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10 Bizarre Foods from the Ancient World That People Still Eat

by Jeffrey Morris
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Times change, and there are a lot of differences between the past and the present. As the Mongol Empire, Qing Dynasty, and Ottoman Empire collapsed and humanity adapted to the changes, so did cultural and culinary changes. However, what surprises us is that there are some meals from the ancient world that we find bizarre but have refused to leave the dining table even in the 21st century. These are ten bizarre foods from the ancient world that people still eat:

Related: Top 10 Horrific Foods The Victorians Ate

10 Garum: The Fermented Fish Sauce of Ancient Rome

I finally made GARUM | Ancient Rome’s favorite condiment

The name “garum” sounds like a nice dish, but in reality, it is made from fish allowed to ferment in the sun in a clay pot, with spices like dill, coriander, and other herbs. Garum was a popular condiment in ancient Rome. It has been referred to as the ketchup of the Roman world. Not surprisingly, making garum was an odiferous task—assigned to slaves and laborers in ancient Rome—as the processes involved were quite complex and time consuming.

Throughout Roman times, Garum was sold at different grades and prices, depending on the fish used and the concentration of the liquid—the thinner, the better, and more expensive. Although the process involved in making garum has changed over the years as it spread to other regions of the world, garum as a fish sauce has survived several centuries and is still on the dining table today.[1]

9 Braised Flamingo

Chicken is one of the most popular sources of protein in the world today. Still, humanity also indulges in other birds, namely turkey, and duck. Birds like quail, grouse, goose, and swan are also eaten, but very few people are keen on the flamingo. The braised flamingo is a delicacy from the distant past that has made it to the 21st century.

Everything about the flamingo is weird. It is a thin and strange-looking bird that moves and flies awkwardly. They have naturally white feathers that change to pink from a diet rich in beta-carotene, the same chemical that makes carrots orange.

Braised flamingo was a dish reserved for the wealthy who could afford it in ancient Rome. It was a status symbol tantamount to flaunting one’s riches. Flamingo meat is still eaten by some in the 21st century. Some markets in China and Thailand openly sell flamingo meat. People in Venezuela also hunt and eat it due to the food crisis. Some inhabitants in the Caribbean also hunt and eat flamingos.[2]

8 Chewy Milk

A History of Irish Food with Tadgh Byrne: Episode 2: Early Medieval Ireland (600BC-1500AD): Dairy

In ancient Ireland, milk was a delicacy of its own. But this was a different form of what we think of milk today; it was yellow bubbling milk and needed to be chewed slowly—like a soft cheese. Sometimes, you would require a shorter amount of time to chew meat than chew this milk. Although the Irish love potatoes, the tuber crop did not make its way into Ireland till the late 1600s. Milk dominated the diet of the Irish in the interim.

There was drinking milk, buttermilk, fresh curds, and old curds. There was also something called “real curds.” It was in this era of milk dominance that “chewy” milk was born. In 1690, one visitor observed that the Irish drank and ate milk in about twenty different ways. After several centuries of drinking and chewing milk, these milk options are still consumed in Ireland today. The difference is that they are now made with modern technology and more hygienic methods.[3]

7 Witchetty Grub

Eating a Witchetty Grub in The Outback of Australia

Witchetty grub is a term used in Australia for the large, white, wood-eating larvae of several moths. In particular, it applies to the larvae of the cossid moth, which feeds on the roots of the witchetty bush (after which the grubs are named). The witchetty grub was a delicacy for the native Aborigines of Australia.

It is lightly cooked over coals of a fire or can also be eaten raw. It tastes like almond when it is eaten raw. If cooked, it tastes like scrambled eggs or chicken. In ancient Australia, the most popular way for consuming witchetty grub was raw; however, some people who wanted to eat it alongside other food may have chosen to cook it. If only one food in the world is bizarre, it is definitely the witchetty grub. What is most surprising is that this “delicacy” is still being eaten today by quite a lot of people.[4]

6 Sour Ram’s Testicles

Icelandic Food – Unique and Traditional Foods in Iceland

Sour ram’s testicles were a favorite dish of the ancient Icelandic people. To prepare this particular dish, cooks wash the testicles thoroughly, then remove the outer membranes and boil them. They then pickle the glands for several months, changing the liquid regularly to avoid bacterial growth. Once the testicles reach the right level of acidity, they are pressed together into a rectangular block, which the revelers of the dish would slice and eat.

