I became a vegetarian at age five, thus passing up the opportunity to eat many of the world's strangest foods (or delicacies, depending on how you look at it). No octopus terrine or alligator sausage for me. Being the daughter of a Chinese-Vietnamese food lover and cook, however, I could not have avoided the experience of at least a few unusual dishes...
Most of my early memories are food-related, and the animal products I distinctly remember loving were cuttlefish and squid. I gobbled up chewy strands of dried cuttlefish and inhaled deeply when my father grilled squid in the backyard. I can only imagine what our neighbors in San Antonio, Texas, thought of our pungent barbecue, but to me, these weren't "weird" foods, just delicious ones.
And then, on the day I realized I was eating animals, I turned vegetarian. This frustrated my poor father, an accomplished chef and man who will eat anything. (His motto: "if it looks good, smells good, and tastes good, don't ask what it is, just eat it.") To his credit, he was unusually supportive, but there were a few attempts at trickery. That braised "cucumber"? When I inquired as to why it was so chewy, he eventually had to admit it was not the kind of cucumber that grows on vines but rather a sea cucumber. An echinoderm.
Even though I abstained from meat, I did not find it particularly odd that we had things like turtle soup in the pantry. Turtles, chickens, cows – they were all equally and simultaneously normal yet personally disagreeable. One food, however, struck me as terribly strange: hundred-year eggs. These Chinese delicacies are made by preserving duck, chicken, or quail eggs in clay, ash, salt, and lime. In reality, they are only cured for a few weeks or months, but as a child I assumed these crazy eggs really were a hundred years old. I imagined the eggs being excavated from ancient sites in China and stared, fascinated, at the extra special thousand-year eggs at the Asian market.
My father loved them, of course, but I was suspicious. They smelled sulfur-y and their gelatinous whites – now brown – and blackish-green, cheese-like yolks were intriguing but scary. I would only take the smallest bites, and it has now been over 20 years since I've eaten them. Most of the strange foods I have eaten are buried in my past – fondly-remembered cuttlefish, the sea cucumber my father duped me into eating – but it occurs to me that century eggs are something I may revisit. Perhaps I'll make my father proud and give them another try one of these days...
Related: The Most Exotic Food I've Ever Eaten Is An Egg
(Image: Flickr member FotoosVanRobin licensed under Creative Commons)