biology, Weird Food

Weird Food 9: Mam Ca Loc (Mud Fish)

I’ve got good news! For all you curious buggers out there who want to try surströmming, but either can’t afford to have it shipped to your part of the world or simply can’t get it at all, I’ve found a substitute, which you can buy at many Asian or international markets! It’s called mam ca loc: preserved mud fish!

Mud Fish Jar.png

…I might have been lying about the good news.

This is yet another weird dish I tried mainly because I saw the violent reactions of the people who tried it on YouTube. I’m starting to question my judgment.

But before I describe the foul stuff that was in that jar, I should say that I fucking love Vietnamese food. Actually, Vietnamese food might be my favorite. There’s a chance I like it more than pizza, which is really saying something. My favorite soup at the Vietnamese place down the road is pho dac biet (sorry if I spelled it wrong, and sorry that I can’t figure out how to make WordPress do Vietnamese diacritics), which a lot of people shy away from because it’s got tripe and tendon in it. I love that stuff. I want you to keep everything I’ve said in mind as I describe what it was like to taste this substance:

Mud Fish Open.png

The first thing that struck me was the horrible smell. Much like surströmming, mam ca loc (or at least this version of it) emits a sulfurous stench like the world’s ripest fart. Once the initial stench has dissipated, it leaves behind a much worse smell. Pardon me if I get a little gross here, but the smell is as though a grizzly pooped ten pounds of undigested fish into a Port-a-John and it was left to sit in the sun all day. It was absolutely rank.

And, like surströmming, the flavor actually wasn’t too bad. Tasted mostly like anchovies. The texture wasn’t horrible: the texture was annoying: mud fish is very tough, and the meat felt like it was stuck to some sort of silicone-rubber backing. Not that I spent much time trying to get the meat free, because there was no way in hell I was going to swallow something that smelled like that.

Unfortunately, mam ca loc is not the last fermented seafood I’ll be trying. The next fermented seafood I’ll be trying is made by Lee Kum Kee, who spend 95% of their time making tasty soy and hoisin sauces, and 5% of their time making horrible salty fermented shrimp paste.

The Final Verdict: I wouldn’t eat mam ca loc unless the alternative was starvation or other physical harm. If I had to eat it, I’d rinse it off thoroughly and put it in a soup or something. But I wouldn’t be happy about it. I don’t recommend it, unless you want the surströmming experience, but can’t get surströmming. Even then, I don’t really recommend it.

To my Vietnamese readers: I know I didn’t prepare this properly, because I didn’t prepare it at all. How is it meant to be eaten? I’m genuinely curious. I’m guessing soup, but I don’t honestly know.

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Weird Food

Weird Food 8: Jackfruit

For me, the jackfruit has always been the holy grail of weird food at the international market. Big, spiky, and mysterious. Like a dragon. But jackfruits are sold by the pound, and they’re big bastards, so I could never justify the expense of buying one, since I didn’t know if it was going to be any good. But lucky for me, my cousin is a bad influence, and because she and I were having a weird food marathon, we bought one.

Jackfruit Whole.png

The picture doesn’t do justice to its size. It was gigantic. It weighed in at 15 pounds (6.8 kg), and it was one of the smaller ones in the pile. I carried it out of the market like a very fat (and very prickly) baby. Admittedly, though, it’s not nearly as spiky as its foul-smelling cousin, the durian. Durians have, on more than one occasion, drawn blood and left little splinters in my hands.

Trying to get into a fruit this size comes with lots of unexpected logistical problems. How do you put it on the table without the spines digging horrible gouges into the wood? What kind of knife do you use? And what the hell part are you even supposed to eat? Cutting the fruit open didn’t make that last part much clearer:

Jackfruit Wedge.png

Lucky for me, I’d tried dried jackfruit before, so I guessed that the yellow bit was the meat. Extracting it was a bit difficult, made more so by the fact that the white pith has latex or something in, which turns your hands sticky as all hell. But eventually, I got it partly disassembled:

Jackfruit Meat.png

You can tell how sticky that pith is by the fact that a strip of it glued itself to the husk.

