Imagine roasted ants as a starter. Followed by kangaroo meat in a viscera sauce as the entree. Finishing with caramelized slugs. Would you eat this? Not many would. I have, and I can assure you that it tastes better than it sounds. Certain cultures differ in what kinds of foods are acceptable for people eat. Dogs, bugs, and viscera are definitely out of the question in American culture. People refuse to try them because they are socially perceived as “weird”. Yet this is not the case in all cultures. In China, people eat dogs, and, in Mexico, the chapulín, a cricket, is a local dish. If you immerse yourself in a culture, you’ll undoubtedly find dishes that fit the category of “I wouldn’t eat that”. At a glance, many of the dishes mentioned in the list below might be conceived of as gross or unappetizing in American society. However, those same dishes have deep cultural significance and provide foreigners the opportunity to immerse themselves in potentially unfamiliar cultures.
For the curious, trying these dishes can be an exciting and fun experience. I fall into the curious category. The dishes that follow are some that I have stumbled upon throughout the years and that have created a long-lasting impression on me. I have tried these dishes in Latin American countries in high-end restaurants and local markets alike. For those that dare to try, this is an invitation, and for those that do not, I hope this article will spark your interest!
- Caiman: A caiman or babilla is a small alligator that lives in the swamps and wetlands of Central and South America. In many countries such as Colombia, the tail of the caiman is considered to be a delicacy and is consequently consumed only during special or religious events, like Easter. In Colombia, caiman is consumed on Fridays in accordance with the common religious practice of abstaining from eating red meat for forty days prior to Easter Sunday. Caiman meat is tender, similar in flavor to chicken or crab, but with a texture leaning more towards fish. Although not one of my favorite dishes, eating caiman is certainly an interesting experience. Although traditionally prepared with yucca and potatoes, I tasted caiman in one of Bogota’s critically acclaimed restaurants. Even though the great quality and preparation may have influenced my opinion, I still believe that caiman is worth trying. It is notable that consuming caiman has adverse environmental consequences, since increased demand for the traditional dish has given rise to over-hunting.
- Alpaca: The alpaca is an Andean camelid of the llama family. As a dish, it is perhaps the oldest in the Andean mountains. Indigenous communities from what now constitute the territories of Peru and Bolivia have been using alpaca as a source of meat since prehistoric times. Few are aware that alpaca meat has the highest protein content in meats and very low levels of fat, making it a healthy source of lean protein. Recently, the World Health Organization has promoted the consumption of llama meats, including alpaca, as a beef substitute, due to its higher nutritional quality. As a result, demand for alpaca meat has skyrocketed, prompting many Andean restaurants to begin serving the dish as a delicacy. Although alpaca resembles veal in appearance, the texture of its meat is much more tender and has a sweeter and subtler flavor. I tried alpaca at a restaurant in Peru, where the meat was served on top of a hot rock to keep it warm and where it came with with a side of Peruvian mashed potatoes. It was delicious, to say the least. To the adventurous and non-adventurous alike, alpaca is a dish not to be missed.
- Ant: In the Santander region of Colombia, ants are a seasonal specialty. Much bigger than your typical ant, the Santander ants are sought after for their large derrieres, packed with flavor and nutrients. The story behind this dish can be traced back centuries, since it is a family tradition passed on through the generations. Ants are hand-picked, which is not an easy task, since ants must be picked at the proper maturity level. Once salted, the insects are toasted. The result is crisp and crunchy with a very distinct flavor and smell that is similar to peanuts, but with a crunchier undertone. Although it is very popular in the Santander region, ants have a strong taste that is not very popular in other regions of Colombia. From both personal experience and observing others, I can tell you that ants are a hit-or-miss kind of dish. You either love them or you hate them.
- Ostrich: Ostrich meat began to be consumed during the health craze of the 1990s in the U.S. Although native to Africa, the ostrich is most commonly eaten in the Americas. Ostriches were initially farmed for their feathers and skin in the U.S. during the 1880s, but it wasn’t until the end of the twentieth century that the meat began to be consumed as well. Ostrich meat is red, despite being a type of poultry, and it has superior nutritional quality to beef, chicken, and turkey. It also has an incredibly high amount of iron. I tried ostrich in the same Peruvian restaurant where I tried alpaca, and the preparation was identical. In terms of taste, there is little difference between ostrich meat and steak. Although I enjoyed ostrich, I am not a big fan of red meat, which is why I was not blown away (as with alpaca). Consumers ought to be careful when trying out the dish, since ostrich is considered an endangered species.
- Cricket: Crickets are yet another insect traditionally consumed in Latin America. Native to the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the chapulín is commonly ingested alone as a snack or as a garnish for tacos. Similar to the alpaca, chapulines have served as a traditional Oaxaca dish since precolonial times. Chapulines taste bittersweet due to their seasoning, which commonly consists of garlic, salt, and lime. I tried these insects at the Oaxacan market, and I must say that I liked them more when combined with guacamole than on their own. It is definitely a must-try when visiting Oaxaca; the flavor is pleasantly surprising, especially when combined with guacamole or tacos.
- Piranha: Contrary to popular belief, the piranha is not the invincible animal that it is often considered to be. In regions of the Amazon, this fish is consumed by locals and a few daring tourists. Due to its abundance and ease of capture, piranha has boomed amongst locals who find it difficult to consume other fish. The taste is rather bland, which is why it tends to be either served in tomato-based soups or deep-fried. The texture, however, is firmer than most fish. I tried piranha on my visit to the Brazilian Amazon, where we were supposed to eat the catch of the day. Instead of being prepared in its traditional form, we had it roasted with a side of rice. I remember the meat being firm, but, because the flavor was rather bland, it was not a dish that struck me.
As in the case of some of the dishes above, what we deem to be weird may be delicious. Trying foods out of our comfort zones is not only a way to immerse ourselves in a foreign culture but also a way to question whether the things our society dictates as “weird” truly are. Trying “weird” dishes can help redefine what is accepted as edible or expand your own tasting palette. I encourage you to be adventurous eaters, as “consuming” culture comes with unexpected surprises and great stories.
Artwork by: Allie McClintock