Culinary adventures with strange foods in the Twin Cities
Photo by Colleen Guenther. Dress from Lula. Model is Emma.
My kitchen was covered in blood. It dripped from a pool on the counter and seeped into the cracks of the floor, staining the grout bright red. It was stuck in the beds of my fingernails, splattered on my shirt, and smeared across the drywall. I trod through a puddle that collected on the floor, and each successive step left another bloody footprint.
But the sight wasn't nearly as bothersome as the smell, a combination of stainless steel and slaughterhouses that grew worse by the second. It was the unmistakable smell of death.
Paper towels weren't cutting it. I'd already gone through a roll, and the more I scrubbed, the more it spread. I was desperate to run from the scene, but I created the mess and had no choice but to clean it up.
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. I was told to run the blood through a strainer to remove clots. But lacking a real strainer, I assumed a coffee filter would work fine in its place. Wrong. The blood saturated the filter in seconds, oozing past my preoccupied hands onto the adjacent butcher knife, and finally collecting on the floor.
A friend rushed to the kitchen at the sound of my screeching. His eyes widened. "What did you do?"
I was just trying to make blood pancakes.
Beyond Minnesota's Juicy Lucys, craft beers, and tater tot hot dishes lies a little-known land of edible testicles, guinea pigs, and camel milk. Though the state has long been considered ethnically and culturally homogenous, the demographics have changed drastically over the past few decades, leading to a major shift in the state's culinary landscape.
But a few of the foods introduced over the past century have struggled to gain statewide acceptance. Raw camel milk, a popular beverage in Somalia, is illegal. Lamb testicles and guinea pigs have questionable connotations that most Westerners can't look past. Durian smells and tastes like roadkill.
In an attempt to clear up misconceptions, I made it my mission to research, prepare, and taste some of the strangest foods in the Twin Cities. And by strange, I mean they're foreign to the general public's palate, not that they're inherently flawed. In fact, most of the foods proved to be delicious, affordable, and surprisingly sustainable.
1. CAMEL MILK
I couldn't figure out whether the man who ushered Curt and me into his car was trying to help or kidnap us.
"Stay here," he said. "I'll be right back."
Curt and I were sitting with our fingers crossed that this wouldn't be our last stop. It had been three days, and we hadn't seen a trace of the elusive substance.
Ten minutes later, the limo driver waltzed out of the restaurant, grinning and sipping from a Styrofoam cup. He handed us a cardboard carrier with four more cups inside.
"It's fresh," he said. "From Columbus, Ohio."
After days of searching, too many dead ends to count, and hours in the back of a stranger's limousine, we finally had our hands on raw camel milk.
It all started innocently enough. While researching camel meat, I stumbled across an article from 2009 about the possibility of camel milk coming to Minnesota within a year, a development that would benefit Minnesota's Somali population.
I called Dr. Millie Hinkle, the founder of Camel Milk USA and the driving force behind the legalization of camel milk, to find out where all the camel milk vendors were.
"They're mostly, honestly, undercover," she said.
As recently as five years ago, it was a felony to sell camel milk. In 2009, Hinkle challenged the US Food and Drug Administration to change the law, and that year the FDA approved the sale of camel milk in the United States. Three years later, the law was amended again to allow the sale of camel milk at grocery stores.
Camel dairy farms began popping up in the states not long after. Since Somalia is one of the top producers and consumers of camel milk, it's no surprise that the milk found its way to Minnesota, home to the largest Somali population in North America.
But here's the problem: It's illegal to ship raw, unpasteurized camel milk over state lines or sell it commercially.
So why don't camel farmers just pasteurize the milk?
"A lot of [the dairy farms] are owned by the Amish, so for religious reasons — and I guess because they're making so much money selling it raw — they're not buying pasteurization machines," Hinkle said. "I have offered free pasteurization machines to every single dairy. Not one dairy has taken me up on it."
Anxious to find out what the fuss was all about, I decided to take my chances and drink it raw. When the frothy beverage first touched my lips, all I could think about was the hairy, humped creature from whence it came.
After a few sips, though, the image of frothy milk being squeezed from the teats of a kicking dromedary were replaced by pure enjoyment. The milk was grassy, startlingly sweet with a sour edge, and textured like a light kefir.