The good news: jackfruit is delicious. It’s got a peculiar texture that makes you think it’s going to be rubbery, but then it isn’t. There’s not much juice in it. It smells faintly sweet, like pears or pear blossoms. It tastes like a mixture of pear, apple, pineapple, and lychee, but all very subdued and subtle. The only bad thing about jackfruit is that it’s so damned big, which meant, by the time I finished eating that one slice, I was stuffed to the gills. And, because I planned poorly, there wasn’t room in the fridge to save the rest of it, which is a shame, because I totally would’ve eaten it.

Here’s how tasty jackfruit is: I’m actually going to buy another one, because I wanna make jam out of it. I think it’d make amazing jam.

The Final Judgment: It’s expensive, and it’s bulky, but it’s totally worth trying if you can get it. It’s got a subtle, sweet flavor and it’s nice and filling. A good meal all ’round.

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Weird Food

Weird Food 7: Baikal (Байкал)

Okay, I lied. I wanna do one more weird food before I get back to thought experiments for a while, because I wanted to drink another Russian soda, and figured I might as well get a review out of it.

And, I guess if you’re going to name a soda after something, might as well name it after a gigantic, pretty lake. There’s something charming about Baikal soda. The label is all rustic and inviting. See?

Baikal.png

I’m cheating a little bit, because I’ve tried Baikal (Байкал) in the past, and I already know that it’s one of the best sodas I’ve had. But I’m gonna crack this one open and have some more.

Байкал smells like cinnamon and rosemary when you first open it. Maybe a little eucalyptus. The flavor is very smooth. It’s mostly cola, but after a second, I taste lemon, and it finishes off with aromatic herbiness, like tea with lemon and rosemary.

Don’t worry. I’m not turning into some sort of horrible wine-snob. I’m not about to start babbling about “lacings” and “nose” and “bouquet.” Mainly because I have a palate like the underside of a sheep. But I really do taste all those things in Байкал, and it leaves behind a pleasant herbal aftertaste.

One of the reasons Байкал is one of my favorite sodas is that the flavor is complicated. Baikal is made with at least five different herbs. There’s Siberian ginseng (no relation to actual ginseng), black tea, cardamom, eucalyptus, and lemon. The Siberian ginseng is actually a berry from Chinese medicine called Eleutherococcus senticosus. At first, I thought it was kinda weird that a Russian soft drink contains Chinese berries. Then I remembered that Russia is gigantic, and that Lake Baikal is on the eastern end, right over by Mongolia and China.

I really like Байкал, partly because it feels more wholesome to drink than most American sodas, many of which are just over-flavored sugar water. I mean, Байкал is still a soda. It’s still flavored sugar water, and like the Тархун (Tarkun) I tried previously, it’s a little too sweet. But I’d much sooner drink over-sweet Байкал, which tastes like tasty herbs and sugar, than over-sweet Orange Crush, which tastes like fake oranges and sugar syrup. So I guess I am kind of a snob. I wish I had a big bottle of Baikal, because I’d love to make a slush puppy out of it. I bet that’d be amazing.

The Verdict

Baikal (Байкал) is a very tasty soda with a smooth, complicated, herby flavor. It’s similar enough to a standard American cola that I think most Americans would enjoy it. If you can find it, you should try it. I don’t think you’ll regret it. Unless you’re, like, a type-2 diabetic, in which case, why the hell are you drinking soda? Quit it! I’m talking to you, cousin Kerry! And put down that bag of gummy bears!

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Weird Food

Weird Food 6: Tarkun (Тархун)

I know I’ve been doing a lot of weird food posts lately. Don’t worry, this isn’t becoming a weird-food-only blog. This’ll be the last one for a while, so I can get back to ridiculous thought experiments. But, frankly, I don’t want to end this string of weird foods on something nasty like surströmming. So, I hit up my local international market and got, among other things, some Chernogolovka (Черноголовки)-brand Russian sodas.

Let me first say that the two Russian sodas I’ve had before came from the same company, so I had high hopes when I decided to try Tarkun (Тархун, yes, I am going to keep doing that, because Cyrillic is awesome). Sure, the color is a little too much like the green flavor of those horrible ice pops, but Chernogolovka haven’t steered me wrong so far.

Tarkun.png

Then, I read the back of the bottle, and the main ingredient (besides carbonated water and sugar) was tarragon. I started to get concerned, because I’d seen the guys at awesome YouTube channel Cult Moo try a Russian soda that had the same bizarre color, and they weren’t very fond of it. Still, I had high hopes, so I opened it and smelled it. What came out was a shocking smell almost exactly like black licorice. I’ve had absinthe before, but I don’t remember what it tastes like very well (imagine that), but I’m pretty sure this is the soda equivalent.

Smell-wise, at least. When I actually tasted it, it was pretty damn tasty. I like Тархун. Тархун doesn’t taste nearly as strongly of licorice as it smells, and the flavor is made up of multiple subtle flavors. That’s something I’ve noticed about Russian soda: its flavors are a lot more complicated than you get in American sodas (even the good-quality ones). At some point in the future, I’ll be reviewing Baikal soda, which has cola, lemon, and weird Chinese herb flavors, and is also delicious. Another selling point for me: none of that damn over-sweet high-fructose corn syrup. I haven’t done my research to find out whether there’s any truth to the claims that high-fructose corn syrup is especially bad for you, but now that I’ve switched over to drinking sodas made with proper sugar, I don’t wanna go back, just because real sugar tastes better.

I will say, though, that as much as I was pleasantly surprised by Тархун, it was too sweet. Luckily, it comes in small bottles. I’d bet money that it’d make a delicious cocktail with vodka, or rum, or maybe even tequila. You could make a sort of weird tarragon mojito!

The Verdict

Tarkun (Тархун) is a good soda if you don’t mind black licorice, but I wouldn’t drink a lot of it at once, since it’s so sweet. Then again, that’s kind of true of all soda, isn’t it?

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Weird Food

Weird Food 5: Surströmming

For the short version, scroll down to the block of bold red text.

My curiosity got the best of me. Usually, I’m of the “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back,” school: it’s rare that curiosity actually makes your life worse.

In this case, curiosity made my life worse. Before I describe what it was like to open and taste surströmming, let me give you a warning: Don’t try this at home. Seriously. It’s not worth it. I don’t regret having done it, but that’s only because of my rabid curiosity. Watch YouTube videos of people trying it and vomiting, and take my word for it that nothing they say is exaggeration.

Surströmming is bad in a transcendent way. I don’t think it’s actually possible to exaggerate when describing it. To give you an idea how bad I expected it to be (and it turned out to be worse), here are the tools I brought with me to try it:

Surst Prep

My instincts told me to leave the can in the bag and throw it in the woods. You’re really not supposed to eat anything from a can that’s that bulgy. Chuck it out. But I know from a bit of research that surströmming just does that.

My curiosity has limits. I had a glass of seltzer water at the ready so that I could wash my mouth out right after tasting it. With a bulgy can like that, I really didn’t want to risk botulism.

As soon as I opened the can, I started regretting committing to any of this. It emitted a fizzy juice that was all cloudy with bits of herring and scales. I should point out that I actually put the can opener in the bag and opened it by manipulating it through the plastic, like I was dealing with an honest-to-God biohazard.

The stench that came out of the can is hard to describe. Very sulfurous, like durian or natural gas, only sharper. It also has a putrid odor. It’s not quite as putrid-smelling as, say, spoiled roadkill, but it’s bad. I’d compare it to a bag of spoiled chicken and bad hardboiled eggs.

