Dare to Try: Bizarre Asian Foods
By Mary Jeneverre Schultz | Follow her on Twitter: @Jeneverre
Food, common in one place, can be the most unusual delicacy in another’s country. Asians take their cuisines seriously, staying adventuresome at the same time.
As the television show, Bizarre Food, becomes a popular network favorite among Generation Y. The show challenges travelers, the curious and adventuresome to go beyond their comfort level in culinary tastes.
Exotic foods could include insects, every part in a cow’s anatomy or the unusual delicacy of species, and even reptiles such as frogs and snakes. Food is prepared from scratch with fresh ingredients from local markets.
“Other things that seem to freak people out: Uni (sea urchin) sushi – I love that stuff but the look and texture turn people off (I’ve heard friends say it looks like newborn baby poop and it is mushy),” said Derek Okubo, executive director of the Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships.
In Asia, whether it is a cow or pig, all parts of the livestock animal is consumed in some type of entrée. For examples, the intestines and organs are part of a Filipino dish called Dinuguan, also known as Chocolate Meat.
Children don’t start eating these bizarre cuisines. They grow up, knowing it’s part of the culture. “Just a few weeks ago, I had a bag of dried, whole anchovies (from Pacific Mercantile in Sakura Square), complete with heads, eyes, everything. I ate them all my life and never thought it was a big deal. I brought them back to the office and people freaked. Only one staff member tried it and he liked them a lot but he’s fearless with food,” Okubo said.
Denver resident Pakou Xiong, who is Hmong, shares entrees cooked for festivities such as a wedding. “As part of our Hmong culture, we try to not waste any part of the animal. Most of Hmong cultural dishes are simple and does not use any spices other than salt and pepper.” Xiong said.
Xiong also described another popular dish that centers of chicken stomach and gizzard. She calls it Gizzard Salad. The chicken gizzards are boiled, sliced thinly, with minced cilantro, lemon grass, thai chili, lime juice and salt and pepper to taste.
Another dish that is popular with the Hmong is made with pork and guts and cooked as a stir fry. The ingredients consists of some sliced pork and/or pork belly, sliced pork lungs, sliced pork liver, sliced pork large and small intestines, sliced ginger, lemon grass, salt and pepper.
Another dish is braised pork head & feet with ginger. This consists of using a whole or half pig head, and its feet which you would braise for a long time and add lots of shredded ginger to it. It will become very oily and thick, but very tasty.
The stinky fruit of durian is sold throughout southeast Asia. In Vietnam, most hotels forbids the infamous fruit within the confines. The powerful stench of this fruit has caused city officials to ban the fruit from public transportation of buses.
Head cheese, originating from Vietnam, is only prepared for New Year’s celebrations. This traditional Vietnamese snack is made of fresh bacon, pig’s ears, garlic, scallions, onions, black fungus, fish sauce and cracked black pepper. It is known as Tet, gioa thui as the Vietnamese name. Typically, the snack is wrapped in banana leaves and compressed in a wooden mold until the gelatin in the pig’s ears causes it to stick together. This snack is also found in China and Korea with its different ethnic names. In China, it is called yaorou, while Korea refers to it as pyeonyuk.
Dinuguan, also known as Chocolate Meat, is cooked in cow’s blood with intestines from the cow as a pork blood stew. This savory stew of blood and meat is simmered in a rich, spicy gravy of pig blood, garlic, chili’s, and vinegar. The term Dinuguan come from the word dugo which means blood. It is similar to a Singapore dish, pig’s organ soup. The only difference is it does not have vegetables in it. For western cultures this dish is considered as unusual or maybe an alarming dish even though it is similar to European-style blood sausage or British black pudding, but in a saucy, stew form. This dish is so popular in the Philippines that you will find it at just about any occasion, from simple family gatherings to weddings.
Balut, the infamous duck embryo, sold by vendors, walking through the streets in their singsong way. The embryos are allowed to develop for about three weeks before they’re cooked and sold, meaning that when you crack into the egg you’ll find an almost fully-formed baby duck — complete with tiny feathers — ready to be eaten whole with chili garlic and vinegar. It’s a crunchy mash of both egg and chicken flavors. Recent reality television shows, such as Fear Factor, have challenged contestants to consume the balut whole as part of the competition.
Tripe is animal guts, from the lining of the first three chambers of a cow’s stomach. Tripe can also come from sheep, goat, and pig.
There are strict rules about cleaning and handling of the entrails while making tripe and beef. This tripe dish is also found in Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei. Tripe is usually sold specially prepared or cleaned for cooking and is very much an acquired taste.
Braised beef tongue, is a Filipino dish with Spanish origins. But this delicacy is found in different variations in China, Taiwan and Malaysia. Eating tongue dates back to ancient man, who enjoyed the fatty. This dish is actually nothing exotic in any Asian country, as well as the Middle East.
Oxtail, another key ingredient of a Filipino home-cooked meal called Kare-kare. This peanut-based sauce, is considered a traditional Filipino ox tail stew. Usually considered a speciality, Kare-kare varies from family to family and even region to region in the Philippines. It is devoured during the weekends, special occasions or celebrations and followed by a long afternoon siesta. (See January 2012 issue for an in-depth description of Kare-kare). It is also used in China and Indonesia.
Fugu or blowfish is a rare delicacy in Japan. Only a handful of restaurants are licensed to create this entrée because of its poison. If not cooked right, a diner could die in a few hours because the poison thwarts the nervous systems in minutes. It is served as thinly-sliced, sashimi style fish. This expensive entrée could cost a diner a minimum of $200 to sample a few bites.
