When travelling, rather than following the banana pancake trail, it’s more fun to seek out the local food. Discovering dishes that are different or a bit weird compared to options back home is one way of getting an insight into the place you’re visiting.
Here are some of the stranger delicacies I’ve come across:
1. Scorpions on Koh San Rd, Bangkok
This road is infamous in Thailand for its nightlife, and travellers are drawn to the neon lined street like the insects buzzing around the hawker stands. Here, you’ll find a host of creepy crawlies sprayed in a salty sauce and roasted. The brave can try a crispy grasshopper, scorched tarantula, or like me, a crunchy scorpion on a stick. Have a Chang ready to wash it all down!
2. Cuy in Cusco
Best known for its delicious ceviche (fish cured in citrus juices), Peru serves up a veritable feast using ingredients plucked from its diverse ecosystems, and usually sprinkled in spicy ají pepper . You can try quinoa soup, a range of potatoes in every colour, corn, and the popular lomo saltado (stir fry beef). For the more adventurous, there is anticuchos de corazón (grilled beef heart) or cuy al horno (roasted guinea pig). I tried both on my final night in Cusco, but couldn’t quite put the image of my childhood pet aside.
3. Ice kachang in Manila
In the capital, it is impossible to miss the tourist slogan: it’s more fun in the Philippines. They’re not wrong when it comes to their desserts. Ice kachang is a favourite in Southeast Asia. You might recognise the shaved ice and syrup elements, but the rest may come as a surprise. This sweet includes coconut milk, aloe vera jelly, attap chee (palm fruit), nata de coco, sweetcorn (a popular dessert as corn on the cob), black grass jelly, sweet condensed milk, and my particular favourite, red kidney beans. It starts off as a delicious looking rainbow mountain, but as it melts it becomes brown and sludgy so eat it quickly.
4. Sambal stringray in Singapore
Walking along Marina Bay’s waterfront between the Merlion and the boggling Marina Bay Sands hotel, you’ll stumble across Gluttons Bay. This place certainly lives up to its name. Hawker stalls are a way of life in Singapore, and this street serves up almost every dish you’ll find in the food centres around the island. You’ll find satay skewers, black carrot cake (actually radish), wonton noodles, roti prata, fish balls, chicken foot soup, spicy nasi lemak, and the famous chilli or black pepper crab. We also ordered sambal stringray, and its grilled white meat was delicate and slathered in a tangy, hot sauce. I washed mine down with soursop juice, which gives a refreshingly citrus hit to counteract those chillis.
5. Curry for breakfast in Jaipur
If you’re travelling to India, you’re in for a treat. With rich creamy curries, pickled vegetables served on banana leaves, pan-baked roti, fresh mango lassies, sticky gulab jamun and steaming chai masala tea, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Whilst most places in Rajasthan catered for Western breakfasts with German bakeries, cafes serving eggs, fruit or pastries, we found Jaipur a tricky place to find breakfast. After eating curry for every meal, we found it difficult to have an equally spicy start to our day. Luckily for us, fresh bananas on the bunch were easy to come by.
6. Fish sauce in Bangkok
This is another specialty hailing from Thailand. If you are a fan of Thai food, you’ll be familiar with Pad Thai, red / green Thai curry and Tom yum soup. You might not know that along with the trademark chillis, lemongrass, tamarind and kaffir (lime leaves), there is one key ingredient: fish sauce. Walking past the main factory, there was a strong gust of fish which blew us backwards. We heard rumours that Thai people pack fish sauce in their suitcases when they travel so they’re never without, just like Brits taking HP brown sauce or Heinz ketchup on holiday with them.
7. Durian in Singapore
I’ve saved the worst until last. This fleshy yellow fruit is actually banned on public transport as it smells so strong. It is pungent enough that a rotting durian shut down an Australian University last year, since the students believed it was a gas leak. The appearance of the durian should be enough to put anyone off as it has a hard, thick shell adorned with dangerous spines. Passing a durian stand burns your nostrils and fills your throat with the taste of raw sewage before you’ve even had a bite.
After two years living in Singapore and politely making excuses to avoid durian parties, I finally tried it. I think the Victorian anthropologist Alfred R. Wallace captured the sensation in his description in 1856:
A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities.Wallace, Alfred Russel (1856). “On the Bamboo and Durian of Borneo”
Unlike Wallace, though, I was not a fan.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this taste bud adventure! Have you ever tried anything strange whilst travelling? Let me know in the comments: