Jane Ammeson is a Times correspondent
Branza de burduf—a sheep’s cheese aged in the bark of a fir tree from the Transylvanian Alpine region of Romania, Cuore di Tonno (tuna heart) from Italy, Cod Tongues from Newfoundland and Labrador, and the slightly obscene but tasty geoduck, a giant clam sold in markets in Seattle that can be turned into a tasty stew.
These foods, from all over the globe, might seem to have little in common except that they are not your typical dinner items, at least in our neighborhoods. But as Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras show us in their amazingly well-researched and written book “Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide,” they constitute an exploration of the foods eaten around the globe.
Describing eating as one of the most immersive travel experiences—one that requires an engagement of every sense, Wong and Thuras write that there is no faster way to glimpse the heart of a place than by experiencing its food.
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To create their book—a beautiful tome with wonderful photos and intriguing headlines that keep you reading—they divided it into chapters and sections that include Antarctica where we learn about the cuisines of the base stations belonging to different countries. Although you might expect all the food from this very inhospitable continent to be freeze-dried packets of something almost inedible, humans are very creative when it comes to the food they eat.
At Japan’s Showa Station, Devil’s Rice Balls, their chef’s invention consisting of edible algae, tempura batter and rice wasn’t just something to swallow at below zero degrees but is now a popular convenience store snack back in Japan.
“Part of what makes ‘Gastro Obscura’ really special is that we have this huge community of users who write in every day and tell us, I ate this really incredible food, you should check it out,” Cecily Wong said in an interview. She noted that most of the information came from more than half-a-million members of the Atlas Obscura, the global community dedicated to exploration and sharing, who shared their food experiences for the book. “I either grew up with it or I went and visited this place. And so half of the entries in this book came from that process, and the other half came from my co-author Dylan and I just going wild for about three years.”
Fun Food Facts from Gastro ObscuraNorway has the highest annual per capita pizza consumption of any nation on Earth. Perhaps more surprising than Norwegians beating Italians and Americans at their own game is their style of eating it. Of the 50 million pizzas consumed each year in Norway, 47 million of them are pulled from the grocery store freezer and baked at home.
Making sushi originally meant salting a fish and letting it ferment for years. Called narezushi, the earliest sushi, which dates to the 8th century, was primarily created as a way to preserve fish. Gutted carp is salted and fermented for as long as four years, resulting in a cured, prosciutto-like texture with a ripe smell and cheesy flavor. While now difficult to find, traditional narezushi is still the specialty in Shiga Prefecture, just east of Kyoto.
Spam was illegal in South Korea until the 1980s. This was bad news for lovers of budae jjigae, or “army base stew,” that had been cobbled together from American army base leftovers by resourceful Koreans facing wartime food scarcity. After the Korean War, the South Korean government banned the import of American products, resulting in a demand for black market Spam that remained high until the 1980s, when a Korean company began producing it. Today, the import ban has been lifted, and budae jjigae remains an immensely popular comfort food in South Korea.