My first trip to African Grill and Bar for this week's review was a thrill ride because it offered a chance to explore a cuisine with which I'd had no previous experience and an opportunity to eat something strange.
I've been seeking out weird foods ever since my parents bought me a cricket lollipop in a museum shop when I was in elementary school. I still remember the crunch of the arthropod between my teeth, a sensation that gave me a thrill that was half invigorating and half terrifying -- and gave me a bigger rush of adrenaline than just about anything else I've ever done.
Since then, I've favored things both strange and edible, and my favorite foods include fermented soybeans, head cheese and offal (especially, lately, heart). I get giddy when I see frogs' legs or snails on a menu. I love pig's blood in soup and cow's blood in sausage. Durian, which smells like hot garbage that might contain something dead, delights rather than repulses me.
But those things all seem like comfort food compared with these five foods, the strangest things I've ever eaten:
Balut I put a lot of unidentifiable foods in my mouth on the streets of Vietnam -- much to the delight of the stall-keepers -- but without a doubt, the strangest gastronomic decision I made was to grab a short stool in a back alley and agree to try the balut. Fertilized chicken egg tastes like half chicken and half egg, hard yolk giving way to a meaty body without a real transition. It's got relatively little to hide behind, too, because it's garnished simply, with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of cilantro. But hey, it's high in protein and, um, an aphrodisiac.
Live octopus hot pot Last fall, I headed to Sik Gaek, a Queens, New York-based Korean barbecue where the traditional (and controversial) live octopus hot pot is on the menu. After delivering a boiling pot of soup bobbing with vegetables and other seafood, a server dropped two live baby octopi into the mix, which slithered all over everything until they were submerged. Rumor has it the dish can kill you, too -- if you bite a tentacle before the octopus dies, it can suction to your throat and asphyxiate you.
Guinea pig brain During the first weekend of my tenure in South America, I went to a restaurant in a small town in northern Argentina that featured an all-Spanish menu of ingredients I'd yet to learn. So I pointed at something that included cuts of beef and hoped for the best. The dish was delicious, though I couldn't identify the small, sweet slightly spongey bits of meat that garnished the plate. Back in Buenos Aires, I told my Argentine roommates about my culinary adventure. After a lot of gesturing and tedious explaining, one of them clapped her hand over her mouth and turned white: I'd downed guinea pig brain -- and I'd liked it.
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River weed with dried buffalo skin I've found very few plant-based foods that I find particularly strange (besides maybe the aforementioned durian fruit), but river weed, which is served all over Laos, was an exception. In it's final form, it looked like nori, a flattened and dried mass of plant that tasted mossy. It's traditional accompaniment was what sealed the deal, though: a thick sauce made, mostly, with chewy dried buffalo skin.
Dog After an Indonesian funeral complete with an animal slaughter and subsequent roast, a local friend asked if I wanted to sample dog, which the culture raises for food and eats, stewed and grilled. After I agreed, he left and returned with a brown paper bag filled with peppery chunks of the meat. And though the seasoning was all delicious fire and earth, the meat was so tough and sinewy that I couldn't take more than one bite.
Ingested something weirder? Tell us about it in the comments.