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Southeast Asia's strangest cuisine: Snake blood, scorpion stings and weasel coffee

Tasting local cuisine is an intrinsic part of travelling and one that enriches cultural understanding and helps travellers to immerse themselves in local life. The "delicacies" of various nations often offer an insight into a country's past, springing from the quality of agricultural terrain, living conditions or even a tumultuous warring history.

Southeast Asia's strangest cuisine: Snake blood, scorpion stings and weasel coffee.

However, sometimes you'll be faced with a dish that you're not sure your delicate western palate can handle. The more daring traveller might dive right in to a dish of guinea pig brain in the Peruvian highlands, or Balut - the duck foetus special from the Philippines - but I've always been somewhat squeamish when it comes to the more visceral of local dishes.

So while I've not tried all of the delicacies I've been offered on my various travels, here are some of the ones that stood out for me for reasons from animal welfare and my own health to general repulsion.

Southeast Asia's strangest cuisine: Snake blood, scorpion stings and weasel coffee.

Durians: Ladies love them!

The Durian fruit is a foodstuff I'd never heard of before stepping foot in Southeast Asia. So strong is the stench of this yellow fruit that hotels, public transport and other communal areas commonly hang up signs forbidding Durian possession.

While I'd avoided it on my trips to Thailand and Cambodia, despite locals often begging me to try the fruit with a twinkle in their eye, I felt forced to have a taste while motorbiking down the coast of Vietnam.

Southeast Asia's strangest cuisine: Snake blood, scorpion stings and weasel coffee.

We were somewhere between Da Lat and Mui Ne when my guide suddenly braked and hopped off the bike, running over to some children nearby and yelling into the house they were playing outside. A man dashed out of the house with an axe-like weapon and set about attacking the King Cobra that was encroaching on his kids. After significantly subduing it, he trapped it in a large canvas bag. My guide was astounded: this was only the second King Cobra he'd seen in his life.

Durian fruit.

To thank us (although I had clearly been of no use), the family invited us to join them in their yard and enjoy some Durian as the injured snake thrashed around in its makeshift cage nearby. My British politeness caught up with me here and I tried to avoid making a disgusted face as I bit down into the fruit - which has a shiny, squelchy, yet solid consistency. To me it tasted like rotten egg and old fish mixed with a strong floral perfume. I avoided making eye-contact with my guide as I tried not to gag.

Later he would tell me that the fruit is particularly popular among the women of Vietnam, but is generally beloved by the whole population - westerners not so much though. The taste would unfortunately remain in my mouth for days to come.

Barbecued rat: Vermin on a stick

Barbecued rat.

Thai people living in rural areas have for centuries feasted on barbecued rat. A recent BBC report noted however that, far from being a last resort, rat meat is now considered a delicacy in Thailand, and costs more than chicken or pork.

Cooks thankfully choose the 'clean' rice field rats to chow down on, rather than those scavenging on the streets of Bangkok, for example. The meat is said to be extremely tasty and unique.

Southeast Asia's strangest cuisine: Snake blood, scorpion stings and weasel coffee.

I came across my first barbecued rat around five years ago when I was on a four-day trek in the hills of Chiang Mai. We'd settled down for the evening at a gorgeous stilted wooden house, set in the lush hills next to a babbling river. Sat around the fire pit that night, our guides offered us a banana-skin cigar, a tiny sip of a strong alcoholic drink they were downing (we couldn't handle any more, apparently), and a bite of a rat on a skewer.

I declined due to the fact it still very much looked like a rat, with its furry head still firmly attached to its body, but my friend braved a bite and concluded that it tasted a little like chicken.

Weasel Coffee: Try forget where it's been

Southeast Asia's strangest cuisine: Snake blood, scorpion stings and weasel coffee.

On my way out of Vietnam's Da Lat - a rainy inland town famed for its canyoning opportunities, flower farms and coffee plantations - my motorbike guide pulled over at a coffee house. After a month in Vietnam, this wasn't surprising; locals love their strong black coffee and usually kick off the day with a cup.

As we walked up the street to the large wooden structure, I noticed a large cage of weasels to my left, but was too busy taking in the view of the surrounding coffee plants to think anything of it.

Inside, there was a large choice of coffee on the menu, accompanied by strength and tasting notes. Glancing down the long list, my eyes fell on an unusual-sounding option: weasel coffee.

Southeast Asia's strangest cuisine: Snake blood, scorpion stings and weasel coffee.

Confused (were there weasels IN the coffee?), I asked my guide, who told me that the coffee beans are fed to the weasels. When they pass through, they are cleaned and de-shelled before being brewed. It is believed that chemicals present in the animal's digestive system make for a stronger and smoother coffee with a more intense flavour. The novelty of this beverage means that you have to shell out a significantly more dong - but it was worth it!

Southeast Asia's strangest cuisine: Snake blood, scorpion stings and weasel coffee.

