Maybe you’re already an adventurous eater. Or maybe you’re like Blue Shirt Guy at the beginning of Shawn Levy’s new movie “Free Guy” and always order the same thing when you go out to eat, thank you very much. Either way, trying foods you’ve never had before will add a little spice to your life. Here are five interesting and unusual foods that are as pleasing to the palate as they are to your health.
In 2016, camel milk made headlines when then 65-year-old Ariana Huffington, founder of Huffington Post, told a British journalist that she loved adding it to her morning cappuccino. Easier to digest than cow’s milk and less likely to spike your blood sugar, which makes it a great choice for diabetics, camel milk is still a strange concept to most people living outside Africa and the Middle East.
That needs to change, says Christina Adams, 59, author of the book “Camel Crazy: A Quest for Miracles in the Mysterious World of Camels.” When Adams first learned about camel milk in 2005, she was intrigued. Her son was 7 years old and suffering from serious health challenges, including gastrointestinal troubles, skin irritation, hyperactivity, and behavioral breakdowns. But in order to get it, Adams, who lives in Southern California, had to fly suitcases of frozen camel milk into the United States from herders in the Middle East.
Still, she was astonished at how well it worked. After a single serving of camel milk, Adams recounts in her book, her son’s symptoms of immune and neurological dysfunction started to clear up. He acted calmer, his skin irritation began to subside, and his verbal skills dramatically improved.
Enjoyed by Nomads for Centuries
“Camel milk’s been used by nomadic people for centuries to heal diseases,” Adams tells me. “It has natural anti-viral and anti-bacterial qualities: enzymes, antibodies and absorbable insulin, plus essential fatty acids, GABA, and vitamins.”
Adams explains that camels have antibodies that are found only in sharks and camelids (the group of animals that also includes llamas, alpacas, and vicunas). “Studies suggest that these smaller antibodies can help treat human diseases,” she says.
Camel milk, camel meat, and camel-milk-based chocolates (which you can buy in the airport in Dubai) still sound like strange foods to American ears, but camels are domestic animals in many parts of the world. Their milk is easy to find in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as in Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Somalia, and Sudan. And, Adams says, market reports predict that the international market for camel products will grow at a 7 to 10 percent rate in the next several years. The United Nations has even declared 2024 the International Year of Camelids.
But if you don’t have a local source, camel milk is still very expensive. Daunted by the price but inspired to try it, I ordered some online from Desert Farms, an American-based consortium of camel milk farms started by a Saudi-born businessman. The pint-sized plastic bottles of camel milk arrived in a Styrofoam cooler packed in dry ice. Nomads in several parts of the world call camel milk “nature’s pharmacy.” My teenage son called it delicious: lighter and more refreshing than cow’s milk and a little saltier. Standing by the open refrigerator, my son drank down an entire bottle in three gulps before I could stop him. Good for his health, for sure, but decidedly bad for my wallet.
My 11-year-old daughter attended an outdoor program where the teacher, a wilderness survivalist, taught the children how to eat ants. As cringe-worthy as that might seem to some of us, cultures around the world eat insects regularly. In Oaxaca, Mexico, where they are sold as pre-packaged snacks, people eat crickets fried and spiced. When our family spent a year in Niger, West Africa, we were served a huge bowl of roasted crickets dusted with spicy powdered seasoning—which my husband insisted was the only local food he really enjoyed.
They’re crunchy and tasty (depending on the seasoning.) They’re also one of the most ecological sources of animal protein out there. Unlike cows, crickets don’t produce greenhouse gases, and they are very low-input animals, needing little water, food, and energy for the amount of protein they provide when raised. They are “no-input” when harvested in the wild. What’s more, the entire cricket is edible, with no waste left over.
Two-thirds of cricket by weight is complete protein—that’s more protein per ounce than beef. It is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 and is one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat.
Another benefit: In a time when more people are being diagnosed with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, cricket flour is gluten free.
It has a mild, nutty taste, which is rich in umami, the fifth taste that makes things savory. For the foodie, you can use ground crickets like a spice to increase the umami in savory foods. Or bake with cricket flour, substituting up to one-third of it for the wheat flour in recipes. Another idea: Simply use it as you would protein powder by adding it to your morning smoothie.
Elderberries are little round berries that grow abundantly around the world. There are two species native to Oregon, where I live. You can also find scrappy elderberry trees—which look more like bushes to the untrained eye—in Asia, Africa, Eastern Australia, Tasmania, and Europe. Cooked berries and blossoms are edible but the rest of the tree (twigs, bark, leaves) is not. Eating raw elderberries will likely give you the runs.
Mary Alionis, who’s been an organic farmer for more than 30 years and is co-owner of Whistling Duck Farm, planted three European black elderberry trees on her property in Provolt, Oregon. She mixes the berries with organic local honey to make a tangy elderberry syrup that she sells in her farm store. Whistling Duck also makes elderberry shrub, a more concentrated liquid mixed with apple cider vinegar.
Alionis, 58, recommends taking elderberry syrup as an herbal medicine before you get sick. “If you feel a puniness coming on, add a little [syrup] to carbonated water or take a shot of it,” she says. “It tastes good, it feels good, and it seems to help. It reputedly has anti-viral qualities. It’s high vitamin C and I think it helps build your immune system.”
