As Westerners celebrate Christmas, they’ll tuck into food they view as traditional, comforting and appealing: mince pies, fruitcakes, eggnog and the like. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, millions of people will be treating themselves with comparable gusto to local delicacies that might include bugs, snake and horse–and not just for special occasions.
Asia’s rich diversity of cuisines stems from the myriad ethnic groups dotted across the region. Dishes with distinctive flavors and ingredients evolved based on local resources and spices.
As in the rest of the world, holidays in Asia are usually centered on huge feasts with extended families, while at other times, cheap street food on the run has to suffice. In Taiwan, the latter snack might be rooster testicles bought from stalls in the night market. But other exotic foods from the East are actually so rare or coveted that the price tag seems extravagant to the uninitiated.
Take, for example, bird’s nest soup, an expensive Chinese delicacy that can easily cost up to $100 a bowl. Many aficionados swear by its health benefits, while detractors counter that it’s just spittle. That’s because the main ingredient is dried saliva from cave-dwelling Indonesian birds called swiftlets. Fans believe the soup, which is prepared using chicken broth, is good for the skin, libido and immune system.
Although bird’s nest soup is popular with many Chinese diners, some very common Western dishes are not. “Chinese who do not eat beef, including me, find the smell of cooking beef rather offensive,” said Tan Chee-Beng, professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The popularity of Western food in China is often a myth.”
Sophisticated marketing by large multinationals has certainly influenced Asian cuisines, but those same companies have often had to adapt their menus to suit local tastes as well, Tan points out. While Starbucks ,McDonald’s and KFC have had great success selling coffee, burgers and fried chicken in the Far East, Asian cuisines haven’t benefited from anywhere near the same level of marketing–otherwise, Americans might all be fans of bird’s nest soup, stinky tofu and many other Asian specialties.
Take stinky tofu, another street food popular with diners in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The dish is prepared by frying tofu after it’s been braised with a mixture of milk, meat, herbs and vegetables that have been allowed to ferment for days or even weeks. Its pungent smell comes from the combination of hot grease and old food. Due to sanitary concerns, stinky tofu is most commonly sold from roadside stands rather than licensed eateries.
In Bangkok, a favorite snack that packs a satisfying crunch is a stick of fried bugs. Locusts, grasshoppers, cockroaches, ants, maggots and many others are available from Thai hawkers. Buyers can opt for a combo with extra spices, or even one that’s raw. Said to be high in protein, bugs were brought to the traffic-packed, hedonistic Thai capital by rural migrants from Thailand’s northeastern region.
Durian, a football-sized fruit that smells like athletes’ sweaty socks, is popular in Southeast Asia, as is brightly colored dragon fruit, which has very little taste. Australians struggle to explain the appeal of vegemite to outsiders.
Then there’s Japan.
Many Japanese, obsessed with freshness, enjoy “cherry blossom meat,” (raw horse meat with chives and ginger) and Ikizakana, a raw fish sashimi served while just-killed and sliced-up fish is still twitching. And the Japanese like to tease foreigners by serving natto–extremely slimy fermented soybeans.
To be sure, the rest of the world devours plenty of foods Asians would find revolting. Ending a luxurious dinner with a selection of smelly French cheeses–perhaps a pungent Bleu, plus an Epoisses, or even a Vieux-Boulogne–could leave Asian guests retching.
Scotland’s signature dish, haggis, might be palatable until its ingredients were translated: sheep innards. And while Americans blanch at Chinese eating chicken feet, they gnaw on bony barbecued wings. Still more Western delicacies don’t travel well, from mass produced “food” like Kraft Foods’Cheez Whiz and Hormel Foods’ Spam to regional delicacies like Rocky Mountain oysters (really deep-fried bull testicles).
But while Americans are washing down a dense slice of fruitcake with thick eggnog, Japanese are preparing osechi ryori–traditional dishes that can be eaten during the first few days of the New Year, when stores are closed. There’s Tazukuri (whole dried sardines in a sweet sauce), Kombumaki (salmon wrapped in seaweed) and Kazunoko (crunchy clumps of herring roe that taste like sea water).
To Westerners, those delicacies might look better than they taste: Japanese serve the dishes in beautiful laquerware boxes, little presents to get the New Year of to a good start.