Revolting (adj.): “causing revulsion; nauseating, disgusting, or repulsive”

Our emotive reactions to food are incredibly powerful in guiding our culinary habits. Food can bring joy and comfort, and make us voracious to eat more. It is an important part of our celebrations, but it is also deeply connected to undesirable emotions such as guilt, worry and revulsion.

Not surprisingly, these responses can cancel out whole food groups for some people. Take vegetarianism. One study identified disgust as a key reason that vegetarians motivated by morals avoid meat. Similarly, the rise of fad diets and processed foods, particularly in Western food culture, has correlated with a parallel increase in ‘lipophobia’ and ‘carbophobia’, resulting in guilt and avoidance of fat and carbohydrates. Perhaps the most unnerving emotion is revulsion: defining a food as revolting conjures thoughts of immoral or disgusting production processes, and suggests it is nauseating or even inedible.

Our culinary comfort zones

One risk of revulsion is that consumers stay within a particular culinary comfort zone, embracing the known and rejecting the unusual. This encourages the globalisation of ‘safe’ Westernised products – fortified, homogenised and pasteurised – at the expense of ‘risky’ local, traditional foods. As traditional foods become less popular, the story behind them withers away, with disgust or discomfort taking precedence over their cultural value.

Diverse heritage foods are steeped in local traditions, ecology, culture and ethnicity. All of this is central to both their production and consumption, as are wider concerns for biodiversity, livelihoods, food security, and socio-ecological challenges such as changes in climate, land use and demographics. As the FAO states: “The alarming pace of food biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation makes a compelling case for re-examining food systems and diets.”

The stories behind these local culinary traditions need to be told so that we can understand why dishes seemingly so revolting to some people are considered comfort food or delicacies to others. And to prevent these traditions being swept away we need to leap outside our culinary comfort zones and encourage their cultivation and consumption into the future. 

Revolt versus reverence

When it comes to diet, it’s all relative. A culinary tradition that seems disgusting to one society may be revered by another.

Reflecting on the Laotian delicacy paa-dek – a condiment made from raw fish fermented with salt water, rice dust and husks food tourist Natacha Du Pont De Bie comments: “Most Westerners baulk at the idea of rotten fish but Laotians find it equally repellent that we eat fermented milk with lines of blue mould in it.” Of course, Natacha is referring to a staple food throughout the Western world: cheese.

Another ‘revolting’ food, bluntly put, is penis. Many people around the world would recoil at the thought of eating this sinewy member, but for centuries bull penis was celebrated as a luxury cuisine amongst Chinese emperors. It takes over five hours to slow cook until tender, using vegetables to add flavour to the simmering broth. Not only is this gastronomic tradition economical, nutritious and prevents food waste, it also brings medical benefits, according to Chinese culinary culture, to the corresponding human organ. In this case, bull penis is a strong aphrodisiac.

Hákarl

Virility and aphrodisiacal qualities are a major driving force in unusual food traditions. Eating hákarl, or rotten Greenland shark, is associated with masculinity and strength in Icelandic tradition, despite its aggressive aroma of ammonia. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the Durian fruit – banned from public transport due to its raw sewage stench – has been devoured since prehistoric times. Why? Phytochemicals within the fruit increase sweating and blood rush, all leading to heightened sexual arousal. It really is the “smell from hell, but the taste of heaven”.  

Preservation and provenance

Rather than being foods of luxury, many traditions of strong-flavoured foods originated in times of scarcity and food insecurity, when people relied on historical food preservation techniques or sustainable methods of production.