The actual stuff inside looked deceptively like food:

Surstr.png

That gives me hope that I won’t actually get botulism. It helps, too, that the inside of the can seemed to be pristine: no rust, no punctures in the sealant, no discoloration. Still, if you’ve got a bulgy can, throw it away. Even if it contains surströmming. Especially if it contains surströmming. I don’t care if it’s supposed to bulge. Throw it out.

I really wish I’d used a utensil to take my sample out of the bag, but I used my fingers. My original plan was to be all brave and eat a whole fillet of fermented herring, but not even I’m that crazy. The herring was actually fairly well-preserved. It had the consistency of raw fish, but its other properties were like that of cooked fish. It and its brine were alarmingly fizzy, but then again, kimchi’s fizzy, too, and it’s safe. (Here’s hoping.) I wrestled free a piece the size of a pea and touched it to my tongue. At no point did I willingly ingest any significant quantity of surströmming, because I don’t want to die and I definitely don’t want my burps to taste anything like this stuff.

Admittedly, though, the flavor wasn’t that bad. Shocking, I know, but it mostly tasted like overly salty fish. I touched it to my tongue three times, then rinsed my mouth with most of a glass of seltzer water and spit repeatedly, because, once again, don’t trust bulging cans. Three tastes of surströmming were enough for one lifetime, so I re-sealed its bag and disposed of it:

Surst Aftermath.png

You might think I’m being melodramatic, but like I said, no reaction to that stench can be called an over-reaction. Plus, I did it in my father’s yard (the only yard big enough to contain the smell), and he specifically instructed me to bury it when I was done. I get the feeling six inches was far too shallow, but I wanted to go inside and wash my hands.

And there’s where surströmming’s real horror strikes. I’ve never had an odor that was so hard to remove. Not cigar smoke. Not really bad farts. Not fish extract.

Actually, fish extract is a good segue. I used to work at an organic fertilizer company, and while organic fertilizer is good stuff, a lot of it stinks horribly. Somehow, even when I got a really good smell of the surströmming, I did not vomit. I think that’s only because I’ve smelled some of the following: fishy-smelling soy protein that had gotten wet and fermented; liquefied fish fertilizer; soil-microbe juice that’s been fermenting in Carolina heat all day; and a jug that contained soil-microbe juice contaminated with fishy-smelling soy protein. That last one very nearly did make me vomit, and I’d say it’s surströmming’s closest competitor for “worst thing I’ve ever smelled.”

It’s probably about thirty minutes later as I’m writing this, and even though I’ve washed my hands three times (soap every time, and a scrub-brush the last time), my fingers still stink of putrid flesh. My father, who is much more sensible than me and refused to even consider trying it, wouldn’t stand near me when I came back inside. I’m writing this post in my underpants, because the smell seeped into the overshirt I wore to protect my good shirt, it seeped into my good shirt, and probably seeped into my pants. I had to take the protective case off my phone, because I used it to take pictures after handling surströmming, and the smell got on the case. The case is now downstairs in the same bag as a cup of bleach, to kill the smell.

Surströmming is an Internet legend, and for a good reason. I’m normally all about open-mindedness, but I swear, if any of my Scandinavian readers try to justify or explain surströmming to me, I will answer with incoherent cursing. If you wanna eat surströmming, that’s your business, but please don’t ever offer me any.

I think I know how surströmming came about: in the long, dark Scandinavian winter, famine struck. The pickled vegetables were gone. The hunters were coming back empty-handed again and again. In desperation, they’d already eaten all the lichen they could find, their horses, and their dogs. They had a barrel of pickled herring in the cellar, but it had developed a foul odor. Still, better to risk dying of food poisoning than a certain death from starvation, so even though the smell that came out of the barrel was worse than corpse farts, they ate it. And they didn’t die. And it became tradition.

And to end the article, let me concisely answer some of the questions I imagine people will have, since surströmming has gotten so well-known on the Internet:

Q: What does it smell like?
A: Sulfur, fish, and rotten meat.

Q: What does it taste like?
A: Overly salty preserved fish, with a faint tang of nastiness.

