Take a moment to think about what you ate today. Just try to picture in your mind whatever you had for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or as a snack. Now, think about how that food was prepared. Did it come frozen? Did it need refrigeration? Did you have to cook it first before you could eat it? How many ingredients did it have, and in what part of the world did they originate? How much processing was involved?
Unless you’re extremely dedicated to living a health-conscious and environmentally friendly lifestyle, you probably don’t ask yourself questions like this very often at all. Nothing really trumps that one big quality we all want from food: great taste.
Where We Get Our Taste
As far back as 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus – one of our ape-like hominid ancestors – was the first to begin cooking food with fire. Consuming cooked food caused H. erectus’ digestive tract to become smaller and begin operating more efficiently, rerouting that extra energy to the brain, which grew larger. And, of course, that bigger brain paved the way for more advanced sensory interpretations.
Today, we humans have anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 taste buds throughout the back and front areas of our tongues, and each of those has 50 to 100 taste receptors that can process five different types of flavors. They include sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, sourness, and savoriness (also called umami).
Taste preferences can be influenced by genetics, hormones, age, gender, and exposure to certain tastes at various points throughout life. People tend to lose about half of their taste receptors by the time they are 20 years old, so higher levels of stimulation become necessary to send signals to the brain, which might explain why kids are such picky eaters. The younger you are, the more sensitive you are to flavors.
Geographical location is another factor that has a strong impact on taste preferences; cultural dishes are built around a particular region’s climate, terrain, flora, fauna, and even religious beliefs. In some areas of the world, one culture’s perceived pest or rancid remains may be another culture’s most popular delicacy.
The Great White North: Feasting on Fish that’s Been Left to Rot
In some of the coldest and driest places on Earth, it’s often easier to hunt for food and eat it raw – even rotten, in some cases. You may have tried sushi, but you’d probably never even think of touching raw fish that has been left to rot for a few weeks.
A traditional Alaskan delicacy is fermented King salmon heads, or “stink heads” as they’re commonly called. The heads of salmon are cut off, buried underground in pits or placed in wooden barrels or bags, and left for a few weeks to decompose. Native Alaskans then dig up the fish heads later and eat them just as they come out – as mashed up, putty-like paste.
Yupik people used fermentation as a preservation technique during times of food scarcity. This was often considered a nutritious food source, as well as a real treat for the native villagers. How could bacteria-ridden fish paste be the least bit edible or safe for human consumption at all, you might ask?
Well for starters, it’s true that in Alaska, botulism – a rare and dangerous form of food poisoning – is strongly linked to the improper storage and preparation of fermented foods, including stink heads. These days, the fermentation process can take place indoors or in some kind of storage container, above ground where the sun can reach it. This results in higher temperatures, which tend to ramp up the production of botulism toxin. It’s a risk people take.
Alaskans who know how to do it right won’t experience any serious health issues. Stink heads that have been prepared and stored properly are perfectly safe, even healthy, to eat, even after they’ve been left for weeks to let Mother Nature do her job. In fact, this is a more traditional and common way of preparing food in the north than you might think.
Kiviak, dish that’s native to the Inuit of Greenland, involves preserving the bodies of tiny birds in a hollowed-out seal carcass and burying it underground for a few months before eating it raw. Back in 2013, three people died of botulism after consuming Kiviak that was prepared incorrectly in Siorapaluk, West Greenland.
Mediterranean Maggot Cheese: It’s Actually Illegal
As if the idea of consuming raw and rotten fish paste weren’t enough to make your stomach flip, maybe maggot cheese will. Commonly known as Casu Marzu, this delicacy from the Italian island of Sardinia has been completely banned by the European Union from being sold legally anywhere in the country.
The reason? It fails to comply with hygienic standards. So you can’t buy it from just any old European cheese shop, but that doesn’t keep people from making it.
Here’s what makes this cheese so unhygienic, not to mention downright disturbing. Piophillia, also known as “cheese flies”, are brought in to lay their eggs in sheep’s milk cheeses. The maggots that hatch from the eggs, as horrid as it sounds, play a crucial role in the decomposition of the cheese’s fat.
The maggots drag their bodies through the cheese, using their sets of hooked teeth to feed off the cheese itself, and releasing digestive enzymes that are necessary to produce the pungent, tear-inducing flavor that turns it into a softer cheese and even creates a burning sensation on the tongue. And no, the maggots are not removed once the cheese has been fully fermented. They’re left there, to be eaten by anyone who’s ready and willing.
Sardinians have been making cheese this way for hundreds of years, and although its true origin is unknown, it would make sense that to think that it was created by accident. Flies that reached the cheeses to lay their larvae were eaten anyway when food or money was scarce, inspiring the creation of a new delicacy many Europeans still love to eat today.
Before taking a bite out of this outrageously disgusting type of cheese, people are encouraged to cover their eyes or create a shield with their hand. The maggots get skittish when their environment is being moved around and ripped apart, which causes them to jump up to six inches from the cheese. Eye protection is no joke!
Once ingested, it’s very possible for the maggots to keep living on inside the body, if stomach acids don’t kill them. In these regrettable types of cases, they pass through the digestive system completely unharmed before making a new home out of the intestines.
