It may come as no surprise that with such a wide-ranging and diverse culinary culture, there are bound to be a few that raise eyebrows. Especially compared to relatively bland and tame western foods, dietary preferences in Asia sometimes have ingredients, flavors, and textures that elicit the cliche doubtful-faced selfie accompanied by said food. But, hey, life is short and you should keep an open mind, perhaps some previously nauseating food just may become one of your personal favorites.
Durian | Cr: chillpainai.com
It will surprise nobody that durian is the first on this list. That’s because it’s the most well-known funky food with warning signs banning it on flights, in taxis, and pretty much everywhere. It’s prohibition isn’t based on it’s dangerous spiky rind, rather on its super-potent scent. Usually it’s the pungent smell of the more savory “onion-y” varieties that mostly turn people off.
Never fear, since there are supposedly 234 varieties of this delicacy/poison (depending on your tastes), there just might be one that tantalizes your taste buds. Generally, durian lovers prefer to indulge in the fresh fruit, tree-ripened to perfection. The uninitiated will struggle to pry the creamy goodness from the tough, sharp shell so best to buy some already extracted.
It seems that in large part people either think durian smells and tastes like a pile of dirty gym socks with a rotting carcass underneath, or it’s heaven embodied in fruit form. There’s only one way to find out which side of the fence you’re on.
Stink Bean (sataw) | Cr: chillpainai.com
Perhaps you’ve seen these being sold at a local fresh market, swaying from the sidecar of a mobile veggie vendor, or even dangling from the branches of the tree. Sataw resembles a giant snow pea pod, but vibrant yellowish-green.
Inside these pods are thumbnail-sized green seeds that might not look like much, but pack an immense amount of flavor. The taste is hard to describe, but it certainly falls into the garlic family…but stronger. Thais often eat it raw straight out of the pod, but it’s a bit bitter. Once cooked it seems the flavors become more refined. It’s commonly used in curries, especially with shrimp, and can be mighty tasty if you’re into that kind of thing. Fair warning: it makes your breath and, ahem, your bathroom experience quite fragrant.
Fermented Fish Salad (som tum pla ra) | Cr: openrice.com
If you don’t really love the taste of fish, you’d be wise to avoid this one. One could say pla ra is somewhat of an acquired taste. It is made by combining fish, salt, and powdered rice or rice bran in an earthenware pot which is then left to ferment for six months. Depending on the process and type of fish, the result is a yellow to almost black paste which is incredibly pungent, flavorful, and salty.
You’ll find pla ra predominantly used in dishes from the northeast like papaya salad, a soup called gaeng om, or served with thin rice noodles and veggies called yam pla ra. If you enjoy fishy flavors it’s worth a try. Start with trying the yam pla ra as the other flavors help to soften the fishiness.
Chicken Feet Soup (souper dteen gai) | Cr: postsod.com
This dish is less about the peculiarities of the flavor and more simply about the taboo in the western world of eating chicken’s feet.
If you’ve never tried them before, you may have guessed they taste like chicken. When they are cooked right they are tender and can be a tongue twister separating the many small bones from the flesh. Depending on where you get it, the soup is very tasty with a sweet and sour balance. Siow Jung Sin in Phuket Town has one of the best around.
Dancing Shrimp Salad (yam goong dten) | Cr: อีสานร้อยแปด
Here is one more dish with easy going flavors, however, it’s the tiny live shrimp flopping around in the salad that may be a novelty to some. While the name dancing shrimp salad sounds more lively and fun, they are of course bouncing around trying to find their way back into the water. On the other hand, the dish is quite delicious with a bit of sweet, salty, and spiciness that is quite refreshing paired with the slight crunchiness of the mini-shrimps soft shells. Bon apetit!