From the open-air night markets of China and Vietnam to the five-star restaurants of Hong Kong and Tokyo, Asia presents myriad exotic dining opportunities. For the uninitiated, certain local delicacies can run the gamut from heavenly to heart-attack inducing. The Diplomat chose six of the more unusual dishes from across Asia, in no particular order, that offer a glimpse of just how diverse regional taste palates are.
Appetizing or atrocious? You be the judge.
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Eggs are a common staple across the globe, and it is easy to forget that your fluffy yellow omelet actually could have been a cute yellow chick (at least if a rooster was visiting the hen house). In the Philippines, anyone bold enough to try balut is instantly aware of what they are eating – the 18-day-old fertilized duck eggs contain a partially-formed baby duck.
According to CNN, children in the Philippines are sometimes exposed to balut in science class “in an apparent attempt to preserve the delicacy’s popularity among the country’s rapidly modernizing and discriminating palates.” After a lecture about bird anatomy, the young students are told to eat it – beak and all.
“If we didn’t eat it, we’d get a low score on that day’s lesson,” said one Manila resident.
Balut, which is also eaten in southern China, is said to boost male fertility and libido.
Yanwo (China/Hong Kong)
Some people worry about upsetting waiters and waitresses, for fear that the disgruntled staff might spit in their food. In China, a coveted soup is actually made from spit – not from a human, of course, but from a small bird called a swiftlet.
Yanwo, also known as bird’s nest soup, may conjure images of twigs and leaves sticking out of a hot broth. But in the case of the swiftlet, its nest is actually made with saliva.
“The complete structure is built within 35 days by the male swiftlet to accommodate one to two eggs and its shallow cup shape does not exceed the size of a human hand,” wrote Luxist. “The nests are harvested three times a year and the swiftlets are typically given time to breed and raise their young in the nest before removal.”
The soup’s high price has led yanwo to be nicknamed “caviar of the East,” with restaurants in Hong Kong charging between $30 and $100 per bowl. As part of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s crackdown on government excess, yanwo was recently banned at state dinner receptions.
Yanwo has allegedly been consumed by the Chinese for more than 1,500 years.
Bosintang (South Korea)
Dogs might be considered man’s best friend in some parts of the world, but in Korea, a certain breed of dog is raised – much like cows or pigs – to be eaten.
First, let’s break down some stereotypes. While dogs are consumed in some Asian countries, the practice is not overwhelmingly prevalent. No pets are harmed and the industry is loosely regulated by the government (though the meat remains technically illegal in Seoul since 1984, the law hasn’t been strictly enforced – except for when the city hosted the 1988 Olympics).
“There is a different word for dogs fit for eating and dogs fit for pets,” stated Listverse. “Many Koreans are opposed to the consumption of dog meat for similar reasons to Westerners, but it is quite legal and most restaurants purchase their meat from trusted dog farms.”
Ask A Korean said that, by weight, dog is only the fifth-most consumed meat in Korea (behind chicken, pork, beef, and duck), with approximately two million dogs slaughtered each year.
Unlike bird’s nest soup, bosintang – dog meat stew – is considered a “peasant food” in South Korea. It is traditionally eaten during sam bok, the three hottest days of the year.
Rang muc (Vietnam)
Though referred to as squid or octopus “teeth,” rang muc is actually a marble-sized ball containing the cephalopod’s beak and mouth parts. In coastal towns across Vietnam, the white orbs are “steamed with ginger, grilled on a kebab, or fried in batter” and served as a snack at street markets. It often comes with a side of chili sauce for dipping.
Rang muc is especially popular in Phan Thiet, according to VietnameseFood.com, with tourists lining up to try the local delicacy.
While it is no secret that the Japanese are fond of fish eggs, some might find it surprising that the male equivalent is also consumed. Shirako – literally Japanese for “white child” – is fish sperm.
The white sacs of milt, taken from such fish as cod, anglerfish and monkfish – form a brain-like shape. It can be steamed, pan-fried, deep fried – or eaten raw as sushi.
“[Shirako is] most accurately likened to pork brains, yet with a lighter, finer texture,” wrote SeriousEats. “Steamed, milt is as soft as an egg custard; pan- or deep-fried, the surface crisps up while the interior remains soft and creamy. The taste of milt is subtle; there’s a slight sweetness and just the faintest hint of its oceanic roots.”
Speaking of brains – maghaz is a Pakistani curry dish containing actual brains. Sheep or cow brains, to be exact. Maghaz is sometimes called “Brain Masala.”
“The brains are boiled first before they are stir fried with onions, coriander seeds, green chilies, turmeric and ginger-garlic paste,” said a resident of Karachi. “These are best served with parathas (pan-fried flatbread).”
How many of these foods have you conquered? Please tell us about your own exotic dining experiences in Asia in the comments below.