Asia is home to some of the weirdest foods in the entire world and as a backpacker, you’re sure to come face to face with an unusual delicacy or two during your travels. With everything from duck blood soup in Laos to crunchy scorpions in Thailand, the only thing standing in the way of a full stomach is the ‘ick factor’.
Without further ado, here’s our pick of the weirdest foods in Asia. Would you dare to tantalize your taste buds with the following exotic snacks?
Disclaimer – While many weird Asian foods are harmless to both people and the environment, it is worth noting that some of the foods on this list are controversial for good reason. We wholeheartedly disapprove of cruelty of animals and trade in exotic, endangered wildlife that damages the ecosystem of our planet. Before trying these delicacies, please make sure that you do your research and only eat foods that are safe and, if possible, ethically produced. Finally, with this disclaimer, please note that we are not accusing Asia of lower morals when it comes to food production. The Western world is equally guilty.
Weird Asian Foods: One Man’s Meat is Another Man’s Poison
Some say scorpions taste like chicken. Others say they taste like
crap crab. No matter what flavour you get from these crunchy critters, their sharp shells are bound to get stuck in your teeth. Eaten deep-fried, scorpions are a scary popular snack in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and China. But wait a minute – aren’t scorpions deadly venomous?
Apparently, the venom in the scorpion is neutralised once they are fried (alive) in the boiling oil. There is also a belief that eating the sting will make you strong and that it is good for male virility. That old chestnut again…
2. Century Egg
Eaten in China and Taiwan, the century egg goes by a number of names, including preserved eggs, millennium eggs, skin eggs or black eggs to name a few. Based on those nicknames, I’m sure your stomach is rumbling so allow me a bit more time to tell you about them.
Century eggs can be either duck, quail or chicken eggs which are preserved in a mixture of ash, salt, clay, rice husks and quicklime for weeks to months (depending on the procedure used). During this process, the white of the egg becomes a brown jelly which develops a salty flavour. The yolk turns to a grey green colour and takes on a rather pungent aroma of sulfur.
You can find century eggs sold on the street as a snack or also in Dim Sum restaurants. Interestingly, they are also supplied at Cantonese weddings, usually as part of the first course platter. I’m not sure a nibble on this would get me in the mood for love personally…
Rat meat has been eaten by people in the countryside for centuries, but according to a 2012 BBC report, is now considered a delicacy in Thailand, more expensive than chicken or pork.
As rats are generally easy to come by, they are an ideal food source for those with little money who live in the most remote areas. Rats caught in the rice fields are the only ones cooked and eaten, not those that you see running around the streets of Bangkok, thank God!
As well as Thailand, rat meat is also consumed in Laos, China, Vietnam and Taiwan. The meat is said to be extremely tasty and unique – anyone for ratatouille?
Divisive Asian fruit durian has long been touted as one of the weirdest foods in Asia. Although you may be wondering how on earth a fruit can be so offensive, once you learn that it is banned on public transport in a number of countries owing to its pungent smell, it all begins to make sense.
The ‘King of Fruits’ is known for its yellowy-green spiky exterior however, on the inside, the fruit is yellow and juicy. Many hail durian as the worst tasting fruit in the world however we can’t help but feel that is a little dramatic. Admittedly, it is an acquired flavour yet the eclectic mix of sweet, savoury and creamy needs to be tried firsthand.
Widely consumed all over Southeast Asia, durian is native to Indonesia and Malaysia. However, it is also enjoyed in parts of China, southern India and Sri Lanka. To give you a bit more of a feel for what eating durian is like, we’ll leave it to the unforgettable Anthony Bourdain who notably described the after-effects: “Your breath will smell as if you’ve been french-kissing your dead grandmother.” Not a ringing endorsement…
Regarded as a delicacy in Asian countries such as China and Japan, seahorses are now being pushed to the brink of extinction because of the increasing desire for these fish. Easily found in areas such as Beijing’s Wangfujing food market, these marine animals are sold as snacks on sticks. It is also not uncommon for the seahorses to be dried and ground into a powder which is then added to tea, soup, wine or soup.
