This week marks 5 years living in Asia, including Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. I was thinking this morning about all the exciting and sometimes weird Asian food I’ve had over the years, and thought it would be fun to narrow it down to a Top 5. So here they are, in no particular order.
1. Dog and Cat in Ninh Binh, North Vietnam
This restaurant serves only three things: dog, cat and rabbit. We sat down on the floor mats and ordered three different dog dishes and two cat. I’ve eaten dog a number of times in Vietnam, usually grilled and steamed; it’s alright, nothing super special. The first two dishes were the the normal fare, but the third dog dish was this strange stew type of thing. It was like eating dog gravy. And it was terrible. I had to fight the urge to vomit with every chew of the slimy flesh. By far the worst dog experience ever. And the cat… it was actually alright. As I remember, we had two dishes that were almost like a curry. The meat was thin and a bit gummy but the flavor wasn’t bad. My girlfriend at the time, who was vegetarian, even gave it a try and enjoyed it.
2. Turtle Hot Pot in Buon Ma Thuot, Central Highlands, Vietnam
After driving around the city looking for somewhere to eat, my brother and I stumbled upon a brightly-lit place on an otherwise dim street. The menu was organized by animal: chicken, beef, eel, etc. One category I didn’t know: ‘ba ba’. The waitress tried in vain to explain to me, so instead she lead me over to the tanks and pointed to the turtles. My brother’s eyes lit up: ‘We’re eating that!’ Per the staff’s recommendation, we also ordered two small bottles of Vodka. These, we later found out, were to mix with the turtle blood and the turtle bile, which apparently is a pale blue color. So that was our appetizer. Great. Then, they brought out the hot pot. It was a sort of banana curry with tofu, and it smelled delicious. We watched it come to a boil on the table while we traded shots of red and blue Vodka Hanoi.
Finally, the turtle came out. It looked almost the same as when it was in the tank, except it had been chopped up and reassembled on the plate. Not knowing to do, I just stared at the plate. The waitress finally took the initiative, lifted the lid and dumped the whole turtle into the boiling broth. The first bite was delicious. The meat was tender and tasted amazing. And the curry-broth was incredible, unlike anything I’d ever tasted. At the end of the trip, my brother said it was his favorite meal in Vietnam.
3. Pork blood cakes in pretty much any night market in Taiwan
This is makes the list because unlike the previous two, which are weird but not eaten every day, this dish is practically everywhere in Taiwan. It’s a dark purple block of pork blood and rice, the size of an old Nokia brick phone, with a skewer through it longways for easy grilling. Along with your pork blood, you can get chicken hearts, chicken ass and even chicken neck, all in neat little rows on a wood stick. Most surprising is how delicious the blood cake actually is. I’ve eaten my fair share of blood in Vietnam, including congealed blood and blood soup, but mixed with the rice and grilled is delicious.
4. Live octopus in Seoul, South Korea
The octopus is pulled out of the tank onto the cutting board, then WHACK WHACK with the knife and it’s ready to eat. An octopus doesn’t have a central nervous system, so it will stay alive (and continue to move!) for a good half hour after chopping it up, plenty of time to ensure that even the last bite is trying to fight its way out of your mouth. In Korea, the chopsticks are flat and metal, which means the tentacle suckers have an excellent surface to grip on to; it requires a bit of a tug to dislodge their death-grip from your utensils. Once it’s off your chopsticks and in your mouth, the battle’s not over. You need to chew thoroughly to ensure it’s totally dead before swallowing. Apparently people die every year from having octopus get caught in their throat. As a bit of insurance, people often chase the octopus with a shot of rice wine, which relaxes the exposed nerves of the octopus, releasing his grip on your esophagus.
5. Octopus testicles in Da Nang, Vietnam
This was a delicacy had the pleasure of enjoying when I first got to Da Nang. It was the classic story of the friend who invites you over for dinner, and his family saves the best parts for you, which you of course have to eat so as not to offend. So here I am, deep in the rice wine, sitting on the floor getting talked at from all sides my Dad and his very drunk friends, when the ‘special dish’ is presented. I didn’t know this, but octopus testicles are huge! This was not gonna be a ‘pop-it-in-your-mouth-and-swallow’ kind of thing; it was definitely a multi-bite undertaking. I unfortunately have tried other testicles since then, and I can say that compared to, say, a chicken testicle, which kinda bursts in the mouth when you bite it, an octopus testicle is just… bready. And soft. And really strange. It’s a bit fishy, but doesn’t really taste like much, which is about the only good thing about eating it. While it wasn’t quite bad, I think the honor of eating this most special dish was wasted on me; surely anyone else in the room would have enjoyed it more.
So there you have it, my Top 5 for weird Asian food. Want to discover some awesome local food, maybe not quite as extreme as this list? (Or maybe more extreme, up to you…) Let me take you on a Da Nang food tour!