Zombie Powder, Bird Saliva, and Rotten Shark: Would You Try These Ancient Foods?
Ancient tribal cultures all over the world partook in perilous hunting, fishing, and food gathering adventures. Hearths appear 250,000 years ago - which is the accepted archaeological estimate for the ‘invention’ of cooking and over time, the hardest and most dangerous to find food stuffs were deemed the most sacred, thus, a range of bizarre rituals arose around them. These are some of the rarest, most expensive, and most bizarre lost foods of the ancient world.
The Matsutake Mushroom, Japan
The Matsutake mushroom (pine mushroom) has been collected for at least two thousand years and is highly valued in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese cuisine for its spicy-aromatic, ‘chewy’, odor. It symbolized fertility, good fortune, and happiness and it often appears stylized on Asiatic arts, crafts, and texts which referenced tribal leaders wearing ceremonial robes while wielding sacred mushrooms. This particular fungi was regarded as being so loaded with spiritual energies that during the 11th century people were prohibited from uttering its name in the Imperial Court of Kyoto and a complex series of rituals evolved around its collection, preparation, and consumption. Its rarity makes it one of the most sought after ingredients in oriental cuisine, but a non-native parasitic ringworm is currently killing the trees under which these prized mushrooms grow. Thus, the reduction in supply has caused the highest-grade mushrooms to fetch a staggering £1,500 per kilogram ($2078 per 2.2 lbs.)
Matsutake mushroom/ancient Japanese mushroom. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Voodoo Zombie Powder, Haiti
Thousands of Haitians follow the Voodoo religion and believe their local Bokor's (Voodoo High-Priests) use sorcery and a ‘special powder,’ which they imbue with magical properties, to create zombies. Bokors are said to capture a part of a victim's soul before creating the zombie, but in reality they make complex poisons and psychoactive potions from herbs, plants, and animal parts, which are given to worshipers to induce such apparitions. During the elaborate and sometimes bloodthirsty rituals, entranced people are buried alive in shallow graves and when they sober up and dig themselves out of the ground, all the locals and themselves, believe they have become resurrected as zombies. Voodoo Priests take pilgrimage into jungles and along coastlines collecting the essential ingredients of their sacred Voodoo powder: lizards, spiders, and fish containing the deadly neurotoxin – tetrodotoxin. But the intense coma like trance is obtained from a massive marine toad which produces numerous toxic substance which is blended with ‘hyla’ tree frogs, which secrete skin irritants and poison.
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Depiction of a zombie, at twilight, in a field of sugar cane. ( Free Art )
Bird Nests, Vietnam
Vietnam is home to a species of swift that constructs small cup-like nests from its own nutrient-rich saliva. Dissolved in broth to create the gelatinous texture of bird's nest soup, an Asian delicacy, this dish was one of ‘8 rare dishes’ in the Ancient Royal Cuisine of Vietnam. The ritualized consumption of the bird’s nests was believed to purify the lungs and other respiratory organs, therefore enhancing longevity and rejuvenating both body and spirit. These valuable nests can only be foraged from the hardest-to-reach interiors of deep caves. For thousands of years, people built wooden scaffoldings and performed death defying acts of rope climbing. It is because of the inherent dangers associated with collecting the nests that they have become the most expensive poultry product in the world.
An example of bird nest soup. (Stu Spivack/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
High Tree Honey, Russia
Honey and bees wax has been collected since ancient times and the honey produced from wild bee colonies in the Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia, is the most expensive in the world, selling for around 200 euros a kilogram ($244 for 2.2 lbs). Bashkortostan is the only place on the planet where a forest still supports a sustainable beekeeping industry and in the middle ages it was so valuable that it became a currency. A forest beekeeper has a very broad knowledge base and diverse skill set used to combat nature’s many challenges. These valuable trade secrets have been passed from father to son for many hundreds of generations and are still shared and developed by selected families.
Honey from the Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia, is the most expensive in the world. ( CC0)
Vegetarian Food Festival, Thailand
On the Ninth Chinese lunar month (late Sept to early Oct) one of the most bizarre food festivals in the world occurs in Thailand - the “thetsakan kin che” - Phuket Vegetarian Festival . Devout Buddhist Chinese descendants undertake a strict vegetarian diet, wear white clothes and observe ten rules in order to purify their minds and bodies. The ritual procession includes devotees called 'the soldiers of the god’ performing remarkable acts of asceticism and often quite gruesome feats. In preparing themselves for the event, devotees fast for several days beforehand and during the celebrations the townspeople can find exotic and rare food at various shrines and temples where rituals and rites based on mythical beliefs are performed, and offerings are made to gods and celestial beings. This food festival is enhanced with astonishing feats, including: walking barefoot across hot coals, climbing ladders with rungs made of knives, a ritual of bridge-crossing and a street procession in which the mediums, in a state of trance, have their cheeks pierced and bodies spiked with hooks, skewers and various other sharp objects.
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A photo of face piercing from the 2011 Phuket Vegetarian Festival. (Joseph Ferris III/ CC BY 2.0 )
Hákarl (Buried Shark), Iceland
Get your jaws around this Icelandic delicacy - rotten shark meat! Many people have tasted shark steaks and they are often regarded as an exotic food, but how about eating it after it rotting for over a year? That’s exactly what happens in Iceland as soon as a Greenland shark (Basking Shark) is caught. First, it’s beheaded and gutted, before being buried in sand and topped with manure to encourage the meat to decompose. Stones are placed on the sharks’ sandy graves to press the fluids out of the meat over several months. Then, its dug up, cut into strips and hung up to dry in the salty air for a few more months. A brown crust of bacteria forms around the shark - which is cut away before the meat is sliced and served cold. The dish has an extremely strong smell of ammonia and a very, very strong taste and I personally ate this one with fresh butter.
Icelandic Hákarl. (Chris 73/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Top Image: Detail of ‘Iwatake mushroom gathering at Kumano in Kishu.’ Source: Public Domain
By Ashley Cowie
Matsutani, Minoru, "Japan's long love affair with 'matsutake'", The Japan Times , 9 November 2010.
Kao, C.Y., and T. Yasumoto, 1986, "Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian zombie." Toxicon.
Lau, Amy S. M.; Melville, David S. (April 1994). International Trade in Swiftlet Nests with Special Reference to Hong Kong. Traffic Network.
Bee Time, 2013, “Forest honey – The most expensive honey in the world.”
Phuket.com, 2018, “Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2018.” http://www.phuket.com/festival/vegetarian.htm
Murakhver, Natalya. They Eat That? A Cultural Encyclopedia of Weird and Exotic Food from around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia of Weird and Exotic Food from around the World. pp. 91–2