Ever have one of those days where it seems like up is down, left is right, and there’s a surprise waiting around every corner?
Well, if you’re an active or aspiring foodie, that could actually be the perfect recipe for adventure. Today’s culinary landscape features quite a few menu items that sound like they could be one thing, but are actually something entirely different.
Here’s the inside scoop on seven foods you’ll want to go out of your way to order — once you know what they really are!
Nothing sounds more delightful than a plate filled with sweetbreads, and that’s genuinely the truth. But what arrives at the table may not be a sugary pastry at all. Sweetbreads are one type of offal (organ meat) considered especially mild in flavor and pleasantly smooth in texture. They most commonly refer to the thymus gland or pancreas from veal or lamb, although can come from cow or pig, as well.
Sweetbreads can be prepared a number of ways, often served breaded and fried, braised, or sautéed, as Roma Café in Detroit offers with its sautéed sweetbreads in a wine and mushroom sauce.
An added perk? They’re nearly impossible to overcook, as the center remains delightfully creamy and soft as the outside crisps up, making them a huge favorite both in the kitchen and at the table.
2. Rocky Mountain oysters
You may ask, where are restaurateurs finding oysters amidst the Rockies? Yeah, about that…
These deep-fried treasures aren’t from the sea at all, but are actually bull or sheep testicles — referred to as “oysters” for their appearance when raw. Often served as an appetizer in parts of the American West where cattle ranching is prevalent, Rocky Mountain oysters are typically sliced thin; breaded in a generous amount of flour, salt, pepper, and seasoning; fried golden brown; and delivered to the table piping hot.
Often served with a cocktail sauce for dipping, Rocky Mountain oysters are a genuine delicacy to many and just a little piece of the American West ready for popping into your mouth. No wonder they can also be called “cowboy caviar.”
3. Sea cucumber
It may sound like an underwater vegetable like kelp or watercress, but sea cucumber is actually an animal, with its closest relative being the starfish. Shaped remarkably like a cucumber you’d cut up for your side salad, sea cucumber is frequently used in Asian cuisine in either fresh or dried form.
Preparing sea cucumber for consumption definitely takes the skilled hands of an expert chef, as it is difficult to clean and, on its own, has very little taste. When infused with other flavors like meat broths or sauces, however, sea cucumber becomes a true treat for the palate. Try it braised in an Asian and French-inspired oyster sauce, as it’s served at Mulan in Flushing, NY, and this marine specialty will not disappoint.
4. Head cheese
The great thing about head cheese is that it’s only half euphemism — but probably not the half you’d expect. There are no actual dairy curds involved in the making of head cheese; rather, this loaf’s primary ingredient is the meat rendered from the actual head of a pig.
We get you. Even its euphemistic name isn’t the most appetizing of prospects, but head cheese is often the richest and most flavor-infused pork you can experience. It mirrors the texture of a pâté, and can be eaten alongside other fancy meats on a charcuterie tray or infused into dishes like the Truffled Macaroni and Head Cheese served at The Spence in Atlanta. Either way, we like to think of it as foie gras’s slightly less fancy — but equally delicious — cousin.
5. Welsh rabbit
“First you told me a sea cucumber isn’t a vegetable, and now it’s that Welsh rabbit isn’t meat?” Yeah, that’s right, it’s a pickle. (Well, not an actual pickle.)
Welsh rabbit (also called rarebit) is toasted bread with a sauce of melted cheese, most often a variety of Cheddar, on one side. It can be blended with mustard, or infused with beer or ale, cayenne pepper, or paprika, for extra flavor.
The presumption of its origin is a slam at the sophistication of Welsh cuisine, but there are not many dishes in the world as comforting or tasty as Welsh rabbit when done right. A béchamel made from high-end ale and perfectly aged cheddar will blow any plain old grilled cheese out of the water.
6. Chilean sea bass
Interestingly enough, Chilean sea bass is neither Chilean (for the most part) nor bass. Don’t worry, though. It is, in fact, cod and it comes from ocean farming in Arctic regions. Once upon a time, it even had another name: the Patagonian toothfish.
So, why does this exceptional fish — easily the equal to a filet mignon or lobster on a multitude of fine dining menus — have a name so different from its origins? A little bit of it is branding for sure. Let’s face it: when presented the delicious Miso Chilean sea bass with pickled vegetables at Chef Chai in Honolulu, “toothfish” simply doesn’t do the dish justice.
It’s also partly because Chilean sea bass is so new to the culinary scene, having only been actively fished since the late 1970s, there’s no good reason not to give such a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth experience a name it deserves.
We totally saved the best for last.
One of the largest clams in the world, geoduck (pronounced “gooey duck”) is growing in popularity among the culinary elite, showing up in fine dining restaurants and on popular shows like Top Chef more every year. The geoduck has a rich, savory flavor and a bit of crunch to it, and can be braised, sautéed, or prepared raw like the Taylor Shellfish Geoduck “Ceviche” at Crush in Seattle.
Sure, geoduck is a little off-putting in appearance — and a little funny to pronounce — but there’s great reward waiting for those willing to take a chance and go on an adventure with your chef. You never know what’s going to be your next favorite dish!
Curious about other menu trends that sound out of the ordinary? Check out our look at 9 Unlikely Taste Combinations That Just Work: