As food and travel writers, we’ve devoured duck tongue in China, sea urchins in Italy, cockroaches in Cambodia, and something that may have been octopi embryo (but we sure hope not). We sipped wine with snakes and scorpions curled inside the bottle in Vietnam. Sampling street food and local specialties is a great way to get acquainted with a culture, and one of the joys of travel. You learn valuable lessons, like, duck feet: tasty. Duck tongue: gross.
That said, never would we ever try some of the foodstuffs featured in “Gastro Obscura.” We’re looking at you, fermented, reeking-of-ammonia Icelandic shark! And we’ll give a hard pass to a shot of Jeppson’s Mälort, a spirit made in Illinois (main ingredient: wormwood, an herb used to treat worms). This drink is so vile-tasting, it compares to bug spray, gasoline, and burnt vinyl, the writers note. Discoveries like these make “Gastro Obscura” a lively read for foodies, or anyone who has an insatiable curiosity about all things edible.
Subtitled, “A Food Adventurer’s Guide,” this newly released 400-page volume was compiled by the Atlas Obscura folks (www.atlasobscura.com), a travel and media company devoted to sharing the most unusual and extraordinary places on the planet. They highlight these fun finds — often contributed by their readers — on their website and podcast, and offer classes, trips, and events to like-minded souls.
Based on the premise that wondrous food is everywhere, the aim of “Gastro Obscura” is to inspire wonder and curiosity about the world through food and drink. It is not a cookbook, although it does have a few recipes sprinkled within its pages. (Ben Franklin’s milk punch, we’re making you at our next actual party.) Most of the entries were culled from the Atlas Obscura community, a field of 500,000-plus tipsters, along with a team of editors who scoured the planet to uncover uncommon edibles. Entries span seven continents and more than 120 countries. If you’re a faithful user of the website, some of the content may be familiar. But here, these snippets are bound together, so you can open a spread to see South Korea’s “Urine-Fermented Skate Fish” and “Impossible Slime Fish” side-by-side, complete with color photos.
The book is arranged geographically, making it easy to flip directly to your ancestral country first. Entries are fairly short, with magazine-style blocks of copy. They’ve helpfully included a “where to try it” category, so you’ll know where to find, say, stuffed goat’s stomach the next time you visit Brazil.
Toe-spiked booze and cookie salads
We’re connoisseurs of weirdness, and each country included in “Gastro Obscura” truly represents, even that bastion of niceness, Canada. Who knew you could order a cocktail at the Sourdough Saloon in Dawson City, Yukon, that contains any alcohol you desire — along with a pickled human toe? Or that you could buy soap-flavored chewing gum in Ontario? And we have a Canadian to thank (or despise) — one Sam Panopoulos — for creating the first Hawaiian pizza. The book is chock-full of gee-whiz moments like this, alongside food factoid features highlighting pickles around the world, a comparison of all things dumpling, and a bio of Tom Carvel of ice cream fame among the entries.
Among the local mentions, Boston merits a description of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. The Agawam Diner in Rowley is pictured in a story on New Jersey-made dining cars. There’s also an interesting write-up of mountain hut “croo” — the folks who cook for Appalachian Mountain Club hut users in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Every New England state is accounted for, some more than once.
Anyone who grew up in the middle of the country will appreciate the entry, “Instant Salads of the Midwest,” famous for their lack of vegetables. We’ve all heard of Jell-O salad, but only Heartlanders will nod in recognition at the descriptions of “cookie salad,” invented in Minnesota and starring the humble Keebler Fudge Stripe, and “glorified rice,” a triumph of white rice, whipped cream, crushed pineapple, miniature marshmallows, and maraschino cherries.
Those concoctions would probably sound yucky to someone from, say, Portugal, where stewed lamprey (eel), considered a parasite in North America’s Great Lakes, is marinated in its own blood and served with rice. “One man’s horrific, prehistoric pest has been another man’s delicacy for thousands of years,” the authors write, noting that the dish was served at Julius Caesar’s banquets.
Lard hearts and buttery heads
The writing is jaunty, so you find yourself reading about things you didn’t know you were interested in, like pickled bar cheese in the Czech Republic, best enjoyed with a local fluffy milk beer. Now we want to go to Prague simply to try these. And will someone please invite us to a Ukrainian wedding, so we can taste the lavishly decorated korovai, a wedding bread made by seven married women, who knead the dough and sing folk songs, “infusing the bread with their good fortune”? Also in Ukraine, in the city of Lviv, is the Salo Art Museum, devoted to sculptures carved from salt-cured pork fat. Human body parts are a popular theme; a giant replica of a human heart is the world record-holding lard heart — yet another item to add to the travel bucket list!
Speaking of food as sculpture, a favorite entry of author Dylan Thuras is the “Butter Carving of Princess Kay of the Milky Way,” which occurs at the Minnesota state fair each year. “It is an absolute family tradition to go and watch the winners of the Minnesota county beauty contest get slowly sculpted in a 90-pound block of butter,” he notes. The best part: “They get to keep the creations, meaning that at the end many get to eat their own heads as part of big community pancake days!”
Author Cecily Wong’s favorite foods in the book “are the ones that seem common, but actually have incredible backstories,” she says. “For example, pad Thai was created by a Thai dictator who wanted the country to eat more noodles, which would reduce rice consumption. He distributed recipes and little carts to sell pad Thai, and essentially dictated the dish into existence.”
About that monkey buffet — those monkeys are eating, not eaten. The province of Lopburi in Thailand is home to thousands of macaques, and feeding them each November is believed to bring good luck, the writers explain. After a crew of monkey-costumed humans dance, the main event commences: banquet tables laden with watermelons, durians, pineapples, and other delicacies favored by monkeys. They feast on towering pyramids of food, nearly two tons of edible offerings — quite a nice spread, as dad would say.
In lieu of personal visits to faraway places (sigh), “Gastro Obscura” offers a virtual buffet of the incredible edibles on planet Earth. It celebrates the glories of food — glorified rice included.
“Gastro Obscura,” by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras, with additional writing by the Atlas Obscura team. Workman Publishing, New York; $42.50.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com