One widespread and important culinary tradition is eating the whole animal, which not only secures food when there is not much available, but also respects a wider bio-cultural synergy. Nomadic Scandinavian herders, for example, who follow the natural migratory route of their reindeer, rely on reindeer products such as fur, meat and milk to survive throughout the year. One delicacy, souvas, entails making a soup from reindeer blood and offal, smoking reindeer hearts and salting and smoking the remaining reindeer meat. However, as urbanisation encroaches on migratory routes and pasture-land, the links between environment and food culture are jeopardised, with modern foods and sedentary lifestyles increasing in popularity and former ways of living and eating dying out.

surströmming

Another key preservation process is fermentation: it keeps foods during winter and droughts, enhances flavour, is low cost, low energy, and improves food safety by reducing toxins. One popular fermented dish in Scandinavia is surströmming or Baltic herring. Originating in 16th century northern Sweden, the herring is beheaded, gutted and immersed in a brine-filled container to ferment. As gases such as hydrogen sulphide are released, the pressurised bulge in the container increases, silently waiting for someone to open it and release its pungent, acidic odour, similar to rotten eggs.

While the smell is retch-worthy and has led to the dish being banned by many international airlines, surströmming is central to Swedish culinary heritage (there is even a museum dedicated to the fermented fish). Being portable, durable, lean and high in protein, it was a staple food for Swedish soldiers. Today, surströmming is still eaten, but combined with less aromatic ingredients such as sour cream, potato, onion and bread to make surströmmingsklamma.

Revolt (noun): “rebellion or refusal to conform”

Food traditions that many of us may consider revolting, link generations of knowledge and practice together to enrich culinary heritage and increase food security, sustainability and respect for unique environments. These gastronomic traditions need to be preserved, along with the cultural systems they emerge from. In this sense, ‘revolting’ food also reflects an opposition to more homogenous, modern and processed foods.

Slow Food Ark of TasteSlow Food’s Ark of Taste campaigns for this, acting as a directory of endangered ancient food and drink, many of which might be considered unusual or ‘disgusting’ to consumers of ‘safe’ globalised products. So far, it has told the story of 2,084 products, documenting taste, texture and aroma alongside the food’s role in local culture, environment and sustainability.

There have been some major successes. Take the raw cheese and milk movement, advocating the use of unpasteurised dairy products. Cheese is popular in Western food culture, but the risk of consuming potentially harmful, live bacteria has health and safety administrators warning us off ‘raw’ dairy. This neglects raw dairy’s taste, quality, texture and the organic processes going into its production. In a campaign to highlight these benefits, the Slow Food movement calls for supporters to join in  the revolt against pasteurised, effectively dead, cheeses: “Together we can resist!” it cries.

Another inspiring example is entomophagy – eating insects. Originally thought of as disgusting and even primitive in industrialised countries, scientists, policy makers and chefs are now working together to find ways to change consumers’ perception of insects. By using a holistic approach to market creepy crawlies, entomophagy may shift from being perceived as ‘revolting’ to becoming a crucial food source of sustainable diets and local ecology in the future. Restaurants such as Noma are now regularly using insects in their recipes, creating fermented insect umami and frying locusts. Wine merchant Laithwaite’s has just published an insect and wine matching guide, suggesting combinations such as zebra tarantula with Chardonnay and giant water bugs with dry sherry.

IMG_1246There is much hope for a future of diverse and sustainable foods, we just need to keep revolting by expanding our culinary horizons. Ditch your culinary comfort zone and start exploring the world of deliciously disgusting food traditions. In the meantime, I’m off to enjoy a thick slab of milbenkäse – cheese fermented by mites – on crusty bread.

Featured image by Thomas Angermann, in text images by Chris WronskiElisabet and Ellen Freytag

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  • Nils Andersen

    In Norway, some of the traditionally most repulsive food is steadily growing in popularity and have done so for quite a while. “Lutefisk”, dry cod soaked in lye and then steamed or baked, creating a not very pleasant smelling and gelatinous dish have long been a big hit in the weeks before Christmas, serving tons of it in both restaurants and private homes. So has our version of “surströmming”, the fermented trout, called “rakfisk”, once something for the die hard enthusiasts, now a protected and cherished geographical speciality. And the “smalahove”, the smoked and cooked sheeps head are picking up, too! All these have become what you can call “totem food”, dishes that serve more as a cultural marker and something to gather around, more than a nutrishional necessity. And most of the people eating it probably do so more to prove they are up to it, being a true viking, while covering the whole thing up in all the camouflaging additional ingredients. But whatever, as long as it keep the tradition alive and kicking, that’s fine!