If you're squeamish about the idea of trying new foods, consider this: Not only do new tastes stimulate your palate, they can create new connections in your brain. Sampling exotic foods may actually improve your mind. It will most definitely broaden your culinary horizons and expand the way you think about food, and maybe even give you some ideas for making dinner at home. If you shy away from trying anything you worry you might not like, you eliminate the chance that you'll discover something new that you absolutely love.
Should you avoid any exotic foods? Yes. Anything endangered is not worth the threat to the species and the environment. For example, shark fin soup is considered by many to be a delicacy -- but between 73 and 100 million sharks are destroyed each year just for their fins [source: Heimbuch]. And more than a third of shark species are endangered. The United Nations is currently working to ban shark finning around the world.
But don't worry, there are still plenty of unusual dishes you can sample without worrying about sustainability issues. Prepare for experimentation by sampling new flavors at home before you travel. Pick up a new ingredient (a new spice, herb or grain) at your grocery store, or a new kind of fruit or veggie at your farmers' market. Do a little research about how to prepare these new items, and then cook and sample them to see what you think. Visit a new restaurant -- perhaps one that serves an ethnic cuisine you've never tried before. And when it's time to travel, keep an open mind and enjoy. Here are a few ideas, listed in no particular order, for what (and where) to try.
Southeast Asian Fresh Fruit
Southeast Asia is a treasure trove of native exotic fruits, and sampling them while you're there -- when they've been plucked fresh from a tree or bush, and not canned and flown thousands of miles -- will impart the most delicious taste experience.
Just a few of the many to taste include lychees, which are quite fragrant and have juicy, creamy, translucent white flesh and bright red, leathery rinds; the rambutan, an oval-shaped fruit with mildly sweet and tangy white flesh surrounded by a spiny red rind; and the mangosteen, which has a thick purple rind surrounding segments of luscious, slightly acidic flesh.
Fresh Oysters at the Waterside
Eating an oyster at a restaurant is nice (if it's a good oyster, that is), but the flavor is explosive when it comes straight from the salty water and you eat it moments after it's been plucked and shucked, while you can actually smell the salty breeze blowing off the water. Before you douse them with condiments (such as cocktail sauce, horseradish or even lemon juice), try at least one straight up, straight from the shell, so you can clearly taste the sweet creaminess and sharp saltiness of the waters from which it came. Try fresh-from-the-water oysters when you're vacationing in the Pacific Northwest, coastal New England, northern California or Canada's Prince Edward Island.
Exquisite Parisian Restaurants
No matter what your personal preferences dictate, there's no arguing that French cuisine is incredibly influential -- and that when it comes to super-fine dining, it's tough to rival the very best restaurants in Paris. Certain eateries -- including Guy Savoy, L'Arpege and Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee -- are perennially elegant, ethereal and unforgettable. Book a table if you can, and don't even think about ordering a la carte (if that's even an option). Sit back, relax, and let the courses and the wine come. You'll taste things you couldn't have imagined. You'll be there for hours on end. You won't mind.
Fugu in Japan
Fugu is what the Japanese call some species of blowfish, also known as puffer fish. Its worldwide status as a delicacy derives mainly from the fact that eating it is risky. If prepared incorrectly, fugu can be lethal because parts of it contain tetrodotoxin, a poison that causes severe paralysis and respiratory distress, and can kill victims within hours. But it has a sought-after delicate flavor, it's a reported aphrodisiac and trying it gives you serious credibility as a culinary adventurer.
In Japan, chefs train for years to learn to prepare fugu properly -- and need a special license to do so. Which means eating it in a reputable restaurant is a (relatively) safe prospect. If you want to try it, make sure you're eating in a restaurant with a certified chef who has been extensively trained in the removal of the toxin-containing internal organs.
Truffles in France or Italy
Truffles are a prized gourmet ingredient. These fruiting bodies of fungi reside underground at the base of trees, and they emit an odor that attracts animals, which is why pigs and dogs are best at finding these hidden treasures. Though chefs around the world wait patiently for their shipments during truffle season (generally late fall until mid-winter), truffles do lose intensity of flavor when they travel.
If you prefer earthy black truffles, head to Perigord, France, and trust a local chef to cook them well (cooking enhances the flavor of black truffles). For white truffles, which are more pungent and almost garlicky in flavor, go to Alba, in Italy's Piedmont region, and have raw white truffle shaved over a bowl of pasta or risotto.
Mexican Hot Chocolate
Cultivation of the cacao tree first took place in Mexico, and it's there that the tradition of roasting and grinding cacao and turning it into a drink began. In fact, the drink is centuries old. Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador, had the opportunity to sample xocoatl -- the Aztec word for the bitter drink -- when he visited Montezuma II's court in 1519 [source: Encyclopedia Britannica]. The Spanish kept chocolate all to themselves for nearly 100 years before the secret got out and Europe fell in love with hot chocolate. In doing so, though, the Europeans changed it, adding sugar and vanilla, among other flavors. It's a lot closer to what Americans know as hot chocolate. But the beverage would hardly have been recognizable to the Aztec.
Authentic Mexican hot chocolate is complex and redolent with cinnamon and other spices. It's often sweetened, but it's a far, far cry from sugary prepared hot cocoa mixes. If hot chocolate is on offer at a traditional Mexican eatery -- or in a local's home -- accept it with pleasure and be prepared for a unique and soul-warming experience.