Ram’s testicles saw a bit of a revival in the late 1950s, when a Reykjavik restaurant began serving them along with other traditional countryside dishes like fermented shark and boiled sheep’s head as a winter delicacy. This food is on this list because it did not remain in the ancient world. Today, you can find pickled ram’s testicles in certain Icelandic supermarkets in midwinter. In fact, the dish is reported to have gained popularity in America and Asia as well.[5]

5 Deep Fried Maple Leaves

When in Japan, Deep-Fry Some Maple Leaves

Deep-fried maple leaves originated in Japan several hundred years ago. Some experts put it at about 1300. Only yellow maple leaves are used, and they can only be fried if they haven’t fallen off the tree. After the perfect leaves are picked, they need to be soaked in salt water for almost a year. After that, the leaves can be fried in batter with sugar and sesame.

The deep-fried maple leaves cannot be taken to the dining table immediately after it is fried. They will be left overnight to remove as much oil as possible. If not, the taste of the oil can be overpowering. Even today, the snack is a specialty of Minoh City in Japan.[6]

4 Ambergris

Charles II’s Ambergris and eggs

Ambergris is otherwise known as floating gold because of its hue and value. Moreover, it actually floats in the ocean. It is made in the digestive tracts of whales to surround hard squid beaks that cannot be digested. People also colloquially refer to ambergris as a whale’s vomit—though it actually emerges from the other end. Ambergris is worth a lot of money because it is highly prized in the perfume industry. It is also used to make medicines and cocktails. What you may not know is that ambergris is also eaten.

We understand that the ancient Persian sherbets—a drink prepared from fruit or flower petals—once contained ambergris alongside water and lemon. Moreover, a serving of eggs and ambergris was reportedly King Charles II of England’s favorite dish. In the 21st century, people still eat ambergris, but it is very rare as most people prefer to cash in on the valuable commodity. Apparently, Christopher Kemp, a molecular biologist, also cooks with a piece of white ambergris because of the sweet smell.[7]

3 Dormouse

Stuffed dormice – An Ancient Roman recipe

The dormouse is a rodent of the family Gliridae. They are nocturnal animals found in Africa, Asia, and Europe. While no bigger than rats, they are a serious pest with the capacity to invade farmlands in the thousands and render harvest impossible. Considering the negativity associated with this animal, you would not expect people to stoop so low to eat it.

However, in ancient Rome, the dormouse was a real treat enjoyed by a large percentage of households at that time. Although the popularity of the dormouse has declined, it is still a traditional dish in Croatia and Slovenia. In both countries, dormouse trapping is an important event. To this day, in Croatia, particularly on the Island of Hvar, they are grilled over an open flame and served on bread.[8]

2 Dirt

Haitians eat dirt cookies to survive

The act of eating dirt is called geophagia. It is the deliberate consumption of earth, soil, or clay. Geophagia likely began with pre-historic populations and was documented in early Greek and Roman texts. To this day, geophagia is still in practice in contemporary urban South Africa and several countries of the world, including the United States. From a psychiatric point of view, geophagia has been classified as a form of pica—a term that comes from the Latin word for magpie, a bird with indiscriminate eating habits. Besides dirt, other non-food items that you may have the urge to eat include pebbles, clay, ash, cloth, paper, chalk, and hair.

The reason why people believe they need to eat dirt varies—some people believe that it might help improve stomach issues, soften skin or alter skin tone, offer protective benefits during pregnancy, and prevent or treat illness by absorbing toxins. European medical texts from the 16th and 17th centuries mention geophagia that appeared to occur with chlorosis or “green sickness,” a type of anemia. Still, geophagia occurs all over the world, though it happens most often in tropical regions.[9]

1 Corpses

Last ever cannibal tribe | 60 Minutes Australia

In the ancient world, medical cannibalism was rife. It was the consumption of human body parts to treat diseases. The medical trade and pharmacological use of human body parts and fluids arose from the belief that because the human body is able to heal itself, it can also help heal another human body. The belief was shared among different groups, including ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese cultures. Medical cannibalism primarily applies the principle of sympathetic magic. For example, powdered blood was used to treat bleeding, human fat was used to treat bruising, and powdered skulls were used to treat migraines and dizziness.

Today, cannibalism is still being practiced in several parts of the world for different reasons. In Papua New Guinea, there is a tribe called the Korowai. The tribesmen believe mysterious deaths are attributed to demons who take on the human form, and it is their duty to consume the dead man’s carcass in order to take revenge for the death. Similarly, Fiji is famous for its long-running history of cannibalism. Although the practice has almost died out in recent years, however, the Naihehe Caves tribe still practices cannibalism.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen