I’m not really sure why I Googled “fermented foods,” but it probably had something to do with the delirium that set in after I was woken up by the cat at 4am. Maybe I was thinking about pickling him. Anyhow, one of the first search results I clicked on was this well-organized page on Wikipedia , not surprisingly listing over 80 of the top fermented foods in the world.
For those of you who slept through high-school biology class, “fermentation” is nothing more than the process of preserving or producing food through the action of microorganisms. While most of us are probably familiar with fermented fruits and grains being fermented to produce alcoholic drinks, the action of microorganisms to produce foods isn’t something we tend to think about too much…at least not until we’re forced to throw out some particularly stinky mystery food left to rot in the back of the refrigerator.
And let’s face it: fermentation is really just rot. When it turns out well — friendly bacteria multiplying and transmorgrafying simple foods in sterile conditions– fermentation can produce some tasty stuff. When it goes wrong it can be vomit inducing.
The one thing about fermented foods is that they’re not too subtle in the taste and smell department, especially when we’re talking about fermented meats and fish. As a result, many fermented foods are a somewhat “acquired taste” for adults not brought up on the stuff. Because these tastes are acquired at an early age, many people (me included!) tend to find fermented foods we weren’t exposed to as children to be pretty dang disgusting. But while Americans might gag at the thought of eating fermented shark or stinky tofu, there are plenty of red-blooded American’s who love nothing more than to slather rotten cabbage on their ballpark hotdog or shake a couple of healthy dollops of fermented anchovies and spices into their Bloody Marys at Sunday brunch. It’s all just a matter of taste. I guess. Or insanity.
Even so, there are some tastes out there so extreme that even people who claim to like them have to admit that holding their noses to get down the first few bites (or slugging back shots to wash it down) is essential to the…errr….enjoyment of these delicacies. So, without any further ado, here are some of the scariest fermented foods in the world:
1. Hákarl : When something makes Anthony Bourdain declare it to be “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’s ever eaten and causes Gordon Ramsay to puke, you know it has to be a bit on the pungent side. And this Icelandic dish has got “pungent” down to an evil science.
First, Icelanders catch a basking shark, chop off its head, and throw away its guts. Do they dig in right away? Not if they don’t want to die: this fish is loaded down with nifty chemicals such as uric acid (yeah, as in urine) and trimethlamine oxide, the chemical that breaks down to make up the main ingredient in rotten fish odor.
After the shark is prepped, they dig a hole in the sand and drop it in. Yup, that’s right: they bury the dang thing in a shallow grave! Then they place stones on top so that the juices that come out as it rots get pressed out. How thoughtful.
Then they leave the shark. For months…sometimes up to 3 months. Once it’s nice and rip they exhume it, cut it into strips, and hang it up to dry for a few more months. Basically the idea to is create the shark equivalent of the Crypt Keeper.
Then they eat it. But not until they scrape off the brown crust that develops and cut it into tiny cubes served on toothpicks.
2. Rakfisk: Not to be outdone by the Icelanders, the Norwegians have developed their own version of rotten fish appetizer called Rakfisk. Unlike the Icelanders, the Norwegians have the good sense to serve it wrapped up in flatbread with sour cream, onions, and potatoes to kill the taste.
Want to make your own Rakfisk? Just go catch yourself some trout or char, throw away the guts, scrub out the blood, dunk ‘em in vinegar, and throw them in a bucket with some salt for a few months, and weight them down so the juices run out. Eat.
By the way, according to Wikipedia, Norwegians eat 5,000 tons of this stuff every year.
3. Igunaq: Not so big on fish? Well if you find yourself hanging out with the Inuit then you’re in luck! Rather than stuffing sharks in the ground, these folks like to cut up a bunch of big juicy walrus steaks and then bury them in the ground to improve their flavor! How long does a walrus sirloin need to nap beneath the soil before it’s considered prime Igunaq? Not a paltry 3 months like those wussy Norseman! No-sir-ree! To make good Igunaq you’ve gotta leave it long enough so that it can decompose and ferment and then freeze again…usually a full year.
4. Shiokara: Now the Japanese have more than their fair share of rotten foodstuffs, but as far as I’m concerned Shiokara is right up there at the top of Foods That Make Sean Want To Vomit Just From Their Pictures. The description’s pretty nasty, too. Heck, even the Japanese consider this stuff to be “chimi” or one of the “rare tastes” that take time to acquire.
Basically the method’s the same as other fermented fish: salt it, bury it (in a container), wait for it to rot, and enjoy. But rather than be limited to pedestrian fare like shark and trout, the Japanese have branched out into other sea critters suitable for rotting including:
- cuttlefish (ika no shiokara)
- squid (hotaruika no shiokara)
- sea urchin (uni no shiokara)
- fiddler crab (ganzuke)
- and even sea cucumber (konowata)
Apparently it tastes like anchovies. Yeah. Right.