As well as being consumed, seahorses are also an ingredient used in many traditional Chinese medicines, believed to bring increased sexual stamina to men and also as a cure for asthma or heart disease.
Eating dog-meat often horrifies backpackers, as it is so unusual in Western cultures. Although you’re most likely to see dogs as pets in the US, this is not the case in Asia. Dog meat is still a thriving trade in countries such as China, Korea and Vietnam, however, it is beginning to lose popularity, owing to concerns regarding cruelty.
In Vietnam, dog meat is mostly eaten in the north at specialized dog-meat restaurants and is even considered to bring good fortune. Either roasted or stewed, dog-meat is also believed to raise the libido, however, much like most of these claims, there is no proof of this.
As dog meat continues to fall out of favour, organisations like the Asia Canine Protection Alliance (ACPA) have sprung up, aiming to end the trade. Many argue that the trade is inherently cruel, with dogs being farmed, transported and killed inhumanly. If the moral dilemma isn’t enough to put you off, evidence suggests that eating dog meat can also be dangerous for humans, leading to an increase in various diseases, such as rabies. We think we’ll pass on that one…
7. Silkworm Pupae
Also known locally as beondegi, silkworm pupae is a popular snack from Korea. Generally either boiled or steamed and then seasoned, this pupae is one of the most popular street foods in the country.
As well as being eaten as a street food, it is possible to buy beondegi in a can from the supermarket. One of our readers assures us they make a tasty camping snack! As well as being readily consumed in Korea, silkworm pupae is also eaten in Vietnam, Thailand, China and Japan.
Fun fact: Eating silkworm pupae is a growing trend among bodybuilders. This is because one study found that rats that were fed silkworms experienced increased skeletal muscle strength when compared to partaking in swimming activities. If you want to beef up, it looks like eating silkworms could be more beneficial than exercise!
For any of you with a phobia of spiders, why not get over your fear by eating one? Good idea huh? Crunchy and some would say satisfying, tarantulas (around the size of your palm) are a popular Cambodian food. Yep, that’s right, a delicious eight-legged every-day snack.
The origin of eating tarantulas in the country comes from the terrifying reign of the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian people were starving and turned to harvesting whatever they could find, hence why tarantulas made it onto the menu. Fried in garlic, salt and oil, the legs become crispy whilst the abdomen remains soft and gooey. Now doesn’t that sound an ‘incy-wincy’ bit tasty?
9. Kancung Beruk
The real-life answer to Pokemon’s Victreebell is the Indonesian Kantong Semar. This carnivorous plant is native to the Kerinci National Park of Sumatra and is used in local dishes. Kancung Beruk is a type of lemang where pitcher plants (nepenthes) are collected from the wild, stuffed with rice and steamed.
As well as being eaten in Indonesia, pitcher plants are also regularly consumed in parts of Malaysia too. The vendors who sell these plants customise their own versions of the Kancung Beruk dish, sometimes adding pandan leaf for aroma or peanut paste to create depth.
Unlike some of the Asian foods on this list, pitcher plants are not endangered. Dr Schwallier, lecturer on biodiversity in the US, even believes there is conservation value in eating pitcher plants. By preserving these traditional foods, we protect the link between humans and their natural environment. This means that if the forest becomes threatened with deforestation, the local communities are more likely to stand up and push back to preserve the forest and their cultural heritage.
10. Crickets and Grasshoppers
A popular street food snack in Thailand, your first encounter with these unusual nibbles is probably on Khao San Road as they sit, fried and crisped with oil glimmering underneath the bright lights. Curious backpackers and tourists surround the cart, pointing and taking photos, but few are brave enough to taste the local appetizer. However, eating insects is not just a tourist novelty.
This practice originates from the Thai countryside, where workers in the rice fields have been eating bugs as a daily snack for centuries. Grasshoppers are caught in the fields, brought home and deep-fried to make a tasty bite. Surprisingly insects are actually a rich source of protein, vitamins and minerals.
