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GRILLED SPIDERS
Philippe Lopez  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Two Cambodian women sell grilled spiders in Phnom Penh's central market. A popular snack along the banks of the Tonle Sap, maybe, but will the kids eat 'em?
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 10/28/2005 3:25:27 PM ET 2005-10-28T19:25:27

It was Jeffrey Steingarten, author of “The Man Who Ate Everything,” who most recently insisted that we should embrace the universe of foodstuffs around us. You've heard variations on this spiel: Try everything once because (this part gets repeated in your most motherly tone) if you don't try it, you won't know if you like it.

Those principles are fine for Brussels sprouts and sweetbreads. But seeing as it's the time of year when grossing people out gets semi-official sanctioning from a semi-official holiday, now is the moment to consider foods that push the envelope of edibility.

We're not talking about haunted-house, peeled-grapes-as-eyeballs gross. We're talking about food that can churn your stomach without the aid of a blindfold.

It's a dangerous game to start calling food gross. One person’s dog meat is another’s Rocky Mountain oysters, and yet another's haggis. Some think durians and natto smell like death; others find them the very essence of wonderful.

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Nor, for that matter, is it fair to traffic in items found on shows like “Fear Factor.”  It's not that we doubt horse rectum is digestible. It's that we doubt anyone would actually eat it outside the confines of reality TV. (Also note “Fear Factor” has a certain reticence about cooking techniques; even the biggest fan of cow intestine is going to retch if it's being served boiled and plain.)

The seven items we've chosen for our stomach-churning buffet are all legitimate foods somewhere in the world. Grab a fork and dig in.

7) Spiders. Entomologists might disagree, but the practice of eating insects doesn't seem nearly so bad as it sounds at first. 

But the line has to be drawn somewhere, and arachnids seem to be a good place to draw it.  Spider-eating is practiced in a number of places, but Cambodia seems to be the place where it has drawn the most attention, thanks to a practice of eating meaty finger-sized tarantulas known in Khmer as a-ping. For about a dime per arachnid, you can get a cheap, ample meal of the critters fried up with salt, pepper and perhaps a bit of garlic. (Keep in mind that a full restaurant entree can be found in Phnom Penh for under $2.)

In the town of Skuon, on the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, you can pile your plate high with crispy critters and wash the whole thing down with a slug of spider wine (made from fermented rice, spider added later).

The practice apparently was born out of grim necessity in the dark days of the Khmer Rouge, but the taste has endured as the country rebuilt itself, eventually earning the tarantulas an unofficial reputation as the caviar of Cambodia.

Frankly, the more we think about it, the harder it is to differentiate between eating tarantula and something like soft-shell crab — equally creepy-crawly, just underwater. Many discerning tasters of tarantula actually swear by the taste.

On the other hand, tarantulas have some serious points in their favor, including a much longer life span (30 years or more in some cases) and the fact that some folks keep them as pets. The same can't be said for crabs. What it comes down to is that spiders are really rather helpful creatures, as the insect world goes, and so might inspire guilt that wouldn't come along with eating, say, chocolate-dipped ants.

Should you want to branch out, incidentally, other corners of Southeast Asia and South America will provide you with a full menu of insect grub.

6) Sea cucumber. The world's oceans are filled with curious items to intimidate the timid palate. Sea urchin roe (gonad, technically) inspires either rapture or sheer terror. I'm in the former camp, but I've caused the latter simply by bringing along the wrong person for sushi.  Ditto monkfish liver.

But it's hard to comprehend the charms of sea cucumber, also called sea slug, a beloved treat of China and Spain's northeastern coast around Barcelona.

Many Chinese delicacies are more appetizing than they might seem at first glance to the Western eye; duck tongue doesn't make a good case for itself until you taste it. But sea cucumber seems fraught with so many aesthetic issues that perhaps it really ought to be left slurping the gunk off the sea bottom. 

One major issue, as the Oxford Companion to Food dryly notes: “It is distinctly phallic in appearance, a feature which is underlined by its habit of ejecting sticky threads ... when squeezed.”

But the real issue is the lack of pleasure most people will find in one of the creatures from the species Holothuria. Usually found in its dried form (except in Catalonia, where dishes made from fresh espardenyes will set you back a pretty euro or two), it must first be reconstituted. And then?  Says Stella Lau Fessler's “Chinese Seafood Cooking”: “Once the sea cucumber has been soaked and boiled, it becomes gelatinous and has a slightly rubbery texture.”

Appetizing, no?

