Food brings us together. Whether your tastes trend toward traditional or experimental, there’s universal comfort in joining around a table for a meal. Seasoned travelers know that sampling the local cuisine is one of the easiest ways to experience native culture firsthand. You may not speak the language or know your way around town, but there’s always someone ready to share a bowl of their favorite treat. Sure, it’s increasingly easy to find a McDonald’s no matter where you land, but why not try one of these unique gastronomical experiences?
1. KOPI LUWAK // INDONESIA
Can't face the day without coffee? Visitors to Indonesia can indulge their caffeine craving with a hot cup of kopi luwak, the most expensive coffee in the world. Why so pricey? Cats, of course! Wild palm civet cats, also known as luwaks, eat the fruity flesh of coffee berries but don’t digest the seeds (what we call coffee beans.) The civet droppings are collected by local farmers to be washed, roasted, and processed as coffee. Why is this "cat-poop coffee" so special? One theory holds that civets eat only the best cherries, creating a natural selection for quality. Others believe that a fermentation process occurs in the luwaks' digestive tracts, which reduces bitterness and improves the natural flavor. But not everyone agrees; Tim Carman, a food critic for The Washington Post, tried kopi luwak a few years ago and claimed that "It tasted just like … Folgers."
2. POZOLE // MEXICO
Mexican cuisine continues to be one of the most popular choices in the U.S., so a trip to Mexico might seem like a chance to double-down on well-known favorites like enchiladas or quesadillas. Go looking for authentic Mexican meals, however, and you just might find a steaming bowl of pozole, a soup with significance dating back to the Aztecs. Pozole begins with hominy (a type of dried maize) and meat (typically pork), includes a variety of mouth-watering spices, and is topped with fresh ingredients like lime and radish. Historically, pre-conquest Aztecs may have used freshly sacrificed human flesh in their pozole in lieu of pork, but there's no need to worry about that these days.
3. SMALAHOVE // NORWAY
Steaks can be found nearly everywhere, but adventurous carnivores should consider a trip to Norway to track down a hearty plate of smalahove. Literally translated as "sheep’s head," smalahove is in fact half a lamb’s head (split down the middle with an axe, naturally) that has been torched, dried, smoked, and boiled, then served with potatoes, rutabagas, cream, and butter. The brain and other organs are removed, with the exception of the tongue, eye, and ear, which are generally considered the best morsels. The hearty meal is a Norwegian holiday tradition and is typically consumed the last Sunday before Christmas. (It’s also customary to serve it alongside aquavit, a strong Nordic spirit, perhaps for folks who need a bit of "liquid courage" to face down this intimidating dish.)
4. CARNE ASADA WITH CHIMICHURRI // ARGENTINA
Grilled meat is a staple around the globe, but Argentines take particular pride in their steak traditions. Their outdoor cooking style, known as asado, has a rich heritage and rigorous rules to follow (absolutely no gas, briquettes, or lighter fluid allowed, only wood and hard lump charcoal!). Done properly, asado is an all-day process, where each cut of meat gets plenty of time to slowly roast—Argentines generally prefer their steaks medium-to-well-done.
While the steaks are grilling, Argentine chefs have time to whip up some chimichurri, the country’s "go-to condiment." A tangy uncooked sauce prominently featuring parsley, garlic, oregano, and red pepper, chimichurri complements nearly any entree, but particularly shines with carne asada.
5. HÁKARL // ICELAND
Speaking of Scandinavia, perhaps no dish has earned quite so fearsome a reputation as hákarl, an Icelandic delicacy first cooked up by the Vikings. Even celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, no stranger to unusual flavors, described hákarl bluntly as "the single worst thing I've ever put in my mouth."
The Vikings found a plentiful supply of Greenlandic shark in the waters around Iceland, but soon discovered that toxins in the shark meat made it poisonous to consume. Their solution was to behead the shark, then bury the carcass underground for six to 12 weeks to allow liquids to seep out and the rotting meat to ferment. (Some modern Icelanders cure the meat in a plastic box rather than underground). After the fermentation process is complete, the shark meat is cut into long strips and hung up to dry for several additional months. The final product, diced into deceptively mild-looking white cubes, is famous for its fiercely pungent ammonia aroma.
6. TRUFFLES // FRANCE AND ITALY
If the odor of rotting shark doesn’t make your mouth water, head south for a famous treat with a much different reputation. By weight, the European white truffle is one of the world’s most expensive delicacies—they can sell for as much as $3600 a pound. That steep price tag is due to the difficulty of finding and harvesting the small treats; truffles grow underground, near the roots of trees, and farmers often need to employ specially trained dogs to sniff them out. The fruit of underground-growing fungi, truffles generally aren’t eaten on their own but are a rich, aromatic addition to any number of dishes, including pasta, eggs, sauces, and even cocktails. Of course, truffle dishes can be found worldwide, but travelers in southern Europe should be sure to sample a few straight from the source.
7. KAPENTA FISH // ZAMBIA AND ZIMBABWE
Kapenta (also called matemba) are tiny freshwater sardines, originally native to southern Africa’s massive Lake Tanganyika but later introduced into other lakes in the region. Despite averaging just 10 centimeters long, kapenta are surprisingly rich in protein and iron, and are an important dietary staple for lakeside regions in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Mozambique.
Typically kapenta are caught at night, then sun-dried the next day. Dried fish are wonderfully versatile and can be used in any number of contexts, from a basic stew to this sweet curry sauce. Zimbabweans living close to Lake Kariba also enjoy fresh kapenta, pan-seared and served with sadza, a maize porridge. Scoop up some sadza to dip or roll in the fish and sauce, and prepare to get a little messy—locals don't use utensils for this dish.
8. VIRGIN BOY EGGS // CHINA
Boiled eggs are enjoyed internationally, but folks in the Dongyang province of China have a unique preparation method. Every spring, local vendors collect urine from local elementary schools, specifically from boys under age 10. The eggs are boiled in the urine; after an hour the shells are cracked and they are cooked for another full day.
Although modern science ascribes no nutritional value to this practice, Dongyang residents claim that virgin boy eggs bestow a wealth of health benefits, including improved circulation and resistance to heat stroke. They sell for just 25 cents each on the street (four times the cost of a regular boiled egg) and are so popular they've been dubbed an "intangible cultural heritage" for the region.
9. BALUT // THE PHILIPPINES
Travelers to the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and other southeastern Asian countries will also find plenty of street vendors selling eggs, but with a much different spin. Balut are duck eggs, or more specifically, a mallard duck embryo sold in the shell. Fertilized eggs are incubated for 2-3 weeks (18 days is considered ideal), then boiled alive, sometimes with salt or vinegar added for flavor. The duck embryo is eaten whole; enthusiasts swear by the variety of savory flavors and textures all in one small package. Balut translates to "wrapped," and comes from the idea that the perfect example should be "wrapped in white"—surrounded by pleasantly chewy boiled egg. Pro tip: if you're interested in the flavors but squeamish about the embryo, order penoy, a duck egg that didn’t develop into balut and is entirely yolk.
10. PAVLOVA // AUSTRALIA
Visitors to Australia no doubt expect lots of shrimp on the barbie, and perhaps a kangaroo steak, but what about something to cool down after a hot day? Beat the heat with a slice of pavlova, a creamy meringue pie with a crispy crust and topped with any variety of fresh fruit.The story goes that Australian chef Herbert Sachse was inspired by Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova’s visit Down Under in the 1920s and strove to create a dessert as light as the iconic dancer. There’s another side to the story, through—neighboring New Zealand also claims the dish as their own. Hey, everyone just wants their slice of the pie, right?