According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word exotic refers to everything «originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country», while being «attractive or striking because colourful or out of the ordinary». As a rule of thumb, the further the distance from your hometown the more exotic your destination would be, which is a statement that can be easily refuted, for there is no need to travel half-way across the world to find an exoticism that sometimes is just around the corner.
As everything that is subject to preference, the gastronomy of a country will never get to please everyone, and its delightfulness will always be measured in accordance to the degree of adaptability of each person and his or her connection to that particular destination. I have always been of the opinion that travelling is connecting, and the best way to do so is through local food, which, with rare exceptions, I always give a try.
There are some special dishes in certain parts of the world whose description can ooze exoticism but also a high level of rejection. With that in mind, knowing that this is something subjective and also that there is a fine line separating niceness from grossness in gastronomic matters, we have come up with a list of exotic dishes (and some delicious ones, too) you will definitely want to try.
The biggest country in South America, Brazil, has a gastronomy that is the direct heritage of African, European and indigenous cultures, and it is as varied as it is huge in size. Meat, fish and seafood, as well as local herbs and exotic fruits are the cornerstones of Brazilian cuisine, but the exotic element accentuates here in the way of preparing some of its most famous dishes.
An example of that is carne-de-sol, also known as jabá, a sun-dried meat dish very popular in arid areas in the North of Brazil.
Carne-de-sol. Picture by Marcelo Träsel.
If we are talking about fish, moqueca de peixe is a fish stew that is cooked in coconut milk and palm oil instead of water, and combines pepper, tomato, onions and coriander. Another delicacy is vatapá, a dish made of shrimp, peanuts, ginger, onion and coconut milk, served with rice on the side.
Mongolia is one of the vastest and less populated countries in the world, where a large part of the population still leads a nomad lifestyle. Their millenary lifestyle has trademarked this nations’ cuisine, which has benefited from the thousands of animals, such as horses, cows and camels, grazing freely across the fields and constituting the backbone and main source of protein in a country where temperatures drop to -40º.
Given the harshness of the weather, barbeques and hot pots are quite usual, such as the Mongolian hot pot, which has all sorts of meats in it, as well as noodles or rice, and vegetables. The Mongolian version of dumplings, called buzz, cannot be missing from your list either.
But beyond the classics, there are some other dishes that are not for all palates. An example of that is Airag, a fermented horse milk product that is very popular in Mongolian steppes but whose taste I personally find a little bit off. Boortsog, a kind of meat pie, is also hugely popular, as well as cheese, yoghurt and other dairy products that go perfectly well with suutei Tsai, which is salty milk tea.
Guatemala and Mexico
Central America, especially the territory comprised by Guatemala y México, shares the same culturally influenced area, with a gastronomic heritage that is the result from miscegenation, usually between Mayans and Spanish settlers. Ingredients such as bananas, corn, beans, chili peppers and all sorts of tubers, such as potatoes or yucca, are used in several local dishes, most of which have to be eaten using your hands as if you were eating tacos or toasts.
Soups, which combine very well with all kinds of meat (turkey, chicken and even turtle), are very popular in Guatemala, for example. However, nothing beats zompopos de mayo in exoticism, a variety of winged ants that are considered a delicacy. They are mainly consumed in May and June, which is when they leave their underground nests in order to settle new colonies. During zompopo season they are sold in large quantities, only to be frozen for later consumption throughout the year. They are normally served with a lemon juice and salt , and as an omelette filling.
In the case of Mexico, Oaxacan chapulines are a local delicacy that can be purchased at any given market. They are similar to grasshoppers and its consumption dates back to time immemorial. They are usually sautéed with lemon, salt, and garlic, and besides being very low on fats, they are an important source of proteins.
Mexican chapulines. Picture by William Neuheisel.
Gradually more recognised and appreciated in occident, Japanese cuisine uses a jargon that does not sound exotic anymore in our latitude: sushi, tempura, sake, edamame, tofu, yakitori or nabe. The selection of dishes available ranges from the classic raw fish and rice roll wrapped in seaweed, to pots and brews combining all sorts of meats, vegetables and noodles, to dumplings and skewers. Still, no other dish generates so much buzz and peaks people’s interest as fugu.
Fugu is the name given to the pufferfish or porcupinefish in Japan, as well as the name used to refer to the dish itself. Its level of toxicity is so lethal that, if prepared incorrectly, it can lead to death by asphyxiation. The poison (to which there is no known antidote) paralyses the muscles while the victim stays fully conscious during the process.
Fugu: pufferfish in Japan. Picture by Rodrigo Fernández.
Its consumption and preparation is strictly forbidden in Europe, but in Japan it is considered a delicacy. Still, in order to be able to offer it to the public, restaurants must hold a licence and the cook be duly qualified. It comes as no surprise that this is the most expensive fish in the world.
There are lots of urban legends about Chinese food, but the truth is that it is one of the most exotic countries in the world when it comes to its gastronomy. Beyond the version served in Occident, which varies depending on the country, actual Chinese food shares some elements like rice and noodles but differs in the rest of it, also according to the region. However, if we don’t stick to traditional dishes, it is easy to find local food that in Occident would be considered an atrocity.
Bean noodle dish in Beijing
There is a saying that jokes that «Chinese will eat everything that swims except the submarine, everything that flies except the airplane, and everything with four legs except the table». Eating with sticks and from skewers is the most common thing, and utensils, except for the spoon to eat soup, are not part of the equation; in fact, using them is not highly regarded. In this sense, pretty much everything is served in skewers, from common food items such as corn on the cob, eggplants or kebab shish, to scorpions, rat legs, chicken heads or fried bugs, which can be easily purchased at street markets.
Another controversial food item consumed in China is dog meat, which is one of the reasons I decided to stick to a vegan diet while visiting the country. And you, would you dare trying any of these exotic dishes?
Where can I exchange currency for my trip?
Global Exchange has more than 260 offices in 21 countries.
Regardless of how deep your culinary immersion in any of these countries is, we recommend that you don’t travel to any without visiting the Global Exchange website first, where you will be able to exchange any foreign currency in the most practical way.
Cover image: Kevin Marsh.