. These are monster jellyfish, sometimes 3 or 4 feet across. Cut into strips then pickled just like a cucumber or any summer garden vegetable. Actually, it has a very nice texture, and if done right, just enough salt and vinegar to provide a refreshing flavor.

Since I just mentioned cucumbers, if you are in China, or Singapore, around the time of the Lunar/Chinese New Year (Tet in Vietnam), you are likely to run into dishes featuring sea cucumber. Basically, this is a gelatinous tube-shaped animal that lives by vacuuming up debris from the ocean floor. Why anyone ever decided to make it the featured dish for New Years is not something I will ever understand. About the only way to describe the texture is to think about what happens to chocolate pudding if left in the fridge for a week. You know the hard rubbery surface that develops on top? That’s close to sea cucumber. It really has no flavor, but for most people the texture is the problem. I don’t dislike it, but I am also perfectly happy only having it once a year.

Sea Cucumber

Rocky Mountain Oysters were something I ordered when I was a lot younger, and dumber. I love all seafood, and thought this was a fresh water version of an oyster. OK, it isn’t. And it is not something I would order again, and I haven’t. The smaller version of these (from a rooster) have been given to me a few times in Taiwan, and let me be honest, why???? Guess it’s a macho thing.

Staying in Taiwan for a moment, went to a Hot Pot near the waterfront in Hsinchu with a group of locals. They were having some fun, trying to find things I would not eat. Well, there is a difference between “would not” eat and did not enjoy eating. Deep fried squid eyes (these are from VERY large squid) are edible, but honestly, not very enjoyable. Unless you like the flavor of squid ink. Which I do not.

Another Taiwanese hot pot item I have seen/eaten more than once is cow udder. Silly to waste any part of an animal, but the udder really has no flavor, just a chewy texture. It is not anything I would ever go out of my way to order, but it is not something I will refuse to eat either.

When I first started going to Asia, my ‘friends’ and coworkers loved trying to take me out to places where they were sure I would not be able to eat the food. They quickly tired of that, and one time that I scored serious points over some of them was at an open market in Shanghai where a row of vendors were selling a variety of fried bugs. There were scorpions, there were more types of beetles than I can count, and ants, and crickets, and anything you can think of that walks, flies, swims, jumps, or crawls. I started at one end of the stalls, and worked my way down. Took a while, but I ate one of everything from every bin at every one of the stalls. I actually ended up with quite a crowd by the time I was halfway done, as my hosts were getting excited about what I was doing, and the word spread. I really don’t know how many different kinds of critters I munched in that odyssey. I would just be guessing if I said it was around 60 different items. It could easily have been 80. But each time I returned to Shanghai after that, I would ask if anyone wanted to go back there with me. They always said no…

If you take regular tofu and let it ferment for a while, usually with some spices, you get something called stinky tofu. I have tried stinky tofu by itself. I have tried stinky tofu in a variety of dishes. I have even eaten it fried on a stick. And if you want to find a stinky tofu vendor in Hong Kong, just follow your nose. The aroma is, well the only word I can use is indescribable. I am reminded of something from Dr Seuss, “I will not eat green eggs and ham”. Well, stinky tofu goes in that category. I have eaten it, but I prefer not to, and I just don’t enjoy it.

The durian is probably the ugliest foul smelling fruit on this planet. It has been described as smelling like rotten meat, and the after taste (to my mouth) is best described as what it would taste like if you tried to suck on a used coffee filter. By itself, it is a slimy and malodorous fruit that does not look very appealing. And I agree. But surprisingly, when mixed into things like coffee cake or ice cream, it actually works quite well. Just don’t try to carry a durian with you into most hotels, on an airplane, or on the Singapore subway system. The odor of a durian is so strong I have heard (?) that a crate of this fruit once set off the smoke detector in a 747 cargo bay.

You will often find something called a “100 year egg” at restaurants and hotels in Asia, especially for breakfast. These are eggs that have been preserved by burying them in clay pots with lime and I don’t know what else. What comes out is a dark colored (black) egg with a very strong hydrogen sulfide smell. And if you don’t know what that smells like, it is the chemical they add to household natural gas so you will know if there is a gas leak. Hydrogen-sulfide is also commonly described as having a “rotten egg smell”. Well, that’s what you smell and taste when eating 100 year eggs. Definitely not a favorite.

So what’s the winner? What is the weirdest oddest strangest food I have ever eaten?

Well, as anyone knows, a hardboiled egg should not go ‘crunch’ when you eat it, unless you are in the Philippines and you are eating balut. This is a 12 to 14 day duck embryo in the shell that is boiled, and then served cold. Something very unsettling about the texture of crunching baby duck bones in your mouth when eating an egg. Tried it, taste was OK, used a lot of salt. But I could not get past the crunch factor.

And there you have it… balut. In my book, it is the king of the weird.

PS: There are some foods that I have eaten, but will never eat again. Under no circumstance, no exception, no excuses. Not because they are not tasty (they are !) but because in good conscience I can not support the activities behind them. I leave it to you to do your own research on these…

Shark Fin soup, pate de fois gras, popcorn (any ‘small’) shrimp, blue fin tuna (in Asia), and whale meat.

So let me know… What would YOU add to this list of strange foods?

Nov 2015 Update : A great (similar) story about eating scorpions in Beijing. TravellingBoomer_Scorpions

And I wish this was my photo below, but it isn’t… It’s Paul’s

China Scorpions

Fried (tasty !) Scorpions at a Beijing stall, photo via TravellingBoomer

5 comments on “Strange Food

  1. Deia @ Nomad Wallet
    November 12, 2013

    Nice list, JR! You’re quite the adventurous foodie. I would’ve loved to see you sample all those bugs in Shanghai. Not surprised that a crowd formed around you.

    I’ve had liver, kidneys, tripe, frog’s legs, rabbit, eel, and snake.

    Things from your list I’ve had: chicken feet, fish head curry, jellyfish, sea cucumber, durians and century egg. The only thing I like from this list is durians; I find them sweet and creamy.


  2. Sheree
    October 18, 2014

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    December 29, 2014

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  4. Graham Askey
    July 22, 2018

    The one thing I’m not going out of my way to try again is rancid agouti meat in West Africa. Normally agouti is fine but some people like to let the meat go off before cooking it so it stinks of rotten meat. Slightly more manageable once you get it in your mouth but you can avoid the smell.


    • jlroehr
      July 22, 2018

      I tend to agree that the words “rancid” and “food” should not be used together…. The Chinese may say that ‘if its back faces heaven, its edible’, but how/why some items become popular foods is beyond me. I think I will put your entree in that category! {{Had to look up agouti, now see it is a cousin of the cuy or guinea pig}}.


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