Although small, any surviving maggots can do serious damage by chewing through the walls of the intestines. It can lead to pain, nausea, vomiting, and even bloody diarrhea. Now you understand why this type of cheese is banned by the EU.
Despite these horrifying health risks, Sardinians claim that over the hundreds of years that they’ve been eating this cheese, they’ve never had any close calls with maggots blinding them or burrowing through their intestines. And, even though it’s probably the most famous cheese in the world, for being made and served with live maggots, it’s actually not the only one.
Other maggot-infested Italian cheeses include Marcetto from Abruzzo, Casu du quagghiu from Calabria, and Cacie’ Punt from Molise. The French Mediterranean island of Corsica also has one, called Casgiu merzu.
Subtropical Beasts that You Probably Shouldn’t Eat
If you were lost in the jungle for weeks on end, rotten fish heads and maggot cheese might sound delicious. In reality, though, you’d probably be more likely to try your hand at hunting an animal that was small and easy to catch.
In Africa, the term bushmeat refers to any type of non-domesticated animal. It encompasses everything from monkeys and birds to lizards and rats. If it’s wild, and you kill it to eat it, then it’s bushmeat.
In subtropical parts of Africa, Asia, and islands of the Pacific region, fruit bat soup is a popular bushmeat dish. To prepare it the traditional Micronesian way, three fruit bats are boiled for 40 minutes, with ginger, onion, and salt. The bats are then skinned and their meat removed from their bones before being returned to the broth to be heated.
The soup is typically served sprinkled with scallions and seasoned with either soy sauce or coconut cream. It’s been said that it has a strong fragrance, and a taste that’s not bad, but quite gamey.
Fruit bat soup probably doesn’t sound as repulsive as food that’s raw, rotten, or infested with bugs. In fact, any type of bushmeat, as long as it’s cooked, would likely seem a million times more appetizing than any slimy fish head or quivering piece of maggot cheese. However, this could be one very big mistake you’d pay for with your life.
Experts believe that the deadly Ebola outbreak can be traced back to humans who came into contact with infected bats. Given that these flying mammals can carry more than 60 zoonotic viruses that can infect humans, which is far more than any other rodent, they are truly one of the most dangerous animals to ever consider eating.
The first known case of Ebola was documented in 1976, but as you’ll probably recall, there was a massive outbreak in 2014 that took the lives of over 11,000, according to the CDC. In 2005, researchers tested over 1,000 animals from Central African nations, where outbreaks of Ebola had also been reported. Out of 679 bats, 222 birds, and 129 small terrestrial vertebrates, only three species of fruit bat tested positive for the Ebola virus.
Although any viruses can be killed when the bats are cooked for long enough at high temperatures, anyone involved in hunting, skinning, or otherwise handling the animal before it’s been thoroughly cooked is at risk of contracting an infection. In 2014, fruit bat soup was banned by the West African Nation of Guinea in an effort to help stop the spread of Ebola.
To find out what drives people to hunt bats and consume the meat, researchers at the University of Cambridge surveyed over 500 hunters, vendors, and consumers in the West African nation of Ghana. They discovered that the hunters were often bitten or scratched when handling the bats, and even came into contact with bat blood.
From the survey information collected from vendors and consumers, the researchers found that the reason why bat meat was in demand in this area was not because of traditional beliefs or medical practices, but because it’s typically regarded as a “luxury” food, as well as a major source of animal protein. Many are unaware that their favorite local dish could be teeming with viral pathogens.
Opening Your Mind to Newer, Weirder Tastes
Botulism, live parasites, and zoonotic viruses are some pretty extreme organisms, and the human body can’t handle them. But this doesn’t mean that we’ve all permanently evolved to survive only on foods that come in boxes, cans, or some other kind of packaging. Even though you might cringe at the thought of having to eat insects or raw meat in the event of a survival situation, your need for nourishment would eventually kick in past your acquired taste preferences and surprise you with what you’d be willing to try and choke down.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there are an estimated 1,462 known insects that are completely safe and even quite healthy for humans to eat. In many Asian cultures, insects are regarded as highly sought-after delicacies.
Likewise, many people have proven today that we’re not all that different from our ancestors by taking trendy paleo diets to the extreme. A man named Derek Nance resorted to going on a fully raw meat diet after suffering from allergies that no other diet could fix. In an interview with Vice, he went so far as to admit to brushing his teeth with animal fat, eating raw sheep organs with clotted blood, and nibbling on rotten meat as a probiotic. He said he never felt better.
Today, we’re blessed with giant refrigerators in every home, flavors of every kind available at any convenient grocery store, and food processing that ensures safe consumption for as long as many months after production. It would be a lie to say that the majority of people living in the Western world today haven’t been spoiled silly by all the distinct tastes, smells, appearances, and textures of food created by humankind that have been designed to make mouths water.
Taste is a strange and incredibly personal thing. Only you know which flavors taste best to you, and if you’re brave enough to dare to try anything completely out of the ordinary, chances are that your taste buds will be in for a pretty wild ride.