Back home I'm not a huge coffee connoisseur, but I'd found that a glass of the strong, black stuff in Vietnam was the best way to start the day - giving you energy to go out and explore in the often intense heat. The weasel coffee, which I enjoyed with a creamy milk, was a particularly heady option and gave me quite the boost. I just had to try forget where it had been!

Balut: Egg, but not like you're used to

I have never tried Balut for reasons that will become clear. However, I have seen the visceral dish - originally from the Philippines - sold on the side of the road in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

You may want to steel your stomach for the description.

Balut - an embrio of a bird.

A balut - which means 'wrapped' in Malay - is the developing embryo of a bird, commonly a chicken or duck, that is boiled in its shell before being cracked open and devoured straight from the egg. The length of the incubation before cooking depends on the locality but commonly lasts for between 14 and 21 days. Locals typically pair balut with beer, although I must say I would need something a lot stronger to wash down this delicacy.

For some travellers, trying this stomach-churning dish is a point of pride and a way to rack up bucket list brownie points: if you can keep a balut down you really could live like a local. For others there are issues of animal welfare, religion, and even human health surrounding the consumption of this controversial dish. I fell firmly into the second camp.

Scorpion: Can you handle the sting?

Fried scorpions.

Scorpion has become something of a novelty food for tourists, and you routinely see women with trays of the the black arachnids traversing Bangkok's infamous Khao San Road as selfie-seeking tourists gather round.

Its seems like more people pose for pictures with the scorpions than actually try them, but those that do claim it tastes like crab or shrimp. Tourists dining on scorpion are pretty brave, given that the creatures are widely known to be poisonous. However, the poison is neutralised during the cooking process, in which the creature is fried alive in boiling oil. Meanwhile, eating the sting is said to be good both for strength and male virility.

'Happy juice': "When a woman drinks this, all the men run away"

Rice wine is one local delicacy in Asia that I am more than happy to indulge in. However, the term 'wine' can be somewhat misleading, as the strength of this drink means it's more comparable to a top shelf shot than a large glass of white you can casually sip.

Southeast Asia's strangest cuisine: Snake blood, scorpion stings and weasel coffee.

During my time in Vietnam I visited a number of rice wine breweries - usually located inside family homes - and tried various incarnations of the drink. It is made by the fermentation of rice starch that is converted into sugars, and consequently these houses feature blazing stoves, large trays of rice and transparent bags of water to keep the flies away. It doesn't have a particularly pleasing taste - in fact it just feels like you are taking a shot of pure alcohol - but it certainly makes you feel a bit woozy.

Southeast Asia's strangest cuisine: Snake blood, scorpion stings and weasel coffee.

One night on my way to Mui Ne, I sat down to dinner with a number of motorbike tour guides and a Dutch couple. We whiled the night away drinking tiger beer and discussing cultural differences before one of the drivers pulled out a bottle of what he described as 'happy juice' - an even stronger version of rice wine - that boasts an extremely high percentage.

When I enquired regarding its name one of the drivers proffered: "When man drinks it he is happy. When lady drinks it, all the men run away!"

If I'm being very honest, we drank a lot of the happy juice that night, and it was akin to having a night on vodka: I got quite merry and had a significant headache the next morning - just in time for a day of biking!

Snake: Blood, bile and heart

Southeast Asia's strangest cuisine: Snake blood, scorpion stings and weasel coffee.

Snake is one of the most famous 'quirky' foods available in Vietnam. In the more rural parts of the country, travellers can sit down to a feast of snake meat, blood, bile - and finish off with the reptile's still-beating heart.

During a trip to the Mekong Delta in the south of Vietnam, I visited a tiny, picturesque community where they had snakes writhing on the barbecue, along with recently-caught toads and rats. While travellers were congregating around the barbecue - the snake seemed to be one step too far for everyone, and no-one opted to try.

Tarantula: Step one is dealing with the legs

Southeast Asia's strangest cuisine: Snake blood, scorpion stings and weasel coffee.

Our bus was en route from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh when we pulled into the dusty square of a small village for a break. A short wander around revealed a large number of stalls selling brightly-coloured bags and wooden trinkets for the tourists, as well as a large market. The place seemed unremarkable until I rounded a corner near the market and came across a line of women in velour 'Apple'-branded tracksuits clutching platters of fried tarantula.

Fried tarantulas.

The tradition of eating tarantula in the Skuon region began during the Khmer Rogue regime where fear and food shortages were widespread. However, when locals gained access to more food tarantula remained a favourite part of their cuisine.

Again, unwilling to eat this myself, I watched as a brave man on the bus picked the legs off his tarantula and set about eating it. Crispy on the outside, the head and body opened up to reveal white meat, which I was predictably told tasted a little bit like chicken.

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Caroline Howley

Caroline Howley

Travel Enthusiast and Writer

Follow the adventures of a writer who decided to one day leave everything behind and go in a...

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