Indeed, according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, one cup of elderberries contains 10 grams of fiber and 52 milligrams of vitamin C (which is almost 90 percent of the FDA’s recommended daily intake). And several peer-reviewed scientific studies have suggested that elderberries may indeed have immune system benefits.
For example, a 2004 randomized placebo-controlled study, published in the Journal of International Medical Research, found that patients suffering from flu-like symptoms who took 15 milliliters of elderberry syrup four times a day felt better an average of four days sooner than patients who took a placebo syrup, leading researchers to conclude: “Elderberry extract seems to offer an efficient, safe and cost-effective treatment for influenza.” A 2009 review conducted by a team of researchers from America, Australia, and Germany also found that these berries have anti-viral effects.
Alionis likes these berries for another reason. After the trees are established, which takes a year or two, they are hardy and drought tolerant. “They’re a sturdy shrub,” she says. “They put down a nice tap root and grow well up in the mountains.”
Stinging nettles, a plant that grows abundantly in many parts of the world, are delicious, medicinal, and nutrient-rich. A 2018 scientific review by a team of Polish researchers found that nettles are “ordinary plants with extraordinary properties,” providing humans with a rich array of both macro and micronutrients as well as antibacterial properties.
Indeed, these dark green plants are loaded with vitamins and minerals, including calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, and iron. But they’re also dangerous: The fine hairs on the leaves and stems contain irritating chemicals that can leave raised red patches on your skin.
Dried nettles, which is the easiest way to get them, are often used medicinally to reduce hay fever, inflammation, and joint pain. According to the Mount Sinai Health System, nettles have also been used to treat eczema, gout, anemia, and urinary problems. They may also help lower blood sugar and blood pressure.
Despite the myriad health and wellness benefits to them, however, the Polish scientists write, “the nettle is still an underestimate plant source.”
Suiting Up to Protect Against the Sting
My friend and colleague, Brianne Goodspeed, editorial director of Chelsea Green Publishing in White River Junction, Vermont, first ate stinging nettles in the summer of 2002. Goodspeed, who’s 42 now, had just graduated from college and was on a solo bike trip in rural France. At a hostel in the Loire Valley, the caretaker donned gloves up to his elbows to pick some stinging nettles growing outside. He kept the gloves on while he chopped them, adding them to a soup he served for dinner.
Goodspeed sat down to eat with the caretaker, whose name was Phillippe, and a schoolteacher from Toulouse who was also staying in the hostel. Phillippe extolled the virtues of the freshly picked greens, pausing every once in a while to rub his chest and stomach, insisting that they were “stimulating to the organs.”
“I’d never had nettles before,” Goodspeed remembers. “I thought it was cool that he did that—just went into the yard and picked some weeds.”
Yak meat is high in protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin B12. It’s a lean, juicy, clean-tasting meat, which is lower in cholesterol and less fatty than beef. Just ask Gyaltsen Gurung, 37, a yak meat enthusiast. Gurung, the owner of the Himalayan Yak Restaurant in Queens, New York, buys free-range yak meat from Colorado. It’s not as good as the meat in Nepal, where Gurung grew up, but almost.
In the Himalayas, yaks are one of the only animals available for meat, other than sheep and goat, Gurung tells me.
“It’s more popular than any other animal because it’s bigger in size and gives you more meat,” he says. “They will survive easier in snow. They freely roam in the mountains and whenever you need meat, you can go find it. They’re adapted to the environment.”
One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes is pan-seared salted yak meat (called yak shaptak) in a gravy with a lightly salted, lightly sugared Tibetan bun (called a tingmo) on the side. Another is the yak sizzler, which is also a very popular dish in Nepal. This chargrilled teriyaki-seasoned yak meat is served on a sizzling hot plate with noodles, vegetables, and house-made fries.
But perhaps the most interesting dish on the menu is their momos, which are popular in the Himalayas, Gurung says, and gaining popularity around Asia as well in New York. Local foodies participate in a yearly “momo crawl,” going from restaurant to restaurant to sample these handmade dumplings filled with yak or other kinds of meat and spices. Vegetarian versions are available, too.
At the Himalayan Yak Restaurant, which serves fusion cuisine (Nepali, Tibetan, Bhutanese, and Indian), they make their dumplings Tibetan style. This is a juicier dumpling with chunkier cuts of yak. Try the chili momos if you dare, which are sautéed in a garlic ginger paste, and quite spicy.
But if you can’t make it to New York City to eat yak meat, how can you try it? The International Yak Association has an online buyers’ guide and member list on its website. There may be local yak farms near you. There’s a local yak farm in our region in southern Oregon, Firebird Farms, which ships processed yak meat to the Western states. And if you get an irresistible itch to become a yak farmer, you can fill out an application to put your name on a waiting list to buy a calf.
Why try “weird” foods like camel milk, cricket flour, and stinging nettles? They’re good for you and they’re interesting. And, as chef Anthony Bourdain taught the hundreds of thousands of people who watched his show, trying foods from other cultures opens a window for you onto the world.