For this recipe, take some whitefish, heavily salt and air-dry it. Ship it across an ocean, then soak it for a week days in a solution of cold water and sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda, also known as lye, the chemical used to make soap, yes, just like in Fight Club. After thorough rinsing, the fish will have the consistency of jello. Now matter how you cook it, it will not brown, in part because its protein has been destroyed, though it will discolor aluminum cookware. Served to Nowegians or people of a certain age in Minnesota.
Fodds, varied, tradition, necessity. That is true for many fermented foods. Fermentation is when yeast, bacterial or other microbes, ingest something, usually sugar, and give off byproducts like acetic acid, in the case of vinegar and pickles, ethanol, in the case of beer and wine, and CO2 in the case of bread. Since most of mankind’s history came before electric refrigerators, fermentation was an inevitable part of life, so many traditional foods were created by people leaning in to fermentation.
If you turn a bit green thinking of oats and organ meats cooked in a stomach, which is of course the Scottish delicacy haggis, Kiviaq is probably not for you. The dish is a winter specialty, consumed by Inuits in the far north of Greenland for centuries. The preparation of Kiviaq involves an ingenious method of food storage, necessitated by the severe shortage of food in the cold months. In a few words, kiviaq is fermented sea birds, stuffed into a seal skin, and eaten raw. The preparation goes something like this: a seal is skinned, removing all the meat for other dishes, but leaving behind its protective layer of blubber. It is then sewn into the shape of a bag and stuffed to the brim with about 300 to 500 small auk birds, similar to penguins. When the bag is nearly bursting with bird bodies, it is sewn shut, and fat is smeared over the seams to keep the flies away. The bird-filled seal skin bag is buried under a pile of rocks and left to ferment for a minimum of 3 months, and sometimes, even as long as 18 months.
In the harsh winter season of the Arctic, where there is no sun for two straight months to cast any light on the ice underfoot, let alone illuminate prey, hunting for fresh meat is virtually impossible. That’s when the kiviaq comes into its own. The bags of fermented meat are dug out, cut open and the birds are eaten raw. The fermentation makes it to that every part of the bird is edible, even its bones, with the exception of the feathers. While it’s not as necessary for survival for as many people as it once was, kiviaq is considered a delicacy of sorts and brought out for celebrations and festivals. Beloved as it may be for its traditional value, kiviaq is usually eaten outside. Otherwise, the smell stays in the house for the rest of the winter.
If a seal carcass full of birds isn’t your thing, pop over to Iceland for a piece of kæstur hákarl, or rotten shark. This fermented shark meat can be traced back to the Viking age and so is celebrated as a way for Icelanders to stay in touch with their roots and preparing it is often a social event. They say we eat with our eyes first, but it’s the nose that dictates the hakarl-eating experience. Hakarl smells strongly of ammonia, the trademark stink of window-cleaning fluid and cat pee. Even wilder, the meat of the Greenland shark, is poisonous to humans. This is due to a high content of urea and trimethylamine oxide in the shark’s system caused by its utter lack of a urinary system. The shark basically releases urine through its bloodstream and tissues. This apparent lack of basic plumbing makes it even more amazing that Greenland sharks are the longest-lived vertebrates on each, which specimens found to be 400 years old. They don’t even hit sexual maturity until they’re 150. Think about that, a shark that came into the world when Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated is just now getting ready to mate for the first time.
The process of making hakarl makes the shark flesh edible, particularly for those with anosmia, or no sense of smell. The traditional Icelandic method is to first gut and behead the shark, okay so far, the same of butchering a chicken. Then the shark is placed in a shallow hole in the gravelly sand–wow, we left familiar ground fast– and covered with sand and gravel. Stones are then piled on not only to protect the meat from scavengers but to squeeze out fluids and shorten the fermentation process. Now the shark is left to dry for about 6-18 weeks, depending on the ambient temperature. It’s not ready yet, though. Now the kæstur hákarl has to be dug up, cut into pieces and hung to dry for a few months, during which the strips of meat develop a brown crust.
Fans of potently stinky cheese might enjoy hakarl, but it would be tough going for everyone else. On his show The F Word, Gordon Ramsay couldn’t manage to swallow it. The late chef, author, and travel show host Anthony Bourdain described hákarl as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten, though I need to check if he said that before or after he ate boar rectum cooked in ash.
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Many foods come from necessity, but some traditions are born of religious doctrine. In Catholicism, people are supposed to abstain from eating meat during Lent, the 40 days before Easter, or on any Friday of the year for some. Many convents and monastaries forbade eating meat entirely. This can be a real ask, because meat is delicious. According to the book of Corinthians, “All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds.” Therefore, fish flesh is considered separate from other flesh, and therefore is not on the banned list. So religious officials declared that other aquatic organisms were okay to eat. Basically, if it lived in the water, it was a fish.
A monastery in Northern France in the late 1600s found a way around the meatless Friday rule by eating puffin, a cute seagoing bird. The church considered it kosher because “its natural habitat was as much terrestrial as aquatic,” and therefore they should be allowed to classify it as a fish. Any waterfowl they could lay their hands on was called “fish” on the menu. BTW, and this is not related to the script at all, but you know how in LotR, the orcs see the hobbits and one says, “Looks like meat is back in the menu”? That implies that orcs know what menus are, and by extension that orc restaurants are a thing.
In addition to disease, the European settlers brought Catholicism with them to the New World, where they’re loophole meat options exploded. So in the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec approached his superiors in the Church and asked whether his flock would be permitted to eat beaver meat. Since the semi-aquatic rodent was a skilled swimmer, the Church declared that the beaver was a fish. In the 17th Century, theologians in Paris turned their minds to a question posed by Francois de Laval, the first bishop of Quebec. He asked whether it was permissible to eat beaver meat during Lent. The ruling from Paris was “Yes”. In an 1858 paper, a professor from the University of Toronto blamed this ruling for massive declines in the beaver population (although the fur trade was at a peak and most likely was the real culprit).
The same logic applied to the capybara, the largest rodent in the world, which is still eaten during Lent in Venezuela. Padre Sojo, a famous Venezuelan priest, is held by one zoological text to have gone to Italy at the end of the eighteenth century and obtained a papal bull approving the capybara for lenten dining because of its amphibious habits. Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt wrote on capybara meat during his visit to Venezuela in the early 1800s: “The missionary monks do not hesitate to eat these hams during Lent. According to their zoological classification they place the armadillo, the thick-nosed tapir, and the manatee, near the tortoises; the first, because it is covered with a hard armour like a sort of shell; and the others because they are amphibious.” “It’s delicious,” one restaurant owner told the New York Sun. “I know it’s a rat, but it tastes really good.”
Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans drew headlines [when] for a letter confirming that “the alligator is considered in the fish family” and thus suitable for consumption during Lent. “Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, (cold-blooded animals) and shellfish are permitted,” says the website of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Catholics living south of Detroit enjoy a longstanding informal dispensation to eat muskrat (the local pronunciation is MUSH-rat) on Fridays of Lent. Bishop Kenneth Povish of Lansing described the practice as “immemorial custom” and said that “anyone who could eat muskrat was doing penance worthy of the greatest saints.” A 2002 effort to restrict private sale of muskrats caused a massive outcry: “I’ve never seen so many people upset about an issue,” said a state representative. “We had almost 500 people at the courthouse for hearings on muskrat legislation.”
Back before the ‘everything is a fish’ ruling, some monks were allowed to eat eggs, after successfully campaigning that they weren’t meat. They then stretched that ruling to include other ”unborns,” particularly fetal rabbits. It’s thought that the domestication of rabbits for meat tracing directly back to these monasteries.
Many foods are born of necessity and many food fall in and out of fashion, but no food, I think, lives in such a state of ignimony as the topic of this guest segment from the podcast Where Does It Go, who were also nice enough to have me on their show. Take it away, ladies.
One of the most expensive food people eat is black truffles, which can run $800 a pound. But that’s nothing compared to a rare Asian fungus that sells for $50,000 a pound. In English, it’s called caterpillar fungus. But it’s better known throughout Asia by the Tibetan term, yartsa gunbu, which means “summer grass, winter worm.” This fungi (Cordyceps Sinensis) makes its living by getting inside a host insect, ultimately killing and consuming it. In this case, the insect that’s invaded is the caterpillar of the ghost moth. This caterpillar will bury itself down a couple inches into the soil. Meanwhile it doesn’t know it, but this fungus is digesting it from within and then in the spring this … tissue erupts out the head.
The pinky-sized mummified caterpillar is the most expensive fungi in the world, closer in price to gemstones than mushrooms. So why do people bother with something so nasty and pricey? Well, it’s also known as the Viagra of the Himalayas. Yartsa gunbu was mentioned as far back as a 15th century Tibetan medicinal text titled “An Ocean of Aphrodisiacal Qualities.” That reputation has made it a status symbol.
Daniel Winkler, who’s written extensively about the fungus and gives mushrooming tours of Tibet, says the price in China has jumped by a factor of 10 over the past decade. A businessman looking to impress in China wouldn’t pull out a fine pinot noir to flaunt his wealth; he’d cook up some nice goose or duck and fill it with $1,000 worth of caterpillar fungus.
