Off the beaten palate: The most bizarre Asian food names
ASIA is home to a multitude of races, languages, and cultures, and this translates well into the region’s variety of cuisines that travelers are often fascinated by.
The continent, which includes the Southeast Asian mainland, Indian Subcontinent, the Arabian peninsula, central Asia, and Turkey, boasts a festival of scents and flavors masterfully whipped up by cooking styles unique to each culture.
For example, many traditional Chinese cuisines rely on basic methods of food preservation such as drying, salting, pickling, and fermentation while Japanese cuisine is known for its emphasis on seasonality of food, quality of ingredients, and presentation.
Koreans, on the other hand, enjoy meals of rice, vegetables, and meats, complemented by a number of banchan (side dishes) which includes the meal staple, kimchi.
And while most Asian dishes’ names are quite straightforward, some may leave you seriously questioning the ingredients, especially after you discover what the names mean in your native language.
Trust us when we say that the idea of gobbling up one of these Asian delicacies puts eating a dish of garlicky baked escargots to shame. Nevermind the actual dish, the name alone may not be for the faint of heart.
Traditionally black in appearance, guilinggao literally means turtle or tortoise jelly which was usually consumed as medicine but in modern day, it is sold as a dessert.
Legend has it that the Tongzhi Emperor of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty in China nearly cured his smallpox by taking guillinggao.
It is prepared by boiling powdered (bottom) Cuora trifasciata turtle shell, more commonly known as the golden coin turtle, with a variety of herbs and letting it evaporate to take the form and consistency of jelly.
Aside from positive effects such as relieving itching and reducing acne, the bitter jelly is also thought to improve circulation, assist muscle growth, and kidney restoration.
Note: The commercially available guilinggao sold as dessert does not contain turtle shell powder.
Served in both raw and cooked form in restaurants all over Japan, shirako is the sperm sacs of a male cod, often referred to as the East Asian country’s weirdest delicacy.
That is, right alongside tobiko or ikura (fish’s eggs) and uni (a sea urchin’s gonads).
Stranger yet is the word shirako, which means “white children”. Go figure.
Winter is when the well-loved dish is in season and there are many ways to enjoy it: eaten raw as sushi or eaten boiled with soup. It is said to contain a lot of protein, vitamin B13, potassium, phosphorus, very low fat, and some locals even believe that it gives you stamina.
But if you are new to eating creamy fish semen, it is best to sit this one out.
It means exactly what its name insinuates: a 100-year-old egg. Although in reality, the century egg is not actually a century-old, it is still quite rotten.
According to the Chinese, the century egg has over five centuries of history behind its production.
Its history stretches as far back as 600 years ago during the Ming Dynasty when a homeowner discovered duck eggs in a shallow pool of slaked lime that was used for mortar during the construction of his home two months before.
He tasted the eggs, then set out to produce more.
These days, duck, chicken, or quail eggs are used in the process of preservation.
The eggs are preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, and quicklime for a few months, during which the yolk will turn dark green or black and slimy, and the white turns into a dark brown translucent jelly.
If you can stomach the smell of sulfur and ammonia, the century egg can be eaten on its own after rinsing and peeling it, as a side dish with slices of pickled ginger root, or mixed in a bowl of piping hot rice congee.
While sakuraniku means “cherry blossom meat”, sakura being “cherry blossom” and niku being “meat”, it is neither made from cherry blossoms nor is it the standard type of meat you would find being served in restaurants.
And it is because it is actually raw horse meat.
So why do the Japanese call it cherry blossom meat? Largely because of the color of the flesh, as freshly cut horse meat looks a vibrant pink color.
Sakuraniku is less common hence a bit more expensive than other meats in Japan. It is also particularly famous as local cuisine in Kumamoto, a city on the Japanese island of Kyushu.
Eaten either on its own or as part of sushi, sakuraniku is said to be rich in minerals (such as iron and calcium) and vitamins, high in protein, and low in calories and fat so it is considered to be healthy.
Bird’s nest soup
If you have heard the stories about how many people die each year while harvesting these cliff-hanging gems, you would probably think twice about consuming bird’s nest soup.
Often called the “nectar of the Gods”, bird’s nest soup is a delicacy made from the shallow cup-shaped nest of the swiftlet bird, which builds it out of its own gummy saliva on the high walls of massive limestone caves in Southeast Asia.
When the saliva dries, it goes hard and is then “ripe” for harvesting.
Ordinarily, bird’s nest is cooked in a sweet soup with only three ingredients: bird’s nest, red dates (jujube), and rock sugar. The Chinese believe that the consumption of bird’s nest helps improve respiratory health and skin complexion, increase libido and promote longevity.
A single, nutritious bowl of the oddly textured soup can fetch anywhere between US$30 to US$100.
Popular across China, drunken shrimp is a dish best eaten alive. That is right, these shrimp are still alive, but drunk.
Live freshwater shrimp is immersed in a baijiu (strong Chinese liquor), which causes it to swim or jump, eventually stunning it (read: drunk). Then, diners are required to bite the head off first before consuming the still-wriggling body.
It sounds downright cruel to enjoy your food this way but it is said that drunken shrimp tastes sweet and refreshing.
If you are not adventurous or if you do not want to risk paragonimiasis, simply opt for the cooked version as different parts of China have different recipes for this dish.
You could request for the shrimp to be boiled briefly before or after they are marinated in baijiu instead.