Q: Did you vomit?
A: No, but I have an inhumanly high threshold for vomiting. I think most people would vomit at the smell.

Q: Did you swallow any?
A: No. I want to be alive this time next year. I also want to be allowed back inside buildings, which I don’t think I would be if I burped surströmming.

Q: Where did you buy it?
A: On the Internet. I’m not telling you where, because I seriously don’t think you should try any. You’ll regret it. Even if you think “I’m morbidly curious like Hobo! I can handle it!” Don’t do it. Even if you’re an exact clone of me, don’t do it.

Q: What did you do with it when you were done?
A: I sealed the fish and its can into a plastic bag and buried the bag in the dirt.

Q: Did you try it with the traditional accompaniments (sour cream, flatbread, etc.)?
A: No. I didn’t have any of those handy, and I didn’t want to risk actually chewing it up, in case it was genuinely toxic. As far as I know, surströmming by itself isn’t actually dangerous, but my surströmming was shipped here from Sweden, and the can was very bulgy and a little dented, so I wasn’t willing to take the risk. I think I got the full experience just from the smell, anyway.

Q: Would you try it again?
A: No. If you send me a can, I’m going to bag it and bury it right away. If you send me a can and pay me a hundred dollars to eat it, I’ll send the can and money back with a note reading “FUCK YOU!” in very large letters. If you pay me a million dollars, well, yeah, I’ll eat it. If you have a million dollars to spend on something that ridiculous, e-mail me. We’ll talk. But I’m still going to swear at you when I’m done.

Q: How would you rate it?
A: I’m not going to give it a numerical rating. I’m going to do something I feel is more informative and rate it by what conditions would have to occur for me to eat surströmming again.

For reference, in order to eat durian again, one of two things would have to happen: I’d have to be overcome by curiosity, or I’d have to be “haven’t eaten in twenty-four hours” hungry. Or there’d have to be at least a $20 bet on the line.

In order to eat tarantula again, I’d probably only need some encouragement from a friend, or, say, a $5 bet, or I’d have to be “haven’t eaten in 12 hours and there’s nothing else in the cabinet” hungry.

In order to eat surströmming again (or, more accurately, in order to eat it, since I didn’t eat any this time), I’d require one of the following: 1) I am currently starving to death, and if I don’t ingest something, I’ll be too weak to keep looking for food. 2) Someone is threatening me or a loved one with a gun unless I eat some surströmming. 3) Someone is willing to pay me $10,000 or more, up front. 4) I’ve contracted a horrible alien parasite that is currently burrowing through my liver and chewing on my pancreas, and the only way to get rid of it is to scare it out of my body is to eat surströmming.

Kids, remember: don’t try this at home.

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Weird Food

Weird Food 4: Scorpion

It’s finally going to happen. This week, I am finally going to indulge one of the darkest corners of my curiosity and try surströmming, the notoriously horrible-smelling Swedish fermented herring.

I was actually going to try it today. Then I realized that we only have one can opener in the house. A good can opener. An expensive can opener built to last. And if the stories I’ve heard are true, I’m likely to have to discard most of the plates, utensils, garbage bags, furniture, and clothes that are contaminated by surströmming juice. So before I can do that, I have to go buy a cheap can opener and probably a tablecloth to wear like a poncho.

This was my other menu option:

Scorpion Body.png

That is a black scorpion (also known as an Asian forest scorpion, or Heterometrus longimanus).

It looked like poison and death. It smelled like molasses. Of all the bugs I’ve eaten in the past month (more than I should have, no doubt), the scorpion was by far the crunchiest. I started with a leg. The leg was unpleasant. It was obscenely crunchy and didn’t seem to have any actual meat. It tasted foul, too. A bit like the smell of cat food mixed with the smell of pool chlorine. For the first time in my brief bug-eating career, I had to cleanse my palate with coffee.

