Balut // iStock
Balut // iStock

10 Delicacies From Around the World To Try

Balut // iStock
Balut // iStock

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

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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

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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

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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?

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Food
15 Rich Facts About Fudge
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You probably know the basics about this decadent dessert: It's rich, it's creamy, and it comes in a variety of mouth-watering flavors. (Red velvet cake batter fudge? Yes please!) But there is plenty more fun trivia to digest. In honor of National Fudge Day, we’re serving up the sweetest morsels.

1. WHEN THE DESSERT WAS INVENTED, IT CHANGED THE PREVIOUS MEANING OF FUDGE.

In the late 17th century, fudge was a verb meaning "to fit together or adjust [clumsily]." Then around 1800, the word was used to mean a hoax or cheat. By mid-century, the use of the term “Oh, fudge!” as a kid-friendly expletive had come into favor, and was often used when something had been messed up. It’s believed that the first batch of fudge was created when someone was trying to make caramels and “fudged” up. The name stuck.

2. IT HAS STRONG TIES TO BALTIMORE.

The earliest origin story for fudge dates back to 1921, when Emelyn Battersby Hartridge, a former Vassar student, wrote a letter describing her introduction to the treat. She claims that while attending classes in 1886, a classmate's cousin living in Baltimore made the dessert, and this was her first knowledge of it. She also mentions a grocery store, probably in Baltimore, that sold fudge for 40 cents a pound.

3. THE TREAT BECAME WILDLY POPULAR AT VASSAR.

Two years after discovering fudge, Battersby Hartridge got ahold of the recipe and made 30 pounds of it for the Vassar Senior Auction. In Vassar, The Alumnae/i Quarterly, they claim the sweet became so favored that “students would make it in the middle of the night, dangerously diverting the gas from their lamps for the task.”

4. STILL, IT TOOK A WHILE FOR COMPANIES TO MASS-PRODUCE IT.

Skuse’s Complete Confectioner was known as a guide for all things dessert—but the first editions of the book, printed in the late 1800s, didn’t include any recipes for fudge. In later editions, they made up for lost time, including recipes for rainbow fudge (food colorings), Mexican fudge (raisins, nuts, and coconut), maple fudge, and three types of chocolate fudge.

5. AMERICANS MAY HAVE STOLEN THE CONCEPT FROM THE SCOTS.

Fudge is thought to be a descendent of tablet—a medium-hard confection from Scotland. The two treats use similar ingredients, but fudge is richer, softer, and slightly less grainy than its European cousin.

6. THERE'S A WORLD RECORD FOR THE LARGEST SLAB.

The 5760-pound behemoth was crafted at the Northwest Fudge Factory in Ontario, Canada in 2010. It reportedly took a full week to make, and while ingredients aren't available for this record, the previous record holder contained 705 pounds of butter, 2800 pounds of chocolate, and 305 gallons of condensed milk.

7. MAKING FUDGE TAKES SOME SCIENCE.

Early fudge recipes were prone to disaster, with one 1902 magazine explaining "fudge is one of the most difficult confections to make properly." With candy thermometers not becoming commonplace for several years, most recipes required boiling and hoping for the best. Eventually more foolproof recipes were created that included corn syrup (which helps prevent the crystallization that can result in a gritty texture) and condensed milk or marshmallow crème.

8. IT'S NOT ALL THAT DIFFERENT THAN FONDANT.

Fudge is actually a drier version of fondant—not the stiff, malleable kind so often seen on cake decorating shows, but the kind found in candies like peppermint patties and cherry cordials. 

9. A TINY ISLAND IN MICHIGAN CONSIDERS ITSELF THE FUDGE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD.

There are upwards of a dozen fudge shops on 4.35-square mile Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. (Permanent population on the tourist destination: just shy of 500, per the 2010 census.) The oldest candy shop on the island, Murdick’s Candy Kitchen, opened in 1887, while May's Candy claims to be the oldest fudge shop.

10. MACKINAC ISLAND CRANKS OUT OVER 10,000 POUNDS OF FUDGE DAILY DURING PEAK SEASON.

For production, fudge makers ship in about 10 tons of sugar each week and roughly 10 tons of butter each year. Every August, the island hosts the Mackinac Island Fudge Festival, complete with events like Fudge on the Rocks, where local bartenders craft fudge-y libations.

11. FIRST LADY MAMIE EISENHOWER WAS A HUGE FUDGE FAN.

She even crafted her own recipe—named Mamie’s Million-Dollar Fudge—which her husband, Ike, quite liked. It included chopped nuts and marshmallow crème.

12. THE HOT FUDGE SUNDAE WAS CREATED IN HOLLYWOOD.

C.C. Brown’s, an iconic ice cream parlor on Hollywood Boulevard, was credited for dreaming up the idea to drizzle melted fudge over ice cream in 1906 (earlier sundaes had other syrups, like cherry). Sadly, the shop closed in 1996, but the treat remains popular.

13. THE BRITS HAD A SWEET NAME FOR FUDGE.

A description of fudge, found in the 1920 tome Harmsworth’s Household Encyclopedia, read, “A sweetmeat that hails from America, but is now popular in other countries.” (To be fair, in the UK the term "sweetmeat” is applied to a variety of sweet treats.)

14. AT ONE POINT, YOU COULD BUY A LIFETIME SUPPLY OF FUDGE.

Harry Ryba, known as the fudge king of Mackinac Island, once offered to mail out a lifetime supply of the candy—three pounds a month—to any customer willing to pay $2250 upfront. “A lifetime, being yours or mine, whichever ends sooner,” he said, per The New York Times. Not a bad deal, considering he passed away at age 88.

15. FUDGE CAN KEEP FOR A LONG TIME.

Airtight packages of the confection can be frozen and stored up to a year without losing any flavor, which means that you can feel free to give in to temptation and buy a larger chunk while on vacation this year. And about that lifetime supply…

All images via iStock.

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