These foodstuffs are considered some of the most luxurious delicacies in the world, and sure to be on the bucket list of any self-respecting adventurous gourmet. But they are some of the most dangerous in the world to harvest, claiming the lives of sometimes hundreds of brave fishermen and foragers per year.
Sea Snakes | Southeast Asia & Japan
If you’ve ever travelled to Southeast Asia, you may have come across souvenir shops offering dusty bottles of murky liquid in which a coiled and suspended, striped, scaly body of a snake hangs, eerily magnified by the glass. Sea snakes are caught for food and medicinal purposes in the Gulf of Thailand: they can be fried or served in soup, which is considered a delicacy, bottled in rice wine for drinking, or exported for medicinal purposes to China and Vietnam. Caught by attracting the snakes at night with an electric light, usually while fishing for squid, the snakes are sought by around 700 fishing vessels each year. The venom of the sea snake is powerful and deadly, and many of these fishermen sort the snakes by size using their bare hands, risking painful and sometimes fatal bites. There is little anti-venom available in the area, so fishermen resort to slashing the skin with razor blades to let out the venom, or using primitive home remedies like garlic paste to alleviate the pain.
How and where to eat them: the snakes are boiled in a salty broth to make soup: they are often served whole, bones and all! Try this delicacy in Japan or southern Thailand; in Japan, the sea snakes are also dried to make a type of jerky-style ingredient. In northern Vietnam, porridge with snake’s blood is also a popular dish.
Birds Nests: Thailand, Vietnam & Borneo
Bird’s nest soup sounds like something you’d see in a cartoon, but it is a delicacy in China, where an average nest sells for over $2000. Produced by swifts and swallows, these nests are made from the bird’s saliva, which hardens when exposed to air. When dissolved in liquid, the nests have a pleasant gelatinous texture. They are mainly harvested from caves in Borneo and Thailand, a difficult and dangerous job that involves pickers climbing barefoot up rickety, unstable bamboo structures – often just balanced between two cave walls – holding a flaming torch between their teeth. Death and severe injury from falling occurs every year, particularly because the birds build their nests in places that are difficult to reach, but their high value continues to attract harvesters. There are worries about the sustainability of procuring these nests, and the environmental implications for the species. What’s more, there is a risk of contracting avian influenza from illegally imported bird’s nest soup.
How and where to eat them: try and make sure the nests come from Borneo, Vietnam or Thailand, where sustainability regulations are more stringent. The classic way to eat them is in bird’s nest soup or sweet tong sui (a soupy custard served as dessert), but you can also try bird’s nest congee or rice, or pick up a jar of ready-to-eat bird’s nest jelly.
Gooseneck Barnacles | Northern Spain & Portugal
These odd-looking crustaceans, also known as percebes, are a gourmet treat found in Galicia, northern Spain, and fishermen can earn up to €1,000 a day from a good harvest. They are prized for their concentrated briny flavour and sweet flesh. Like limpets, they stick themselves to rocks, using tentacles to gather plankton sprayed onto the rock by the surf, and are impossible to farm commercially. It’s no coincidence that the best place to find these sought-after molluscs called is the Costa de la Muerte, the Coast of Death, where changeable winds and shallow rocks have claimed the lives of thousands of sailors and destroyed hundreds of sea vessels. Gooseneck barnacles must be caught by jumping from a boat before climbing sharp, jagged rock formations constantly thrashed by vigorous spray; the finest barnacles live in intertidal zones where the surf is particularly strong, posing a dangerous hazard to those who brave the waves to cut the barnacles from the rock. The surf can be changeable, and combined with strong ocean currents can claim the life of a fisherman in minutes.
How and where to eat them: percebes are best treated simply, steamed in a little white wine and lemon or dipped in garlicky aioli. Look out for them on Galician menus and along the coasts of Portugal, they are also becoming popular in Washington state and British Columbia, Canada.
Alaskan King Crab | Alaska
The prized king crab of Alaskan waters has a very short season in which it can be fished: sometimes only four days. During this time, fishermen brave the freezing waters of the Bering Sea to trap the crabs using pots dropped onto the sea floor, some going as deep as 180 metres. It’s no coincidence that a Discovery Channel show following the journey of these fishermen, who often work 18- to 20-hour shifts, is called ‘Deadliest Catch’: it is estimated that one fisherman dies every week during the season, and the job has a fatality rate, 75 per cent higher than that for pilots and firefighters. 80 per cent of these deaths are caused by hypothermia or being swept off the deck and drowning, but the heavy machinery used to lift the crab pots is also responsible for devastating injury. Once caught, the crabs are extremely fragile; they can freeze to death in cold weather, start cannibalizing each other, or become damaged from the rocking motion of the boat. The risky nature of the job means that king crab fishermen can earn tens of thousands of dollars per season.
How and where to eat them: Alaskan king crab are exported worldwide, and particularly popular in America, where they often appear alongside steak as part of ‘surf and turf’ menus. They are best treated simply, steamed or boiled and dipped in butter. They are also a delicacy in Japan where they are eaten as tempura, or grilled with a sweet and sour sauce.
Abalone | China, Japan & Southeast Asia
Abalone are large edible sea snails, prized for their tasty flesh as well as their beautiful iridescent shells. Found in coastal waters worldwide, the majority are collected off the coasts of New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Western North America and Japan, and are particularly popular in south-east Asian and Latin American cuisine, where they are reserved for special occasions. Due to dwindling stocks, disease and overfishing, prices have risen dramatically, making abalone a very desirable foodstuff. There’s a catch, though: abalone can only be obtained by divers, but in the waters of South Africa, New Zealand and North America, diving for abalone with scuba gear is illegal. Every year, hundreds of people risk their lives by free-diving for these luxury molluscs, a difficult and dangerous technique that requires the diver to hold their breath while descending 10 to 20 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Bear in mind they’re also often wearing cumbersome wetsuits, a belt of lead weights, and carrying a heavy piece of iron for prising the creatures off the rocks, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that many divers drown annually trying to acquire these creatures. Last year, three people died in a single weekend off the California coast. Ocean conditions can be unpredictable, and it is not uncommon for novice free-divers to panic and forget to release their weight belts, or for ‘shallow water blackout’ to occur, where the diver loses consciousness on ascent to the surface.
How and where to eat them: try them raw in Japanese sushi, or simmered in soy sauce. If you’re feeling brave, you could try tottsuru, a Japanese dish made using the fermented entrails of the mollusc. In China, try them braised with shitake mushrooms, as part of the famous hot pot, or steamed, Cantonese-style, with soy sauce, ginger and coriander. In Korea, abalone are simmered in congee, a rice porridge that makes a deliciously savory breakfast.
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