Next, I tried the claw. Of all the parts of the scorpion, that one looked the most like food, because it looked like a lobster claw. Turns out that convergent evolution’s a bitch. It looked like a lobster claw, but it tasted like almost nothing, and the exoskeleton was so crunchy it was like biting down on a pistachio shell.

I went for the rear-most body segment after that, the one right before the tail. Before I bit into actual meat, a piece of exoskeleton immediately jammed between my teeth like one of those irritating popcorn husks. My reward for biting through that crunchy mess? Meat that tasted almost exactly like dry cat food (which yes, I have tasted) and followed up with a nasty bitterness. The head was the same story, only less offensively crunchy.

Finally, I steeled my courage to take a bite of this:

Scorpion Tail.png

I should point out that I did not eat that stinger. Even I have my limits. For one, that’s where the venom gland is, and though most of the venom is probably gone, and most scorpions aren’t dangerously venomous anyway, my instincts prevent me from intentionally swallowing venom. That’s why I’m not dead. My instincts also prevent me from chewing up and swallowing an arachnid’s anus, which, as it turns out, is on the underside of the stinger. (I discovered this while researching to find out where the venom gland was. I also discovered that, apparently, scorpions have “anal valves”, which is my new phrase for the week).

I took a bite out of the segment at the opposite tend. It was far too crunchy, once again. It shattered noisily between my teeth into thousands of pieces which I had to spend a minute or two chewing. That minute or two gave me ample time to feel like an idiot, because once again, the tail tasted like cat food with a foul bitter aftertaste. After that, I declared failure and returned the disassembled scorpion to the bag. Trouble is, there was another whole one in the bag, so now I’ve got to decide whose birthday cake I want to decorate.

The Verdict

Way too crunchy. Tastes like cat food, bitterness, and chemicals, and filled me with the fear that I would poison myself and die in the stupidest possible way. Would not recommend.

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Weird Food

Weird Food 3: Centipede

I’ve always known people ate a lot of different bugs, but never in a million years did I think there were edible centipedes. But, apparently, the Chinese red-headed centipede is a folk remedy in China and a traditional food among Aboriginal Australians. This is what one looks like when it’s cooked, dried, and salted:

Centipede.png

I try to be open-minded about my food, but I guess centipedes are beyond my limit, because unlike with the tarantula and the waterbug, I went into this with more fear than curiosity. Part of that has to do with the fact that this centipede (Scolopendra subspinipes) is known to be venomous. Not lethally so, unless you have a really bad reaction, but venomous nonetheless. Therefore, I only ate the back three or four segments. And by “ate” I mean “chewed for a while, then spit out, and then rinsed my mouth after that.” I started to wonder if eating a centipede would be like eating a bunch of bee stingers, and I had visions of my throat closing up and having the world’s most ridiculous death certificate. “Cause of death: stupid dumbass tried to eat a centipede.”

But I did chew it up, and I did taste it. If you’ve ever kept fish, you’ve probably had those fishy-smelling food flakes. And, more than likely, you’ve tasted them at least once, out of curiosity. They have the smell of a seafood section at a Chinese grocery store: very shrimpy and fishy. Not rotten or rancid, but remarkably pungent and, to Western palates, a bit unpleasant. That’s what a dried centipede smells like, and that’s pretty much what it tastes like: meat, fish and/or hermit crab food, and an underlying grassy flavor. To nobody’s surprise, the texture isn’t great. I mean, come on, it’s a centipede. It’s mostly exoskeleton, legs, fangs,  and poison. But chewing it didn’t kill me, and now I have an ass-less centipede in a bag that I can use to…I don’t know. Frighten relatives? Decorate a really horrible birthday cake? Preserve and turn into a scary lapel pin? I can’t bear to throw it out, for some reason. But I’m certainly not going to eat any more. And I’m definitely not going to swallow any.

The Verdict

I don’t recommend it, unless your curiosity is so insatiable that you can’t rest until you’ve eaten a centipede. And if that’s happening, I recommend a round of counseling. If you still want to eat a centipede after that, then go for it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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