If not for the multiple warnings I'd received about drinking too much camel milk at once, I would have happily guzzled an eight-ounce glass in one sitting. But when it comes to potential colon explosions, I err on the safe side. Camel milk is known to loosen the bowels, especially within the first few weeks of consumption, which makes it a popular remedy for constipation.
Drink in moderation... if you can find it.
2. SEA URCHIN
Five uni tongues were sitting on my plate. I was still under the impression that I was about to eat sea urchin roe, or eggs, as the man behind the counter of Coastal Seafoods told me. I closed my eyes, placed the yellow glob on my tongue, and chewed.
Later, I learned that the sea urchin roe I'd so enthusiastically swallowed was actually a massive gonad.
Coastal Seafoods imports live sea urchins primarily for Sea Change, where they're the stars of two dishes: uni on toast with citrus kosho and fennel butter, and paparadelle with uni bottarga (salted and cured roe). A number of urchins are also sold at the front of the shop for $14 per pound.
Jahn Brink, a self-proclaimed fishmonger who was working at the front counter of Coastal Seafoods when I made my purchase, gave me the lowdown on everyone's favorite echinoderm.
"They're related to a starfish, so on the inside they've got five lobes [that] kinda look like petals," he said, grabbing an urchin from the case and pointing to the lobes. "You can see it's got a lot of quills on it."
Yes, yes I could. Urchins are covered in quills, rightfully earning the nickname "hedgehogs of the sea."
While Brink spoke, a creamy yellow liquid started seeping out of the hole on the top of the urchin, which I hadn't yet realized was the anus. I tried to ignore it.
Brink explained that the easiest way to open a sea urchin is to plant two butter knives in its anus and pull them apart. "It'll crack open like a coconut," he said. (If you want to preserve the shell for serving, your best bet is to cut a circle around the mouth of the urchin with kitchen scissors.)
Brink maintained that the urchin's roe is worth the effort.
"It's really oceany and kinda floral," he said. "They're sweet and creamy, but it's got a very complicated, wonderful flavor."
I took the urchin home with the understanding that I'd be searching for five long strips of roe, known as uni in most Asian dishes. It wasn't until days later that I learned the truth: The yellow chunks of "roe" were actually giant gonads in which sea urchins produce both egg and sperm.
But the fun didn't stop there! Apparently my urchin was frightened by the car ride, because when I brought him in the house, I noticed a urine-like substance had pooled in the bottom of the plastic bag. I took a deep breath, drained the secretion, and set the poor creature on a cutting board for a closer look.
The urchin's quills squirmed in different directions and were especially energetic when touched. I flipped the creature over and began cutting a fist-sized hole around its mouth, but quickly realized it was starting to leak fluids from its bum again. I ran it to the sink and finished cutting the hole, at which point the urchin's mouth promptly fell into its body.
I'd been told to use a pointed spoon to gently scoop the five yellow "tongues" from the urchin's body, being careful not to tear them apart. I didn't do it perfectly, but most of the gonad bits were extracted. I placed them in a bowl of salt water — I'm told the salt part is important — and let them soak, occasionally fishing through the bowl with bare hands to remove any remaining membranes or excrement.
Though there was nothing left inside its body, the urchin was still moving. I threw it in the trash and hoped it wouldn't haunt my nightmares.
I consumed one full uni tongue on my own, but there were still five left. Fortunately, a few of my more adventurous friends were willing to give the yellow testes a try. Mitchell, a tiny raver kid, ate a whole tongue in one swallow. "It's like I cracked an egg in my mouth and mixed a little bit of sand into it," he reported.
Two more hours passed and one uni tongue remained on the plate. I couldn't bear to let it go to waste. Without considering raw-food sanitation guidelines, I removed the warm tongue from the plate, pressed it to the roof of my mouth, and gagged as it immediately turned to mush in my mouth. The flavor was no longer floral. It wasn't even ocean-esque. It was nothing more than a big, rancid testicle. I let the garbage disposal consume the rest.
My head was throbbing. The apartment smelled like methane and roadkill. I was attempting to swallow another custard-like chunk of durian, the stinkiest food on the planet.