A good harvest can triple the income of an entire village. Because it is so valuable, and because we can’t have nice things, yartsa gunbu has led to violence. Last August in Nepal, seven men went missing after a dispute over yartsa gunbu and two of them were later discovered dead at the bottom of a steep ravine. On the plus side, one village was able to add solar panels to their centuries old stone cottages, so I guess you have to take the bad with the good.
If caterpillars make you queasy, #sorrynotsorry for the next section. There is a cheese describes as the most dangerous cheese in the world. Due to (what may be thought of as obvious) health implications, the sticklers at the EU European Food Safety Authority have banned the cheese. Therefore, those wishing to eat some casu marzu must go through the Italian black market. This Italian delicacy, casu marzu, is an acquired taste. Unless you’re a maggot. They love it. How do I know? They’re still in the cheese. Casu marzu is made from sheep’s milk on the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranian Sea. Step 1: Heat the milk and let it sit for about three weeks to curdle. Next, cut off the crust that formed. This was, the flies can get inside to lay their eggs. Move the cheese to a dark hut for another two months. During that time the eggs hatch into larvae and promptly begin to eat the now rotting cheese. Now is when the important part happens. It’s what the larvae excrete out the other end that gives the cheese its distinct soft texture and rich flavor, like a very ripe gorgonzola. Congratulations, you now have casu marzu. May God have mercy on your soul.
Now that you have it, what do you do with it? It is important for one to note whether the maggots are alive or not. Dead maggots are usually an indication that the cheese has gone bad. Where exactly the line there is, I cannot say. Casu marzu is to be consumed when the maggots are still alive. You’ll want to close your eyes while eating, not only to try to block out the sight, but to protect your eyes. When bothered, the maggots will jump up, sometimes going as high as six inches. Be sure you chew your food thoroughly. The maggots can survive stomach acid if swallowed alive and you risk them eating holes in your intestines. Serve with moistened flatbread and a glass of strong red wine.
Still with me? Good. In for a penny, in for a pound. We come now to the food that tops my list of things to avoid in life – the Phillipine street food, balut. Balut is a duck egg, but not like eggs you buy in a carton. A balut egg is created when a fertilized duck egg is incubated just long enough for the fetus to begin forming, usually between 12 and 18 days. According to those who know, the ideal balut egg has been incubated for 17 days. The longer the egg incubates, the more pronounced the features of the duck become. The egg is hard-boiled almost exactly the same way that normal eggs are, though the reaction that occurs within a balut egg is quite different. The liquids in a balut egg, rather than solidifying, turn into a sort of broth, that then simmers the duck fetus and the yolk. When the egg is done cooking, it should be eaten right away, while it’s still warm. You crack off part of the shell and drink the broth, before eating the duck and the egg yolk.
To get a sense of how you might react when approaching balut for the first time, here’s an old Buzzfeed clip where four pairs of young adult Americans were given balut. [clip] Now let’s hope I don’t get my butt sued off. The taste for balut has to be fostered at a young age. Some schools in the Philippines are using science class to introduce kids to balut, in an apparent attempt to preserve the delicacy’s popularity among the country’s rapidly modernizing and globalizing palates. The half-formed ducks were used to teach bird anatomy. Then, the students were told to eat the birds. “Our teacher made us eat the egg so it wouldn’t go to waste,” says Manila resident Anna Vecin of her ordeal. “And if we didn’t eat it, we’d get a low score on that day’s lesson. Of course, I had no choice but to eat it.”
The dish is particularly popular among Filipino families with ethnic Chinese backgrounds.
Balut is also widely enjoyed across numerous provinces in China, especially in the south. Like many Chinese dishes, balut comes with a list of putative health benefits. Among these, it’s claimed balut can boost male fertility and libido. Can’t make it to Manila? A New York Filipino restaurant called Maharlika sells them for $5 apiece. They even hold an annual balut eating contest, held every August. The current record is 27 balut in five minutes.
And that’s…but back to the lye-soaked dried fish from the top of the show. That lye-soaked fish, which is a traditional, if polarizing food, is called lutefisk, literally lye fish. It can be found in the regions of America with large Scanda-wegian populations. It’s popular enough in the Twin Cities that it’s carried in many shops around the holidays, served in big church functions, and even some restaurants alongside boiled potatoes, green peas, melted butter, small pieces of bacon, horseradish, or cheese, and lefse, a Norwegian flatbread. St. Olaf College in Northfield hosts a spring music festival called “Lutefest,” though lutefisk is not served there, a tacit admission that even Minnesotans don’t want to eat it more than once a year. Remember..