By Christa Weil
When making soup requires scaling a cliff, and grabbing a few olives involves avoiding gunfire, it's time to find some comfort food that's a little more comfortable.
The annals of Arctic exploration are filled with accounts of frostbitten limbs and near starvation. In fact, many adventurers have reported being so hungry that they've scraped papery-crisp lichen off rocks and boiled it into passably edible food. One outdoorsman even claimed that if braised shoe leather was in a taste-test with lichen, the shoe leather would come out on top. And yet, this very same survival food is considered a delicacy in Japan. There, iwatake (iwa meaning rock, and take meaning mushroom) is so highly sought-after that harvesters are willing to rappel down cliff faces for the precious growths. (It takes about a century for the lichen to get to a worthwhile size.) Needless to say, this is specialty work. As if the rappelling isn't tricky enough, iwatake is best harvested in wet weather, because the moisture reduces the chance that the lichen will crumble as it's pried off with a sharp knife. In its preferred preparation, the black and slimy raw material is transformed into a delicate tempura. And while iwatake in any form doesn't taste like much, it's esteemed for its associations with longevity. As for the harvesters? Their longevity's more questionable. "Never give lodging to an iwatake hunter," goes an old Japanese adage, "for he doesn't always survive to pay rent."
2. Bird's Nest Soup
Cantilevered high off cave walls and cliffs along the seas of Southeast Asia are the nests of the white-nest swiftlet—a bird that's managed to turn an embarrassing drool problem into a useful D.I.Y. project. The nests, sturdy constructions no bigger than the palm of your hand, are made from the birds' spit. Yup, these swiftlets have specialized saliva glands powerful enough to turn their tongues into avian glue guns.You'd think being stuck in caves high above the ground, and the fact that they're birds' nests, would protect them against humans—but no. Ever since sailors first brought the nests home for the Chinese emperor and his family in the first century CE, bird's nest soup has been a favorite among the country's elite.
Never mind that it's virtually tasteless; the dish is revered for health reasons.
Of course, acquiring the main ingredient is less healthy. Nest harvesters must stand on rickety bamboo scaffolding hundreds of feet off the ground in pitch darkness. They must also endure unbelievable heat and humidity as they try to avoid all the insects, birds, and bats that live in the caves. In addition, the extraordinary value of the nests means the zones are patrolled by machine-gun toting guards. Harvesting rights are multiyear, multimillion-dollar deals arranged with national governments, and poaching is ruthlessly prohibited. Unarmed fishermen have been shot dead after accidentally beaching in swiftlet territory, and local tour group operators pay exorbitant fees to avoid rifle-assisted leaks springing in their kayaks. It all underscores the fact that being a nest harvester is less of a career choice and more of a life sentence—especially considering that the skill is almost exclusively passed on from father to son.
3. West Bank Olives
4. Snapping Turtle
On-the-job accidents come with the territory. According to outdoor expert Keith Sutton, author of Hunting Arkansas, "noodlers are nicknamed "˜nubbins' as the result of unfortunate encounters with snappers." Amazingly, the job isn't over once the turtle is captured, either. Turns out, killing the animal is another exercise in raw nerve. We'll spare you the details, except to say that it's ill-advised to handle the animal's head until at least a day after its execution. Even decapitated, the snapping turtle has a long memory.
5. Gooseneck Barnacle
Editor's Note: Christa Weil is the author of Fierce Food: The Intrepid Diner's Guide to the Unusual, Exotic, and Downright Bizarre (Plume, 2006), available in bookstores nationwide.