Did you know? Some scientists believe that it would be more cost effective and environmentally friendly to farm bugs to eat rather than cattle. This is because it doesn’t take much space to breed the small creatures that are packed with protein. Who knows, one day they may just become a valuable part of our diet in the West.
Many of us are likely to have eaten octopus. But did you know that they are ridiculously intelligent animals? They have been observed using rocks as weapons against other marine life and can even unscrew a jar – from the inside!
Despite all the cool things that octopuses can do, that hasn’t stopped humans eating them. They are a favourite in Japan and also in Korea, where they are eaten live. In recent years, there has been increasing vocalisations about the barbaric nature of this practice. According to one cephalopod expert, octopuses can feel pain, making the act of cutting off the arms, a brutal experience for the animal.
12. Bird’s Nest Soup
If I told you could eat soup which was made from the saliva of birds, would you be running out to get some? Nope, us neither. However, it would seem many would. This soup is one of the most expensive dishes you can find Chinese cuisine. In fact, the demand is so high that the specific nests needed are farmed as far as Malaysia and Thailand.
The nests are made from the saliva of swiftlets, an endangered bird in Asia. Once the saliva hits the air, it solidifies, creating a firm structure where the bird can nest. Collecting bird’s nests is a very dangerous practice and many have died whilst undertaking the work. It is also controversial because swiftlets are an endangered species and the demand for their nests is driving them to extinction.
This is a dish we’ll be avoiding on our travels. Not only is it morally questionable but let’s face it, it hardly sounds appetising does it?
13. Chicken Feet
Asia is famous for its no-waste policy when it comes to meat. Chicken feet are a popular snack in Thailand, Laos and China, however, it is probably fair to say they aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing…
Crunchy, gelatinous, a little rubbery and well… slightly bony (as you’d expect), they are usually barbecued or deep fried and often sold on the side of the street as a snack. In China, it is also possible to find chicken feet vacuum packed in plastic for an on-the-go nibble.
In Isaan in northeast Thailand, ‘spicy chicken feet salad’ is a popular dish, made with green Thai chilli peppers, tomatoes, coriander and fish sauce. If you’re lucky/unlucky, you might even find one lurking in your noodle soup! Don’t be chicken…
Before 2020, many westerners were unaware that in some Asian countries, bats are routinely eaten. However, after it was stated that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was carried by bats, good luck trying to find someone who isn’t aware of this!
Although bats are often fried or grilled, fruit bat soup is a particularly popular dish in Indonesian cuisine. Originating from North Sulawesi, this dish, also known as Paniki, includes coconut milk, lemongrass, leeks, curry leaves, fried onions, ginger, garlic and chili paste. It is usually served alongside rice.
15. Blood Soup
Popular in many Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam, this soup is made from exactly what it says on the tin.
The blood itself can be freshly drained from the animal (duck, chicken, pig or goat are popular choices across the region) or comes in congealed chunks. This is how it usually appears in the Thai noodle soup served in the north of the country.
If the idea of having the blood in the form of a soup is too much for your stomach to handle, they also do rice and blood skewers in Taiwan which you can barbecue instead. After all, why would you have a lamb kebab when you can just have a chicken blood cube instead?!
16. Tuna eyeball
Japan has long been famous for giving us some of the world’s best foods. After all, just look at sushi. Unfortunately, I’m not sure tuna eyeball is going to be making it into the god-tier of Japanese cuisine.
The tuna fish is highly prized in Japan and as such, no part of the fish goes to waste. To avoid the unnecessary squandering of protein, the eyes can either be steamed, boiled, fried or served raw.
According to those brave enough to have tried this creepy delicacy, the eye tastes a little bland, somewhat similar to squid. If tuna eyeball is on your foodie bucket list, head down to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo for a taste!
17. Stuffed Frog
Frogs are eaten in China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Cambodia. Known as kang kep baob in the latter, stuffed frogs are a snack commonly sold on the street. They are an ideal choice for those who sell them as during the rainy season, the frogs hop around in plain sight, making them a cheap and easy thing to obtain.
