A Test for the Taste Buds: The 7 Weirdest Foods in History
In many ways, the culinary arts of preparing food are the oldest in the world. Ever since becoming sentient, humans had to experiment with cooking in order to sustain themselves. From the dawn of humanity and the first haunches of meat over a fire, all the way to the merging of cultures in the Roman Empire and its exotic meals - food was always prepared in countless ways. Of course, certain cultures had a different definition of the word “tasty”. Flicking over the pages of history, we can come across some truly bizarre food. Whether considered delicacies or simply a means of survival, these foods can make your gut churn - or your belly rumble. Either way, let’s see if we can make someone hungry with our list of the weirdest foods in history!
In their transition from primitivism into sentient, bipedal primates, humans were always forced to experiment with food. Finding ample sustenance in those early days of humanity was an enormous challenge. Anything and everything would have been considered food. But with each new century that passed humans managed to discover more culinary secrets, discovering foods that are downright unappetizing along the way. Things, of course, escalated with the rise of agriculture and complex civilizations. Thanks to the expanding horizons and merging cultures, people were able to encounter new creatures, herbs, and spices for the first time. And that resulted in new recipes, new culinary experiments, and some head-scratching delicacies.
Ambergris – A Tasty, Fragrant… Lump
Throughout history, whaling was a major world industry. It was common through most of the Early Modern period, and reached its height between the 17th and 19th centuries. The blue whale is the largest animal in the world, and as such it was always the prized catch for the whalers. From the meat to the blubber, a whale was the source of many important goods. But one uncanny part of the whale was highly coveted by all was the ambergris.
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Ambergris is a waxy, grey substance produced in the digestive tract of a whale. When excreted, it has a strong and unpleasant odor, which turns into a sweet and pleasing fragrance with age. Through time, ambergris was considered a rarity. Sailors would find it randomly in the waters, many years after it has been excreted.
This substance was very important for use in perfumes, while the ancient Egyptians utilized it as an incense to be burned. But many cultures also ate ambergris. Naturally, you would consider something that a whale excreted, and that has been floating in the ocean for decades, to be totally inedible. Nevertheless, many considered ambergris a rare delicacy. To us it is definitely one of the weirdest foods in history. Reportedly, the English king Charles II highly coveted a dish of fried eggs with a big side of ambergris! I wonder how that tastes!
Edible Bird’s Nest soup, a Chinese delicacy and one of the top weirdest foods in history. (Kunmanoo / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Edible Bird’s Nests – A Weird and Expensive Delicacy
Ancient - and modern - Chinese cuisine was always the source of some truly bizarre foods. And one that truly “takes the biscuit” is the delicacy of edible bird’s nests. This is an ancient recipe that was first penned down in 1792, during the time of the Qing Dynasty. In poet Yuan Mei’s famed book “The Way of Eating” ( Suíyuán Shídān; 隨園食單), edible bird’s nest is regarded as a rare and highly prized delicacy, reserved only for the wealthiest and noblest of tongues.
This dish is made from nests of the Swiftlet bird. These species make their nests with their saliva, which becomes solidified, dry and perfectly edible after a time. Cooked in a soup, the nest softens and reveals a delicate and unique texture. As a food, it is extremely rich in proteins and nutritional value. This weird food is also amongst the most expensive in the world: just a kilogram is priced at $6,600 (£4775)! That sounds like an awful lot for a dish of cooked bird saliva - but the deliciousness described cannot be overlooked.
Hákarl is a Viking delicacy of fermented shark meat. (Tobias Seeliger / Adobe Stock)
Kæstur Hákarl – When Vikings Eat Sharks
Everybody knows the Vikings from their early medieval seafaring exploits. These famed traders and warriors swept through history and changed its course - but used their spears and axes to do so. They left a hefty heritage over the centuries, but interestingly enough we know little about the weird foods they ate. Hákarl is a rare remnant of the Viking past, a thoroughly bizarre dish and deserving a spot on our list of the weirdest foods in history. Traditionally prepared in Iceland, hákarl is a dish of fermented and cured shark meat. At first, that doesn’t sound all too bad. But there’s more.
To prepare this food, a Greenland shark has to be buried in the sandy gravel, where it rots for more than six weeks. Naturally, its meat is poisonous and can kill you if eaten raw. The rotting helps rid the meat of its poisons. After the meat rots fully, it is dug out, cut into strips, and hung to dry for several months at a time. It is said that the meat emits a truly overpowering odor during this time, due to the fact that fermented shark meat contains inordinate amounts of ammonia . Even when fully finished, hákarl can be difficult to eat for first-timers. The aroma can induce involuntary gagging and consuming can really be an inordinate challenge. Icelanders however, consider it their foremost delicacy. Maybe hákarl was the secret to the Vikings’ toughness?
Would you eat something that could potentially kill you? Fugu fish, a sought-after delicacy in Japan, joins our list of the weirdest foods in history. (City Foodsters / CC BY 2.0)
Fugu – One Wrong Bite and You’re Toast
Fish has been the staple diet of virtually every culture throughout human history. But what happens when fish is poisonous? Usually you would avoid it at all costs, but the Japanese had a different idea. Fugu is an exotic fish that contains high amounts of a lethal poison - tetrodotoxin . Eat it as it is - and you’re no more. But if you take great care to remove only the parts of it that are poisonous, you are left with a (reportedly) mouth-watering delicacy.