Durian, considered the "king of fruits" in Southeast Asia, looks like a pine cone, pokes like a cactus, smells like death, and tastes even worse. Thomas Fuller of the New York Times claimed to "experience overtones of hazelnut, apricot, caramelized banana and egg custard" in the durian while others — including Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods — take one bite and vomit.
The fruits, which can grow up to 12 inches long and weigh anywhere from two to seven pounds, simply fall to the ground when they're ripe, so most commercial farmers hang nets around their properties to avoid being conked unconscious. If the size isn't enough to knock you out, the smell certainly is. Durian smells so bad that most hotels and public transit systems across Southeast Asia have banned it from their premises.
I first stumbled upon the durian while perusing United Noodles in Seward. There they were, huddled together in a spiky, frozen mass, patiently waiting for another curious Minnesotan to take one home, crack it open, and immediately throw it out the window. United Noodle sells whole durians for around $3 per pound, as well as frozen flesh for those uninterested in being stabbed by large fruits. I opted for the flesh.
While waiting for the flesh to defrost, I took a trip to Pho 79 in Uptown to try a durian smoothie, prepared with sweetened condensed milk, 2 percent milk, ice, tapioca pearls, and durian flesh. The first sip didn't taste particularly good, but it wasn't nearly as repulsive as I'd anticipated. The consistency was perfect, but it couldn't counterbalance the flavor.
Midway through my first round with the durian, Pho 79 employee Ju Phan approached my table. "Do you like it?" he asked.
I said yes. After all, I didn't dislike it. "Do you eat durian often?"
He nodded with enthusiasm. "My kid cannot eat it," he said, plugging his nose. "It's stinky. It's good, though."
Phan said he buys most of his durian across the street from Pho 79 at Truong Thanh Grocery Store. Though there weren't any whole durians available, I found a few varieties of durian candy. Just under $2 buys a bag of rotten-smelling morsels that taste kind of like caramel, but mostly like socks.
My day with durian was almost done. There was only one thing left — the durian flesh itself. Removed from its plastic wrapper, the flesh looked like larvae and responded to the touch like something in a state of decay, but the texture was just a portent of the flavor to come: curdled milk, rotten eggs, cottage cheese, wet garbage, and a dash of sugar.
Durian is like the evil ex-lover of the exotic fruit world — it made me queasy and filled me with regret, but I kept returning for more, thinking the next bite would be better. It never got better.
Daniella Martin removed three plastic containers of bugs from her freezer. "This is the death chamber," she said.
Martin gave the containers a shake to loosen up the frozen bugs and dumped the contents onto separate baking sheets. She would bake the mealworms and crickets first. As she salted the latter, she explained that the crickets' faces sometimes come off while they're cooked. Though she wasn't striving for morbidity, I couldn't help but let out a nervous giggle.
Martin is part of a growing movement of Western entomophagists, or bug eaters. Her interest in the topic was inspired by a college trip to Yucatan, Mexico, where she spent a semester living with the Maya and studying indigenous food, culture, and medicine. She found that insects were once an essential part of the Mayan diet, due to the lack of large game in the region. In 2008, she launched Girl Meets Bug, a blog and occasional cooking show chronicling her insect-eating adventures.
Entomophagy is about as sustainable as meat-eating gets. Compared to raising cows for beef production, insects require far less space and resources. In fact, the University of California's Center for Invasive Species Research estimates that raising insects for food may be 20 times more efficient than raising cattle.
Bugs also pack a nutritious punch. One hundred grams of crickets contains 12.9 grams of protein and only 120 calories; eating a handful of crickets every week could easily fulfill a person's vitamin B requirement. Because most insects are eaten whole, consumers receive added nutrients from the internal organs.
Martin invited me to her Linden Hills home to sample a number of Minnesota-themed dishes featuring insects. The menu included a wild rice hot dish with crispy crickets, purple cabbage slaw with toasted mealworms, and honeycrisp apple slices topped with cheese and wax worms.
Baked mealworms are deserving of sonnets. They're crunchy creatures with soft, chewy insides and a "once you pop, you can't stop" quality. Martin added them to a bright cabbage slaw with a similar crunch and they were barely noticeable. If the thought of eating worms makes you queasy, this is a great place to start.
