May 4, 2010— -- Delicacies in other countries may seem disgusting at first glance, but chefs and dietitians say they can be delicious and nutritious.
Just imagine the protein and minerals in an appetizing course of balut, followed by warm Casu Marzu, sizzling boodog and a refreshing bite of hasma for dessert.
Technically that's boiled duck fetus, maggot-ridden cheese, a beheaded goat stuffed with stones and frog fallopian tubes. The whole meal is a good source of protein.
Below is a list of foods you may find disgusting, delicious and perhaps nutritious -- if you can only bring yourself to try them.
For years farmers in the U.S. tried to avoid the fungal infection called corn smut. But Americans are discovering the tasty treat people in central and southern Mexico never stopped eating.
"It looks like a stalk of corn that looks like a brain, it's all lumpy but it's grey," said Dr. Christine Gerbstadt, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Once the fungus infects the corn, the kernels expand and change color to various shades of grey and black. As the fungus grows it also changes the corn's flavor and adds nutrients.
"It has tons of fiber, it also has beta-glucans which it's a kind of carbohydrate, and it's got a lot of other free sugars, which is very unusual for a mushroom," said Gerbstadt.
Corn smut, called huitlacoche in Latin America, also adds cancer protecting antimutigens and lysine to the corn, Gerbstadt said.
"Corn doesn't have lysine in it, but when it [corn smut] is growing on it, it increases lysine," said Gerbstadt. Lysine is one of the eight essential amino acids, meaning its one of the amino acids the body cannot make itself and needs to get from food.
"Funny, in the States we historically treat it as a blight -- but now it is popping up more and more in your local farmers markets as a delicacy," said Chicago-area chef Rick Bayless.
Bayless described huitlacoche as having "a gentle corn flavor, since the mushroom itself grows on an ear of corn."
"[It's] great as a filling in enchiladas or taquitos. Huitlacoche is a treasure in Mexico," said Bayless, owner of the Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and XOXO in Chicago. "In Topolobampo we serve a huitlacoche tart with our Oaxacan black mole."
Celebrity chef Marcela Valladolid called huitlacoche the "Mexican truffle."
"Huitlacoche is typically eaten as a filling for quesadillas or with any tortilla-based food. Also great stuffed in crepes," said Valladolid, author of "Fresh Mexico" and host of "Mexican Made Easy" on the Food Network.
"It originates from ancient Aztec cuisine and is also considered a delicacy in Mexico," she said.
Escamoles, or Ant Eggs
Only one percent of people in the U.S. refuse to eat eggs in some form, according to the Vegetarian Resource Council.
Chances are most of those egg-eating folk are choosing eggs from chickens. A few of us will try duck, quail or ostrich eggs once or twice.
So why not try ant eggs, and name them escamoles?
That was apparently the conclusion of many in Latin America where the Liometopum ants thrive and produce rice-sized larvae.
"Escamoles have a cottage cheese-like consistency and have a buttery yet slightly nutty flavor," said Valladolid. "They are usually served sauteed with butter, garlic, and scallions for making soft corn tortilla tacos."
Valladolid said the larvae are usually harvested from the roots of the agave plant, which happens to be a source for tequila.
"They are considered a delicacy and usually referred to 'insect caviar' or 'ant caviar,'" said Valladolid.
While people eat insects all over the world, escamoles are the larvae from a genus of ant called Liometopum. The larvae are a great source of protein, and usually a cheaper and more sustainable form than meat.
However, according to a 2006 research article in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, the ants that provide escamoles are now threatened species in some regions.
Kopi Luwak, or Civet Cat Coffee
With a name like Kopi Luwak and a price of $300 per pound of pure beans -- it's hard not to wonder how a simple cup of coffee became so expensive.
But it might be better just to drink and not think while enjoying the flavor. Kopi Luwak is harvested from the droppings of the Asian Palm Civet, a type of cat that lives in Indonesia.
"They eat the cherries, (coffee) bean and all, and then it ferments in their digestive system," said Gerbstadt. "When they chew up the cherries, the beans stay intact and whole."
The coffee farmer who thought up Kopi Luwak found black gold of a different sort. All you do is clean up the beans found in the civet cat's excrement, roast and brew them.
It turns out that the civet's digestive system transforms the bean in such a way to change the taste of the coffee into something quite appealing, and rare. Gerbstadt said annual production of Kopi Luwak is 500 pounds a year.
"It's described as having hints of caramel and chocolate; earthy musty and exotic," said Gerbstadt. "The body of the coffee is much thicker and apparently it's very smooth it doesn't have the same bite."
But unlike corn smut, the transformation from a boring coffee bean to Kopi Luwak coffee beans doesn't come with an infusion of nutrients.
"Nutritionally it would be the same as coffee beans," said Gerbstadt.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the jury is still out on whether coffee is good or bad for people.
While long-term studies have shown a lower risk for Parkinson's disease and liver cancer among people who regularly drink coffee, drinking coffee during a meal may also interfere with the body's ability to absorb iron.
Coffee brewed without a filter, such as coffee from a percolator or French press, also contains a substance called cafestol that can increase cholesterol, according to Dr. Rob van Dam of the Harvard School of Public Health.
Birds Nest Soup
The idea of a "bird's nest" soup sounds so peculiar it's hard to take it literally the first time. But the name describes it exactly: soup made from a bird's nest.
But this is not just any bird, but a particular swiftlet found in southeast Asia. For at least 400 years, people have been scaling cliffs in caves to harvest the swiftlet's nest for soup.
Unlike other birds which build their nests from twigs or dig them in the sand, the male swiftlet painstakingly builds the nest with secretions from its mouth.
"The saliva that they spit out makes these nests which make a gelatinous texture in soup," said Gerbstadt, who likened the texture to soups that use eggs as a thickener.
"The edible bird's nests are among the most expensive animal products used by humans," said Gerbstadt "One bowl of soup is about $30-100 American dollars. One kilogram of the nests can cost $2,000 and there's another form of a red nest than can cost up to $10,000 per kilogram."
Gerbstadt said that traditionally, bird's nest soup was thought to improve the voice, to strengthen the immune system or aid digestion.
Modern science found that the bird's nests used in bird's nest soup are chock full of minerals.
"The nests do have a lot of calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium," said Gerbstadt.
Boodog is more of a cooking method than a particular dish, but its ingenuity allows for cooking outdoors in a short amount of time while simultaneously creating a stew -- inside a goat.
"It is a Mongolian cuisine dish," said Gerbstadt. "They use chunks of mutton, they put it into the abdominal cavity of a deboned goat or marmot."
The process actually starts with the beheading of the goat, the clearing of its insides and the deboning of the carcass.
Then, seasonings, chunks of other meat or the more appetizing organs are stuffed in the abdominal cavity along with stones that were preheated on a fire. The goat is sewed up again and cooked from the inside out by the hot stones, while the cook torches the skin to remove the fur from the outside.
Cooks must be careful to pay attention to the balance of temperature, or the boodog might explode.
Gerbstadt said the nutritional value will be similar to other dishes of mutton or goat. However, the organs might add a little boost -- or danger.
"The liver is kind of like the toxic waste dump of the body," said Gerbstadt. "There could be heavy metals in it; there could be a lot of cholesterol because that's the site of cholesterol synthesis."
Gerbstadt said kidneys, however, would provide quite a bit of protein and iron.
"You want to make sure they [boodogs] are cooked to 160 degrees to kill any parasites," said Gerbstadt.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.