5) Ortolan. This small songbird, part of the bunting family and found in southwest France, among many places, doesn't seem much less palatable than other small birds like squab.

Even in the pages of the Larousse Gastronomique, one of France's cooking bibles, the ortolan receives straightforward treatment.

“They can be prepared in any way suitable for Garden Warblers or Larks,” it says, as though either bird were regularly packaged by Perdue. “Gastronomes hold the opinion that the only way to cook this bird is to roast it in the oven or on the spit and insist that it should not be cooked in anything but its own fat.”

Hmm ... what could they be hiding?

The other half of the ortolan story isn't much talked about nowadays since France outlawed the eating of the increasingly rare bird in 1999. (When the French outlaw a food, you know something's up. This is the country trying to preserve foie gras as a legally sanctified culinary tradition.)

Once captured, the ortolan would traditionally be left in a dark box, where the lack of light would prompt it to gorge itself.  When plumped up to three or four times its normal size, the bird would be drowned in a snifter of armagnac, then quickly roasted for six or eight minutes and served hot. 

It's the brandy part that usually raises eyebrows; in an era of bolt guns and humane slaughter , drowning your food seems a tad gratuitous.  The only obvious corollary is drunken prawns, found on some Singaporean and Indonesian menus, drowned in rice wine. Drowning a rare songbird somehow seems more sadistic than dunking a shrimp in booze.

The traditional means of eating the ortolan is whole — bones, innards and all, except the head or beak, which is bitten off — with the diner's head covered by a napkin.

The upfront explanation of the ritual?  This impromptu headgear allows the diner to inhale all the roast bird's earthy, rich aroma. So claimed chef Jean-Louis Palladin in Stewart Lee Allen's book, "The Devil's Garden: A Sinful History Of Forbidden Food."

"It is really like you are praying, see?" Palladin apparently said. "Like when you take the Mass into your mouth from the priest's hand in church and you think about God."

The alternate explanation is that a priest developed the custom to shield his gluttony, and shame, from God. You decide.

The ortolan's most recent brush with fame came in 1998, when it was revealed to have been a pivotal course in former French President François Mitterand's last meal.  A week before dying of cancer, Mitterand ordered a grand feast for 30 that included oysters, foie gras and a long row of two-ounce ortolans. By some accounts, Mitterand polished off two, bones and all.

4) Lunch meat. And not even all lunch meat, because many lunch items justify themselves.

Sliced turkey breast is faultless. A decent salami is a thing of beauty. A good headcheese can be a pleasure, though one for the open-minded.

Spam gets a bad rap, largely undeserved. (Fun Spam fact du jour: The six billion cans of it yet produced would encircle the Equator 15 times over.) Other chopped hams are harder to justify — they mostly seem like a waste of good ham — but Spam has style.

No, the subset of luncheon meat we're thinking of is the stuff that's unsavory for no reason than that it simply isn't made to be better.

Bologna isn't de facto bad, for instance; make it well, slap a fancy name on it like “mortadella” and suddenly it's a delicacy. Yet there is much bad bologna in the world.

Luncheon stuffs with the word “loaf” in them have a high bar to clear for respectability. Olive loaf, especially, comes to mind — in part because olives and pimientos aren't so cheap anymore as to make us believe there's huge cost savings by using them as filler. It seems even more improbable that it's done for taste or texture. Ditto pickle loaf. And spiced luncheon loaf is an idea that has outlived both its original utility and its appeal. It's probably time to retire the very phrase “luncheon loaf.”

After all, we live in a world of such wonders that the U.S. Army was able to produce a sandwich that's shelf-stable for three years. Can't we chalk some of these lunch products up to necessity, and embrace our glorious modern age?

3) Hákarl (putrefied shark). Icelandic food hasn't really gotten its due in the United States — or anywhere else — though a new branding campaign might soon raise Americans' awareness of skyr (a sort of yogurt-like cheese) and freshly raised lamb. But don't expect to see some of this volcanic island nation's more infamous delicacies at your Whole Foods anytime soon.

Many Icelandic delicacies sound bizarre to the American palate, like puffin and svie (singed, boiled sheep's head). But none have more of a reputation than hákarl [HOW-kurl]: quite literally shark meat that traditionally was allowed to rot in the ground. It's typically prepared by burying a washed, gutted side of shark in gravel for six to eight weeks — or more likely nowadays, by soaking it in large plastic vats filled with brine  — then allowing it to cure in the open air for another two months.  One original purpose of this Viking-era process was to purge urine from sharks' blood and skin. (Sharks have no urinary tract and must secrete urine through their skin.)