Mimigaa (pigs’ ears) is a traditional food in Okinawa. Okinawan food is prepared differently from Japanese cooking, and it’s very popular throughout the rest of Japan. The mimigaa basically taste like bacon. Prepared perfectly, they’re not chewy. Pig ears are eaten in almost every culture that eats pork – except for “regular Americans”, who tend to be uncomfortable eating any part of an animal that resembles part of an animal. The texture of pig ears is unusual. When cooked, the outside is firm but gelatinous, with a thin white crunchy core. Pig ears can be found in markets serving Philippine, Chinese, Southeast Asian and Mexican communities.
Asadachi, frog’s still-beathing heart, is only served in a few establishments around Japan. The pulsating organ is intended to improve virility. Order the frog sashimi and the chef will cut open the frog in front of you and hand you its still-beating heart between a pair of chopsticks. Then the chef will slice and dice the frog into a plate of raw-frog sashimi while you take a bite of the warm, pumping heart. Sashimi is chilled raw seafood chopped up, so the rest of your meal will consist of cold, uncooked frog flesh.
Dried cuttlefish, a popular snack item, similar to potato chips in the United States, can be found at most Asian retailers in the Denver area. Cuttlefish is similar to squid, and these dried snacks are chewy and meaty with a briny, slightly sweet flavor. In large parts of Asia, dried cuttlefish is the bar snack equivalent of a bowl of peanuts. Like a good handful of roasted, salty nuts, shredded dried squid is served with a tall glass of beer or spirits for bar patrons to munch on. But they’re also meant to make said drinker even thirstier and drive people to order a few more tall ones.
Dried squid can also be compared to beef jerky as it sometimes requires brutish force to tear apart, and the chompers of a horse to consume. Some say the best part is the legs.
Jokbal, a Korean dish, consisting of pigs’ feet cooked with soy sauce and spices, is served in dark braising liquid, made from soy, ginger, garlic, and rice wine.
Kimchee is basically fermented cabbage. It is made by soaking the cabbage in salt and red pepper, leaving it for a few weeks, often buried in a clay pot underground. The resulting flavor is a tangy, salty, vinegary goodness.
Poi, the traditional Hawaiian staple, is a starch dish made by pounding boiled taro roots and mixing with water until it reaches a smooth consistency. Some Hawaiians eat their poi with salt, some with sugar, even soy sauce. Some like it thicker or thinner. Others like it several days old for a little extra tang; and malahini, or newcomers, might find it more to their liking at first if they eat it with a bite of kalua pork or lomilomi salmon.
Lamb’s brains, considered a gourmet treat with Indian roti and curry, is served as various concoctions such as fried with tomatoes, egg, masala or even just plain.
Chicken feet, found usually in Asian market, makes a great hearty stock of liquid. Most Chinese take-out restaurants will hang the chicken bodies from head to feet as a window display, often found at the southwest corner of Federal and Alameda in Denver. Served as a dim sum entrée, chicken feet could also be cook in black bean paste for flavors.
Fermented bean paste is found in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. Made from ground soybeans, the paste is usually savory and spicy. It is an essential ingredients in soups, stews and stir-fries.
Fermented fish became a delicacy in China in the same way, even if the origin stories may be somewhat apocryphal. One version, fermented mandarin fish, was reportedly invented 200 years ago by Yangtze River Merchants who used to slather fish with salt so it would keep on the long trek to Huizhou, and eventually grew fond of its funky flavor.
Known also as preserved egg, hundred-year egg, thousand-year egg or thousand-year-old egg, the Century Egg is an Asian delicacy used in many traditional dishes. Fresh duck, chicken or quail eggs become Century Eggs after weeks, sometimes months of preservation in a mixture of clay, ash, lime, salt and rice. The process of “cooking” Century Eggs is believed to date back 600 years, when someone apparently found some old eggs preserved in a pool of slaked lime.
After the preservation is complete, the hull mixture and egg shell are removed to reveal the now dark-brown egg-white and a dark-green, creamy and pungent yolk. It’s the alkaline that raises the ph of the egg from 9 to 12 or more and gives it a strong smell of ammonia and sulfur. Century Eggs are consumed either raw, or as ingredients in other Asian foods. There are those who associate them with smelly cheese, pungent but really delicious.
Stinky Tofu, a popular dish at night markets in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia, the name speaks for itself. Fresh tofu is added to a brine made from fermented milk, meat, vegetables and sometimes seafood. The brine can be so rotten that it will be infested with maggots, even people who like it often admit its smell resembles rotten trash or feces.
After delving into this list, it is only a scratch of what is out in Asian delicacies. In Asia, there are so many more entrees to consume for the adventuresome palate. Travelers probably could not even penetrate a sliver of this list on just one trip, even if three countries were part of the itinerary.
Thai Bistro, a restaurant in Littleton, challenges everyone to open their minds and try something different by not judging the appearance.
Interested in diving into an adventuresome cuisine, Chef Mary Nguyen of Parallel 17 is preparing delicacies from her home country on September 11, 2012. Visit her website at www.parallel17.com for more information.
With her Filipino upbringing, Mary Jeneverre Schultz grew up eating Balut, Diniguan and Kare-Kare but hasn’t touched balut for 20 years. During a recent visit to Vietnam, she and husband sampled the fruit Durian.