Crickets are equally snackable, but slightly creepier looking. If you can get a handle on eating mealworms, you'll be fine, but crickets may not be appropriate for the virgin insect-eater, especially if the thought of getting tiny limbs stuck in your teeth makes you lose your appetite.
For the last dish of the afternoon, Martin served waxworms atop honeycrisp slices and cheese. Like the cricket and mealworm before it, the waxworm could and should be eaten like popcorn. When served with the cheese and apple, it tastes like a toasted, slivered almond.
Martin gave me a Tupperware container of crickets, waxworms, and mealworms for the road. Less than three blocks from her house, I peeled off the top and picked out all the mealworms. It wasn't my proudest moment, but I couldn't help myself. I saved the rest for my next stop, a local coffee shop, where I hid the bugs in my bag and snuck them into my mouth one by one.
5. GUINEA PIGS
Picking meat from my guinea pig was a tedious task. I started by chopping its head off with a butcher knife because I couldn't bear to feel its baked, blackened eyes watch me work. Next came a slit down its belly. I wrongfully assumed the organs had already been removed. When I chopped the guinea pig in half, its intestines plopped onto my cutting board, followed by a heart, kidneys, and the rest of its effluvia.
Minneapolis's claim to guinea pig fame can be traced back to August 11, 2013, when 81 people wound up in the hospital with salmonella poisoning after eating guinea pig at the Ecuadorian Independence Festival. The market owner was slapped with a $1,000 fine for serving tainted guinea pig meat purchased from unlicensed suppliers and for slaughtering the rodents in the back of the market. The news exploded on the internet, sparking a slew of tasteless jokes about Ecuadorian eating habits.
I know it's hard to envision eating animals you grew up loving and caring for, but guinea pigs, or cuy, were domesticated by Andean tribes around 5000 BC specifically to be eaten. Because they're small and require less space and food, they're considered a low-impact protein source. Even Heifer International is promoting guinea pig husbandry in Peru, Ecuador, and Guatemala by providing families with guinea pigs to get their farms off the ground.
"It's no different than eating chicken or rabbit — it's just not what we're used to," says Tyge Nelson, the executive chef of Chino Latino. "You're not gonna have a cow up in the Andes Mountains. You eat what you've got."
Chino Latino is one of the only restaurants in the Twin Cities that offers cuy, but you have to order 72 hours in advance to give them enough time to purchase the frozen rodent from a local supplier. Chino's guinea pigs are purchased from One Stop on Chicago Avenue, where they're stacked amid a random array of frozen goods at the bottom of the store's freezer. If you want to find it, you'll have to do some digging. During the 72-hour wait, I made a trip to One Stop to grab a carcass and try my hand at roasting guinea pig.
Cuy is typically fried, roasted, or grilled. Since it was -14 degrees outside and I was without a deep fryer, I opted to roast the pig whole. I chopped up some potatoes, mushrooms, onions, and celery, seasoned the cuy, and set the vegetable-covered guinea pig in the oven for an hour and a half.
The full guinea pig yielded about a cup of meat. It wasn't much, but it was worth it. If you can steer your mind away from thoughts of playing with your cuddly childhood pet, guinea pig meat is a succulent treat, similar to chicken or rabbit but with grassier undertones. Like most things, guinea pig is especially delicious when dipped in barbecue sauce.
The next night, I visited Chino Latino for my cuy feast. Cuy is the only item on Chino's menu that's written solely in Spanish. Executive chef Nelson wasn't exactly sure why, but made an educated guess. "Some of the clientele we have, I think it would scare the hell out of them," he said. "Like, really, they have a rodent on the menu?"
The $65 meal came with a full guinea pig, a salad, and enough rice and hominy to last a week. Chino Latino marinates the cuy in a mixture of garlic, oregano, and cumin, then roasts it for 45 minutes to an hour.
At some points, it tasted like tuna fish. At others, it was incredibly gamey. Within 10 minutes, the bones had been picked clean and everyone at my table considered themselves guinea pig converts.