After curing, the resulting slab of fish, which has an aroma often described as ammoniac, is covered with a thick brown crust. The crust is cut off and the white flesh inside eaten.

“It tastes awful in the beginning, but the aftertaste is good,” says Páll Gíslason, an Icelandic publishing executive and resort co-owner whose octogenarian father took up hákarl-making as a hobby of sorts. “We drink some liquor with it and that works very well together.”

The liquor in question is usually Brennivín, an aquavit-like schnapps flavored with caraway. Brennivín's also known as “Black Death,” appropriate enough for when you're snacking on deliberately rancid fish meat. However, Gíslason notes, some connoisseurs insist the only proper drink for this sharky treat is a top-shelf cognac.

Even in Iceland, hákarl is more a curiosity than a delicacy, not unlike eating alligator steaks in Florida — and usually reserved for the mid-winter festival known as Thorrablot.

“It's not anything that you eat on a daily basis,” says Gíslason. Can't say that's a surprise. If you're curious, Thorrablot comes around again in February 2006.

2) Cobra heart. A major stop on the extreme-eating circuit is Vietnam, and the pinnacle of the Vietnamese “do you dare?” dining experience seems to be cobra heart. 

Preparations vary: Some hearts are served up as a little raw tidbit, still-beating, to be chased down with a slug of cobra blood.

Anthony Bourdain stirred up a bit of attention a few years ago when he sampled it this way and wrote about it in “A Cook's Tour,” a feat captured for TV posterity. Other hearts are dropped into a glass of rice wine and slurped down as a rather gruesome drink garnish.

DRINKING COBRA BLOOD
Harry Teicher
Bottoms up!  What else to use as a cobra-heart chaser than a glass of the snake's own blood. Harry Teicher recently tried this delicacy in Vietnam.
Inspired by Bourdain's efforts, Harry Teicher decided to try this specialty when on a teaching trip to Vietnam last summer. The Seattle gastroenterologist convinced a concierge at his Ho Chi Minh City hotel to direct him and his girlfriend to a back-streets bar that served it.

“We got to the front of the place and they were roasting a dog on a spit, so she took off,” Teicher says.

After some haggling, he was presented with a live cobra. The snake was beheaded, its blood drained into a glass, and cuts were then made to extract the thumb-sized heart and quarter-sized kidney.

“I gulped the heart and the kidney down, and I chased it with blood,” Teicher recalls. “It was just like an interesting oyster.”

Honestly, the heart part isn't really what inspires the squeam factor. Chicken hearts can be the best part of a trip to a Brazilian churrascaria, and beef hearts have their fans, though fewer nowadays. 

It's the live part — not only because having your food killed before you takes a strong stomach, but because cobras are a bit deadlier than the average chicken. You have to hope a snake's relatives aren't watching as it's eviscerated for your dining pleasure.

And did we mention they're rather large? Teicher's specimen was about six feet long.

1) Monkey brains. Brain-eating in general is a tough realm for most of us to embrace. Brains don't really make for a sublime dining experience; Larousse notes that “they are considered as an easily digestible substance, often given to invalids and children,” though not everyone finds them easy to swallow. Even fans of cow-brain sandwiches had to abandon that acquired taste after the federal government banned beef brains as food over concerns about mad cow disease.

But few brain-food customs could be more unsettling than monkey brains. Still considered a delicacy, or at least a foodstuff, in parts of South Asia, Africa and China, there's no doubt monkey brains have their constituency. An admittedly small one. 

Cookbook author Monica Bhide — not a monkey-brain fan — claims to have seen them for sale near the train station in Bombay, India, for instance. “I pretty much eat anything, but I don't get that,” she says.

It's a bad practice to draw too many lines along the evolutionary chart, but monkeys are frankly a bit far up the food chain, and the primate part brings with it faint suggestions of kuru. Google yourself up some “monkey brains” and you'll find a blend of scientific studies on simian cognition and Kipling-esque tales of exotic meals in shadowed, humid corners of the world. That mix pretty much sums it up for us.

Incidentally, there's a whole subset of monkey-brain mythology centered around eating the brains of live monkeys, though it's more urban legend than fact — perhaps inspired by a scene from the 1978 film “Faces of Death.” Culinary detectives have been chasing live-brain tales for years, without success.

MSNBC.com lifestyle editor Jon Bonné grew up eating beef-tongue sandwiches.

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