Eco-friendly Caviar in California
Caviar is one of the first things that comes to mind when people ponder "exotic" foods. But Russian sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, the source of the world's most revered caviar, has been overfished and the sea has been polluted. Imported wild-caught caviar is also heavy with unhealthy mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Does that mean you should skip caviar, and give up all its associations with the good life? Nope. When you want to celebrate and occasion or a vacation with caviar, opt for caviar from farmed sturgeon in the United States. There are several outstanding producers in California, such as San Francisco-based Tsar Nicoulai, so consider sampling caviar on your next visit to the City by the Bay.
Molecular Gastronomy Restaurants
Molecular gastronomy brings food and science together, transforming ingredients into unforgettable taste sensations (think liquid ravioli, vegetable foams, foods in bubble and balloon form). El Bulli, near Barcelona, Spain, topped the S. Pellegrino list of 50 best restaurants enough times to earn Ferran Adria the title chef of the decade in Restaurant Magazine.
Unfortunately for would-be visitors, Adria closed the restaurant and converted it into the El Bulli Foundation -- doing food research, not food service. But many of El Bulli's greatest hits appear on the menu at La Alqueria restaurant at El Bulli Hotel Hacienda Benazuza, near Seville. And Adria, who's lecturing about molecular gastronomy at Harvard University and working with his foundation, isn't going to stop cooking anytime soon.
Molecular gastronomy fans can try The Fat Duck in Bray, United Kingdom, and Pierre Gagnaire's eponymous restaurant in Paris -- Gagnaire and The Fat Duck's Heston Blumenthal are considered among the top chefs at the intersection of food and science [source: This].
Fast food restaurants serve lobster rolls these days, so is lobster really an exotic food anymore? Well, yes, if you taste it fresh off the boat in Maine. That's an entirely different taste experience -- the flavor is at once briny and sweet, with a rich, buttery texture. Lobster meat that's been frozen or refrigerated loses its intensity, and live lobsters from tanks aren't nearly as good (they haven't been eating their natural diet, or swimming in their natural habitat, and they're confined and under duress).
Skip the fancy preparations at upscale restaurants -- simply have a steamed lobster from a beloved shack, or maybe a lobster roll -- if it's simply adorned with just a hint of melted butter. After you do, you'll never order a fast food lobster roll again.
The Local Specialty
Every culture creates its own dishes that feature the unique combination of foods available in the area. Of course, there are far too many exquisite dishes to list here. A local specialty might be a humble, homey recipe from a tiny mountain village or street food from a crowded city. Whatever the natives eat, and eat often, you should try. It's going to taste dramatically different in Sweden than it does in Vietnam or South Africa or Bhutan. And even if the locale isn't quite so exotic, the cuisine might be -- to you. Different regions (and states, and cities, and tiny towns) in the United States have time-honored cuisines that you'd be remiss to skip -- like coffee with chicory when you're in New Orleans. Or crab in the Pacific Northwest. Wherever you travel, try eating like a local for at least one meal. You'll be glad you did.
For more on haute cuisine and hitting the road, take a look at the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Barringer, Felicity. "U.S. to Ban Imports of Beluga Caviar." The New York Times. Sept. 29, 2005. (Nov. 11, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/29/politics/29cnd-caviar.html
- Epicurious Food Dictionary. "fugu." 1995. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.epicurious.com/tools/fooddictionary/search?query=fuguEpicurious Food Dictionary. "truffle." 1995. (September 16, 2010) http://www.epicurious.com/tools/fooddictionary/search?query=truffle
- Ferren, Andrew. "El Bulli to Close Permanently." Feb. 12, 2010. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/12/el-bulli-to-close-permanently/
- Heimbuch, Jaymi. "California's Proposed Shark Fin Ban Divides Chinese-American Community." TreeHugger. Aug. 24, 2011. (Nov. 11, 2011) http://www.treehugger.com/clean-technology/californias-proposed-shark-fin-ban-divides-chinese-american-community.html
- Hunt, Katrina Brown. "World's Most Dangerous Foods. " Travel & Leisure. October . (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/worlds-most-dangerous-foods/
- Lickerman, Alex, M.D. "Trying New Things: Why new experiences are so important to have. " Psychology Today. April 1, 2010 (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201004/trying-new-things
- McGee, Harold. "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen "New York:Scribner. 2004.
- McLeod, L.E., Carter, C.G. and Johnston, D.J. "Changes in the body composition of adult male southern rock lobster, Jasus edwardsii, during starvation. Journal of Shellfish Research. Vol. 23, No. 1. pp. 257-264. 2004.
- Morton, Julia F. "Mangosteen." Fruits of Warm Climates. Purdue University. 1987. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/mangosteen.html
- The Pew Charitable Trusts. "Shark Conservation." 2010. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.pewtrusts.org/our_work_detail.aspx?id=140
- Strauch, Barbara. "How to train the aging brain." The New York Times. Dec. 29, 2009. (September 15, 2010) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/education/edlife/03adult-t.html
- This, Herve. "Food for tomorrow?" EMBO Reports. 2006. (Nov. 11, 2011) http://www.nature.com/embor/journal/v7/n11/full/7400850.html
- The World's 50 Best Restaurants. "2010 Award Winners." William Reed Business Media. 2011. (Nov. 11, 2011) http://www.theworlds50best.com/past-winners/2010-award-winners
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Bad Bug Book: Foodborne Pathogenic Microorganisms and Natural Toxins Handbook Tetrodotoxin." May 2009. (Nov. 15, 2011) http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/FoodborneIllness/FoodborneIllnessFoodbornePathogensNaturalToxins/BadBugBook/ucm070842.htm