In my continuing search for the best things to eat on the planet, I often, unfortunately, come across some of the worst.
It’s not just the food that can be actively rank; there are some pretty nasty drinks floating around as well. I am often offered these by locals trying hard to be hospitable, and, although one smell is often enough to make me wretch, I have found myself smiling through gritted teeth as I try and force down at least a few swallows.
I have actually developed a taste for one or two of the unpleasant drinks I have encountered along the way, but below are five that I sincerely hope to never encounter again.
No.5 Airag, Mongolia
Also known as "kumis" in some parts of the world, airag is the product of necessity and someone’s diseased imagination. The Mongolian fondness for horses extends past riding and eating them to milking them. The mare’s milk is stored in a cow’s stomach near the entrance of each family’s yurt, or nomadic tent, and left to ferment until it reaches close to 5% alcoholic content. An average person can drink as much as 5 liters of the stuff in a day, and their passion for it means that Mongolia also has one of the highest incidences of cirrhosis of the liver anywhere in the world.
HOW DOES IT TASTE? Imagine watery, sour yogurt with an aroma of equine piss. This is worse.
No.4 Feni, India
Feni is a drink from the southern Indian area of Goa and is made with either coconut, or more commonly, cashew nuts. It is triple-distilled and is served either neat or mixed with soda water or lemon juice. It is the sort of spirit that needs to come with a government health warning, and memories of the resulting hangover from a night on the feni is still enough to make me shudder nearly three years after I last sampled it.
HOW DOES IT TASTE? The aroma of Feni is very strong but not terribly unpleasant. The taste is a combination of fruity, medicinal and death.
No.3 Kvass, Russia
I first encountered kvass in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. Grumpy old women sit next to large barrels on many street corners dispensing glasses of this rather noxious brew for a few rubles a time. It is made by fermenting local black rye bread and takes on a similar brown appearance. Because it contains a low alcohol content, the Russians class it as a nonalcoholic drink and it is particularly popular in the summer months.
HOW DOES IT TASTE? Most kvass is home-brewed, so each batch can vary in taste. The one small sample I tried in Irkutsk tasted both sour and salty. It was not an experience I am in a rush to repeat.
No.2 Snake Wine, Vietnam
Snake is quite big a business in Vietnam, particularly in the “Snake Village” of La Mat in the suburbs of Hanoi. You can sample snake in many different culinary forms at the local restaurants, but you can also wash down your meal with snake wine. This is made in two ways, either by placing a whole venomous snake into grain alcohol for a few months until the ethanol breaks down the poisons, or by mixing the blood and bile of a freshly killed snake with a shot of local brandy at the table.
HOW DOES IT TASTE? The meat of snake, almost inevitably, does taste a little bit like chicken. The steeped version of the wine tastes strongly medicinal and smells like one might imagine a sumo wrestler’s loincloth might after a tough fight.
No.1 Brennivin, Iceland
Given that in hakarl (rotten shark meat) Icelanders officially have one of the world’s most disgusting foods, it would be unseemly if they did not have something equally grim to wash it all down with. Brennevin is a type of schnapps popular throughout the Nordic countries, and in Iceland, it's made with fermented potatoes and caraway seeds. It is lethally strong stuff and is often drunk during the Thorrablot (the winter feast), where it is enjoyed with such delights as ram’s testicles and boiled sheep’s head.
HOW DOES IT TASTE? As you might suspect, it tastes strongly of caraway, but it is mainly a rapid delivery system to oblivion, which, if you are eating rotten shark and ram’s testicles, is probably not a bad thing.
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