In the Cambodian dish, they are stuffed with peanuts, pork, kroeung paste and coconut before being grilled over hot coals. Apparently they go very well with beer – just something we heard on the grapevine…
18. Intestines and Tendons
Routinely enjoyed in countries such as Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and China, there really are no limits to what can be put into a soup or stirred into a noodle dish. Tendons are generally tough to eat but if cooked for long enough (like 8 hours!), it is said that they become soft. As someone who ended up sampling horse tendon in Wuhan, China, I’m not quite sure I can get behind that claim…
Intestines are also regularly dropped into Asian dishes but only after they’ve been flushed out and had their insides scraped. Before you get all grossed about eating intestines, just remember that your porky butcher’s sausages also use intestine as the sausage casing. Not so weird now is it?
If you prefer your snakes on a plate rather than a plane, look no further than China or Hong Kong for a taste of these danger noodles. Long believed by the Chinese to have healing powers, snake is considered to be a warming ingredient of any dish, which heats your body from the inside.
Shredded snake soup is one of the most popular ways to eat snake but even in countries like Cambodia it crops up on menus grilled. Some have likened eating snake to ‘munching on a fishy flavoured leather boot’. Yum!
The type of snake used for food varies, however, it is true that endangered species sadly find their way onto the dinner plate and into alcoholic drinks. Bear this in mind if you decide to try snake to avoid fuelling any kind of trade which is leading to a decline in wild populations. Cobras should always be avoided owing to their ‘vulnerable’ endangered status.
A popular snack all over the world, ants are eaten far and wide. Areas close to jungles are some of the spots where they are particularly in favour, owing to their availability and abundance.
In Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, the Asian weaver ant features in many dishes and they are available to buy in local markets, both in their brood and adult forms. In these markets, they fetch a higher price than meat!
A popular spicy salad (or yam) in the North of Thailand is made from the large white eggs of the red ant, mixed with spring onion, Thai chili, fish sauce and mint leaves. The eggs of the ant contain acetic acid, owing to the mango that they eat. As a result, they are often used in dishes in place of lemon or vinegar.
Perhaps the most daring of all foods that backpackers can try in Southeast Asia, balut is a fertilised duck or chicken embryo that is boiled alive and eaten while it is still in its shell.
This unique finger food is an extremely popular Filipino snack but is also eaten in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Often sold by street vendors and seasoned with a mixture of salt, chilli, garlic and vinegar, Balut is considered to be high in protein and rich in vitamins.
Like many weird Asian foods, Balut is also believed by some to be an aphrodisiac, (what’s wrong with chocolate dipped strawberries?) giving amorous men the stamina to keep going all night (not scientifically proven)!
It may surprise you to discover that there are some species of jellyfish which are fit for human consumption. Admittedly, jellyfish isn’t an item you see regularly on menus but it’s popularity is increasing.
Enjoyed across Southeast Asia as well as in China and Japan and even some spots in Europe, jellyfish is considered a local delicacy. It is commonly included in noodle dishes, salads and in sushi plates.
Jellyfish can be dried or pickled and is sometimes served cold and marinated. Some have claimed that eating jellyfish is actually good for the planet as it is a sustainable food source. Even when you remove jellyfish from the sea to eat, it doesn’t stop more being born as they spawn from polyps which sit at the bottom of the ocean.
23. Duck Head
In stark contrast to western culture where anything on your plate should look like meat and meat alone, this is not the case in Asia. In fact, many of these cultures have a ‘waste not, want not’ attitude to food which involves eating every last piece of the animal.
In this ‘nose to tail’ type of cuisine, not an ounce of meat is wasted and that includes the head. It might not get your tummy rumbling but at least the plus side of eating a head is that you know exactly what animal it has come from. That’s certainly not a given with other Asian foods!
What’s the weirdest Asian food you’ve eaten on your travels? Let us know in the South East Asia Backpacker Facebook community!
Header photo credit: Victor Lin