5. Stinkheads: Oh, but let’s head back up north again for some new rotten fish flavors. Thought that Hákarl and Rakfisk sounded gross? Well at least their names made them sound kind of cool, like some obscure Norwegian DeathMetal band your little brother discovered at summer camp last year. But sinkheads? STINKHEADS? There ain’ no gettin’ around the fact that they are exactly what they sound like: salmon heads (oh, and guts, too!) placed in barrels, covered in burlap, and left to rot for a week. It’s a traditional food of the Yupik in Alaska. Interestingly enough, the Yupik who had switched to more modern methods of fish rotting using plastic buckets are now being encouraged to go back to barrels because fish rotting in plastic is more likely to generate botulism. Imagine that.
6. Chicha: If wine and beer seem like wussy drinks to you because they’re produced under sterile conditions (yuk!), why not try some Chicha? A traditional fermented beverage of the Amazon, Chicha is traditionally prepared by women who chew up cassava root (sometimes with plantain mixed in) until its nice and pulpy and then spit the resulting juice into a communal bowl. Once the bowl collected sufficient quantities of cassava/banana- spit it’s set aside for a few hours to allow wild yeasts to ferment the brew. Once it’s acquired a blue-white opaque color, it’s time to chug!
Oh, and be warned: Chicha is traditionally served to arriving guests in Amazonian homes. If you’re visiting, maybe it’d be a good idea to tell your hosts that you need to lie down as soon as you arrive.
7. Stinky Tofu: You’ve gotta admire a food that’s honest about its shortcomings right up front. A popular snack and main-course ingredient in East and Southeast Asia, Stinky Tofu is just what it says: tofu that stinks (apparently like “rotten garbage or manure,” according to Wikipedia). Aficionados claim that the stinkier it is, the better it tastes.
Stinky Tofu can be found mainly in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan where it considered the “unofficial snack food” and is served by gazillions of stinky street vendors of served up in restaurants with names like (I’m not kidding) “Dai’s House of Unique Stink.”
I think I might have lived there in college.
8. Kombucha : I actually first heard of this stuff when I saw it referenced by one of my Facebook friends (and former co-worker). She made some comment in her status about her Kombucha being finally ready to drink and not having heard of it before I Googled the word to find out what she was talking about. I kind wish I hadn’t.
What is Kombucha? Well, while the ever-so-lyrical Chinese refer to it as “Immortal Health Elixir,” (you gotta wonder about something with that kind of tag line attached to it), the ever-pragmatic Russians call it what it is: чайный гриб or “tea mushroom.”
Yeah, “tea mushroom.” It turns out that Kombucha is sweetened tea that been fermented with a solid mat of microoganisms called a “kombucha colony.” Consisting of acetic acid bacteria, yeast, and a whole mess of other bacteria with unpronounceable names, the “kombucha colony” forms a large mat (that “looks somewhat like a pancake” according to Wikipedia) on top of the tea. Apparently you don’t eat the pancake along with the tea.
Why do people drink this stuff? Well one reason might be because the homemade stuff gives you a buzz: homegrown mushroom tea can contain up to 1.5% alcohol…not enough to knock you out, but probably enough to take the edge off your morning if you have a few cups. The other (and more publicized) reason is that like most stuff that tastes like crap it’s supposed to be good for you. Kombucha contain glucaric acid, a chemical that’s supposed to detox your liver and prevent cancer.
If you want to make your own at home, this wikiHOW article provides step-by-step directions.
9. Tibicos: Those of you with a yen for rotting your own food at home (and an aversion to dairy products or other non-gray-and-glistening sources of probiotics) might also want to try out Tibicos, a delightful gelatinous bacteria culture also known as “water kefir,” “sugar kefir,” “Japanese water crystals,” or “California Bees” (though the latter sounds like something you’d find on UrbanDictionary.com).
Consisting of sugar, yeast, and a bunch of nasty-sounding bacteria, Tibicos forms grey blobs when cultured and a gives off delightful byproducts such as lactic acid, ethanol, and carbon dioxide gas. As a result of the CO2, Tibicos is often bubby and can be drunk like a bacteria-laden soda. Yum!
10. Natto: If you really want to start your morning off right, grab yourself a cuppa Kombucha and cozy up to a plate of Natto, a popular Japanese breakfast of fermented soybeans served over rice.
Supposedly Natto was invented when soldiers cooking soybeans for their horses were attacked and packed their beans into straw bags so they could get out to the battle. A few days later (must have been a long battle!) the soldiers unpacked the bags and discovered that while the beans had become kinda stinky they tasted pretty good. They offered some to their boss Minamoto no Yoshiie, he liked it, and a new tradition was born!
They must have been brave soldiers: apparently natto smells like ammonia and produces “spiderweb-like strings” when you pick it up with your chopsticks. While descriptions vary, it apparently has a lot in common with other regional delicacies of the world such as Australia’s Vegemite and French Blue Cheese.
I think I’ll stick to cornflakes.