How many bizarre foods have you tried in your town or abroad? I bet even those who aren’t adventurous among you ate at least one weird food while traveling.
Southeast Asia is undoubtedly an exotic destination. Now, the region that used to be “mysterious” is essentially within everyone’s reach.
Modern influences have already touched some cultures and traditions in SE Asia.
What remains unique are these popular bizarre foods:
Balut (pronounced as bah-loot) is a common street food in the Philippines. It originated in the Philippines but has grown popular in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.
Balut is a fertilized duck embryo that is boiled or steamed. Some restaurants in the Philippines have turned the popular street food into gourmet dishes. However, balut is normally eaten while still warm inside the shell.
It is best to sip the flavorful broth before peeling off the shell entirely. The yolk and the young chick may be consumed. I would usually leave the white albumen untouched. That part is tough and chewy in texture. Locals prefer to eat balut with a pinch of salt or a mixture of chili, garlic, and vinegar.
Isaw (pronounced as e-sao) is another popular street food in the Philippines. Isaw is basically barbecued intestines from chicken or pig.
The intestines are cleaned several times then boiled and grilled.
Like balut, isaw is usually paired with beer. Isaw is dipped in vinegar with onions, peppers, and chili. They are sold on nearly every street corner during the afternoons.
Silkworms are easy to find in any Thailand Talat (flea market). I think they are the cheapest of bugs sold in Thailand.
Silkworms are like little pills at 1 or 2 centimeters. They are deep-fried but not really crispy and fleshy. The worms have a heavily salted flavor. Locals consume silkworms as a snack, but I prefer eating them with steamed rice.
Frog dishes are a staple in the Northern provinces of Thailand. If you go to Chiang Mai, you’ll easily find restaurants serving frog dishes. Just look for “Kob” on the menu. They are cooked in spicy curries to grilled dishes.
The frogs are not the typical ones you see leaping out of somewhere. They are fairly huge and cultivated from rice fields.
The curried spicy frog and the deep fried frog are popular among tourists. They are usually paired with sticky rice or steamed rice.
They are also sold in wet markets but unless you’re a chef who knows what he’s doing, leave them be.
Every Thai bug cart has scorpions served on a stick. The scorpions sold on carts don’t look freshly fried in oil. They should be crispy for a better experience. If you’re down to try it anyway, the crunchiness is the least of your worries.
Fried spiders are a regional delicacy in Cambodia. I haven’t tried them (probably never will) but the fried spiders are said to be “tossed in a mixture of MSG, sugar, and salt; crushed garlic is fried in oil until fragrant, then the spiders are added and fried alongside the garlic until “the legs are almost completely stiff, by which time the contents of the abdomen are not so runny.” The taste has been described as bland, “rather like a cross between chicken and cod”.
A snake on a stick is the first of bizarre foods I’ve tried in Cambodia. It is fried in oil and tastes somewhere between chicken and fish. The skin though is rubbery in texture.
The thickest part of the snake is along either side of the spine. However, you have to scrape your teeth over the spine to get the rest of the meat over the spine.
Snake Blood or Snake Wine
Snake blood and snake wine are actually Traditional Chinese medicines. But Leonardo DiCaprio downed a glass of snake blood in the 2000 movie “The Beach”. The thrill seekers then started hunting for snake blood in the region.
Concoctions with snake venom are popular in China, India, and throughout Southeast Asia.
In Hanoi, there is a place known as the Snake Village. Not all taxis are familiar with the village so just tell them you are going to Lệ Mật. Our taxi fare from Hoan Kiem district to Lệ Mật was around 100VND.
Most village residents have been employed as snake catchers. Now they are running businesses vending liquors with dissolved snake venom and snake dishes (like cobra meat). They don’t come cheap, though.
Similar to silkworms, these bugs are edible. Not crunchy either. The only difference is the cricket legs and claws that your palate would surely feel as you eat them.
Crickets are consumed as snacks. It is better to eat a handful of small ones than pop them one by one into your mouth.
What does it taste like? They’re officially bugs, what do you expect?
No matter how crunchy they are, I will not plop a whole grasshopper into my mouth. But they are one of the main attractions on Thai and Cambodian bug carts.
Most of them are around 10 centimeters long. If you’re out to try one, just make sure they are barbecued properly for a crunchy experience.
Last time I was in Siem Reap, restaurants serving croc meat sprawled throughout Pub Street. Crocodile meat is very tender. It probably depends on how it’s cooked but its taste is similar to pork. Don’t worry about scabby croc skin on your plate. It’s marinated and cooked well when served. It even crossed my mind if it was indeed the meat that I paid for.
Cambodia actually has a number of breeding farms for crocodiles. I’ve been to one during my early visit where I’ve seen baby crocodiles in a cage.
Bull’s Testes or Penis
Bull’s testes (or penis) are popularly known in the Philippines as Soup Number Five.
It is Filipino in origin. However, it is not easy to find Soup No. 5 across the Philippine capital.
In Manila’s Chinatown, there are only a few diners that serve Soup No. 5. I’ve tried mine from this art gallery in Angono town that serves the rare dish.
If you’re headed to Cebu, Soup No. 5 has a variant known locally as lanciao.
The bull’s testes and penis are believed to be aphrodisiacs.
Weasel Poo Coffee
Coffee made out of weasel poo is known throughout Southeast Asia as kopi luwak. Sumatra (Indonesia) is the largest producer of kopi luwak in the region. Besides Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines have civet farms producing kopi luwak.
Civets eat coffee cherries and digest them. Their feces are then collected by farmers and processed to produce kopi luwak. Make no mistake, though, as kopi luwak is one of the most expensive coffees in the world.
Disclaimer: I have a long-standing hate for cockroaches but eating them is not part of my vendetta.
Cockroaches are also a top attraction on bug carts in Southeast Asia. Usually fried but some say they can be eaten toasted, sautéed, or boiled.
Guaranteed crunchy but the catch is, they leave an intense aftertaste.
I guess chicken feet are the most common of the world’s bizarre foods on the list.
I’ve seen chicken feet and other chicken parts on a sidewalk cart in Yangon, Manila, and Thailand. But they are also cooked in parts of South and North America, Africa, and Europe.
Chicken feet have always been used in Chinese cuisines – either steamed or deep-fried. In the Philippines, chicken feet are a staple street food known as “adidas”. In Thailand, the Thai green chicken curry is made with chicken feet. In Malaysia, the Malay-style curry is also cooked with chicken feet.
Have you tried any of Southeast Asia’s bizarre foods? I urge you to try a few if you find yourself in the region. These bizarre foods are part of our unique charm. While I say this, I also urge you to err on the side of caution. Many tourists get sick from the street foods. What was your experience? Do tell in the comments below.
Sheila, a.k.a. The Solo Tripper. Former news desk editor, full-time traveler, freelance writer.