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It’s certainly a high-risk food, but it is surprisingly one of the oldest of Japanese dishes. Archeological evidence shows that Fugu fish has been consumed during the Jōmon period, at least 2,300 years before present. During the medievalperiod, many of Japan’s leading shogunates banned the eating of Fugu, while most of the Japanese Emperors avoided it at all costs. The reason is simple - an assassin masked as a chef could easily assassinate an Emperor by offering a portion of Fugu.
Today, however, Fugu remains one of Japan’s most sought-after delicacies. One of the weirdest foods in Japan, it is regulated by strict laws and chefs need to undergo rigorous training in order to prepare it safely. Once prepared in the correct manner, Fugu is said to be especially delicious. The ancient Chinese poet, Su Shi, once famously declared that the taste of Fugu is so good that it is “worthy of death.”
We couldn’t leave garum, or fermented fish guts, of our list of the weirdest foods in history. (Fanfo / Adobe Stock)
Garum – A Rotten Ancient Delicacy
Europe’s ancient civilizations were known for their exemplary culinary skills. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Phoenicians all produced some truly fabulous dishes that are enjoyed even today. But some were straight out weird.Garum is one such bizarre dish, and was widely consumed in antiquity.
In essence, garum is a sauce made of fermented fish guts used as a tasty and savory condiment. Many recipes from ancient Rome survive, detailing the production of garum - which is fairly straightforward. One had to take plenty of fish guts (yum!) and throw in some teeny-tiny fish in there as well, salt everything heavily, and leave it all to rot. As this mix rots and ferments, it creates the liquid that later becomes the coveted garum .
This salty and savory condiment was immensely popular in the ancient Mediterranean world, especially amongst the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. Archeology revealed numerous garum factories throughout this region. It also shows how these civilizations were industrious when it came to food - nothing was thrown away. Even after garum was produced through the fermentation, the rotten fish gut that remained was used as a tasty pâté! So then, how about it? Care for some tasty garum?
The Aztecs used to consume a stew called tlacatlaolli, which contained human body parts. (Public domain)
Tlacatlaolli – A Stew With A Very Special Ingredient
In modern-day Mexico and the neighboring regions, the pozole is a very popular dish. A hearty stew, it is a staple for many families. However, the origins of this ordinary dish are very dark - and very bizarre. Pozole originated amongst the ancient Aztecs, where it was known as tlacatlaolli. At a first glance, it was exactly the same: a hearty stew made with husked corn and other ingredients.
The difference lay in the fact that for the Aztecs, one of those additional ingredients was human flesh. You read that right! Aztecs used to practice cannibalism on special occasions and during particular rituals. The tlacatlaolli was the dish consumed in a special and prestigious ceremony called Tlacaxipehualizthli, which was held in the honor of the god Xipe Totec.
This weird dish was reserved for the highest social caste of the Aztecs - for the nobles, priests, and elite warriors. The stew contained parts of the body of ritually sacrificed captives. Each bowl served had to contain a part of the victim’s body. Several scholars agree that cannibalism in Aztec culture came out of necessity, as their regular diet lacked enough protein. Thus it was that the Aztec elite got to boost their protein intake by consuming human flesh!
The poorest of people in medieval England used to make a dish called garbage, using all the unwanted parts of a chicken. (Pranee PhotoSpace / Adobe Stock)
Garbage – It’s More Appetizing Than It Sounds
There you have it: garbage. How’s that for one of the weirdest foods in history? It’s no joke, either. Garbage is a genuine medieval recipe that shows what the common, lowest class folk had to eat when nothing else was available. Documented in several medieval English cookbooks, garbage isn’t literal trash. Instead, it denotes the unappetizing and unwanted parts of a chicken that were usually discarded.
Nevertheless, the poorest of England’s medieval society could often acquire nothing better than the unwanted bits. The recipe for this dish was around in at least the 15th century. One detailed cookbook from the early 1800’s, called, ‘ A Noble boke off cookry ffor a prynce houssolde or eny other estately houssholde’, and possibly dating from much earlier, details all the ingredients needed for this (possibly) tasty dish.
Essentially, all that was needed was a pot and all the yucky bits of a chicken: the gizzards, the heads, the feet, the livers. Boil that in a nice broth, add some stale bread from last week, and finish it off with spices like cloves, sage, saffron, garlic, pepper and parsley. By the time the dish is done, you could lose your appetite. But if it’s still there, then your serving of garbage awaits. Hopefully, the taste is not as enticing as the name!
A Culinary Challenge Through the Centuries
So there we have it - seven of history’s weirdest foods for you to revel in. Those bravest amongst our readers might even dare to try one of these bizarre recipes, although it is ill-advised to go for the poisonous fish or the human flesh stew, for obvious reasons. Humor aside, it needs to be said that often in history, a variety of food was a rare luxury. Many cultures and nations were limited in what foods they could harvest and produce, which resulted in a rather limited culinary display.
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In order to remedy the lack of food, these peoples often experimented with anything they could get their hands on. That’s why history is filled with foods that are downright bizarre. From fried beaver tails to dogs, all the way to rotting cheeses and stinky fermented fish, taste buds throughout the ages were bombarded with a variety of questionable cuisine. At least they weren’t squeamish!
Top image: A man contorting his face at the idea of some of the weirdest foods in history. Source: Kurhan / Adobe Stock
By Aleksa Vučković
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