I try to eat clean in my daily life, but while traveling I have a pretty adventurous palate.
As it is, a fair amount of food we eat in Singapore might be considered “weird” in a foreign (Western) culture. I’ll devour pig intestines, fish sperm, century eggs and durian with relish. Here we don’t mind our meat with bones, fins and head intact. So I am aware that weird is in the stomach of the beholder, and when I say weird here I really just mean different, to me. I’ll try most things once, in the name of culture and life experience. These are five of the more memorable ones.
1. Silkworm larvae, South Korea
Silkworm larvae is known in South Korean culture as bundaegi, found at mom-and-pop convenience stores across the country. They stew in rice cookers with open lids, sold by the cupful, served with a couple of wooden skewers to spear the little buggers. I tried bundaegi at one such store, outside Seodaemun prison in Seoul, where the owner speared one on a toothpick and gave me a sample with a toothy grin.
I’ve realised that proprietors of weird foods, especially those sold in tourist areas, seem to derive some glee from watching tourists struggle to stomach their country’s unconventional fare. Among all the unfamiliar things I’ve eaten during my travels, bundaegi tastes the worst. They are boiled rather than fried, which means less seasoning to mask the earthy taste that accompanies most insects. Also, eating a moist little bug means the taste gets everywhere in your mouth. I would not eat this again.
2. Tarantula, Cambodia
is sold by the bagful from carts parked on street corners all over Cambodia. I tried a cleaner, more sanitised version from Romdeng, an upscale restaurant located in a colonial bungalow in Phnom Penh.
One deep fried spider, plated prettily along slivers of carrot and cucumber and accompanied with a sweet-spicy dip, set me back about 4USD, the currency of choice in Cambodia. When I recount my epicurean adventures this picture usually elicits one of the largest responses. But like with most weird foods, tarantula tastes better than it looks – like a saltier version of soft shell crab.
3. Crickets and water beetles, Cambodia
On the same trip to Cambodia I shared a room with some Philippino backpackers. The first night we hung out we shared a happy pizza (which didn’t get us to the happy place we wanted). Afterwards the girls broke out three plastic bags of insects – crickets, water beetles and more silkworm larvae.
The crickets were the tastiest – they were deep fried, and though the spindly legs were unnerving to look at, when I crunched them in my teeth there wasn’t any taste beyond that of salt and seasoning. Water beetles came encased in a hard shell that I could not bite through. But when I peeled off their exterior, inside they did not taste that different from crickets.
4. Rabbit meat, Australia and rabbit head, China
The first time I ate rabbit meat it was well disguised amidst cream sauce and gnocchi pasta, while in Perth on The Fucking Australian Road Trip (FART). It tasted light and clean – for want of a better description, really quite like chicken. It was easy to ignore that fact that these shreds of meat once belonged to a cute furry animal I fed carrots to in kindergarten.
The Chinese version of rabbit is bit more stark. One night in Chengdu, Sichuan after a dumpling making workshop at our hostel, the assembly of backpackers I had been hanging out with decided to go out for rabbit head. It was a popular beer snack, but I suspect the native Chinese in the group wanted to give the Americans a bit of a shock. They came braised, and served in metal bowls, accompanied with a plastic glove each.
There wasn’t much meat, but whatever we could pick off was tasty. I’d eat rabbit again if I was presented with it, but only if it was to sample part of a different cuisine, because I don’t really fancy the idea of eating a furry friend.
5. Dog, China
The taboo of dog meat weighed on me even as I was eating it. In the week leading up to trying it I had encountered the notion of dogs not as pets, but as food. Markets in Lijiang, Yunnan and Yangshuo, Guangxi hawked live dogs, packed like poultry into rusty cages that seemed too small for even one, let alone the five or six that were crammed inside.
The stall in Yangshuo even hung skinned carcasses on display, like chicken and duck at a roast meat stall, so customers could purchase a cut of fresh dog meat instead of the whole carcass. (That same stall also sold cats, mangy and skinny and cooped up in cages, and this I had to avert my eyes from in discomfort.)
I finally tried it in Fuli, a tiny town just 9km from Yangshuo. The market sold dog meat prepared in a variety of ways, the most popular being hotpot. The stall I ate at also sold tiny cubes of dog, cut up and stewing in a large metal vat. I asked for the smallest serving available, and got 5 yuan (1SGD) worth of meat.
The hardest part of eating dog was knowing what I was eating. The meat itself, while gamey and studded with tiny bones, did not taste unpleasant. But as much as I love meat and I’ll happily devour a ribeye steak, its harder to perceive man’s best friend as a meal.