A glob of lutefisk jiggled back and forth on my plate like Jello. I placed the first bite on my tongue, grimaced, gagged, and swallowed. It needed more salt. Maybe some butter. It probably should have been thrown in the trash, but I was stronger than that. I topped the fishlike atrocity with butter and salt and took a deep breath. It tasted like an undercooked chunk of animal fat. Lutefisk can't win.
Minnesota is divided into two camps: those who love lutefisk and those who would sooner eat testicles. Both sides have their reasons. The lovers, mostly of Scandinavian heritage, grew up eating lutefisk, a long-standing Scandinavian staple served with copious amounts of butter and potatoes. The loathers are put off by the gelatinous texture and abhorrent smell, potent enough to wipe out a small army of vegetarians. And lest anyone forget, lutefisk (literal translation: lye fish) is reconstituted in — you guessed it — lye.
Before casting your own judgment on poor, degraded lutefisk, take a moment to consider its function in 16th-century Scandinavia. The drying and soaking process that stockfish (air-dried whitefish) underwent was a remarkable preservation method, providing Scandinavians with a lean source of protein throughout long winters.
Lutefisk remains wildly popular in Minnesota, especially around the holidays. According to Lutefisk Lovers Lifeline, a website dedicated to listing every single lutefisk dinner in the Midwest, Minnesota is currently home to more than 120 such dinners, most of which take place at Lutheran churches and Sons of Norway locations.
Minnesota is also home to Olsen Fish Company, the largest lutefisk processor in the world. The company was founded by Olaf Frederick Olsen and John W. Norberg in 1910 and now handles upward of 650,000 pounds of lutefisk annually, in addition to two million pounds of pickled herring. Olsen's lutefisk is sold in bulk to Lutheran churches and Sons of Norway and in individual packages to Lunds, Byerly's, Cub Foods, and Ingebretsen's. Chris Dorff, president of Olsen Fish Company, says Ingebretsen's sells more lutefisk per year than any other individual location in the country.
"You hear so many jokes about lutefisk," he said. "Now, with this more refined, more sanitary process, it doesn't smell as bad as it used to and when you cook it, you don't get as strong of a fishy flavor."
The odor, as Dorff mentioned, wasn't nearly as repulsive as I'd expected. It smelled exactly like what it was: fish and chemicals. I started with the traditional method of boiling the lutefisk for about five minutes, until the fish drooped over the fork and folded in on itself like a Fortune Teller Miracle Fish.
My next attempt to make lutefisk edible involved covering the pale atrocity in foil and baking it for 45 minutes. It wasn't good, but it wasn't wretched. Still, if given the option again, I'd turn it down in a heartbeat. I understand if you grew up eating lutefisk and learned to love it, but for the untrained palate, it's just not worth the agony.
7. LAMB TESTICLES
My medical student friend and I were leaning against the counter, talking about the similarities between the old man she dissected in class and the organs we held in our hands.
"I wanted to name him George, but my partner wouldn't let me. I guess that was his brother's name," she said. "George's testicles looked a lot like these."
We were slicing into and removing the membranes of lamb testicles, which we would later fry and eat.
Whether it's the novelty factor or the actual taste, people go wild for testicles of all kinds, including those of cows, lambs, kangaroos, roosters, and turkeys. Testicle festivals, which celebrate the consumption of a variety of gonads, are held yearly at small towns around the country — there's even one in Zumbrota, 60 miles southeast of Minneapolis. And in 2012, Holy Land's head chef Samer Wadi and his brother Majdi Wadi introduced lamb fries (read: lamb testicles) to the Minnesota State Fair.
"We felt like lamb fries will be a unique thing to bring to the State Fair," Samer explained. "We did not expect the attendance or the willingness of people to try it. We thought it was gonna be an iffy thing, but no way, we received a lot of good feedback."
Samer grew up eating lamb fries and says his father's were the best. "It's edible, it's tasty, so we get used to trying to find a use for every part of the animal," he explained. Samer invited me to the store to try his own version of lamb fries served with a secret orange sauce.
The man knows how to fry up a good testicle. The fries were so perfectly seasoned and textured that for a moment, I forgot where they came from. And maybe that's how it should be.
I bought two packs of lamb testicles from Holy Land, bringing my total to around 14 individual balls. Lamb testicles vary in size, which I guess means some lambs are either bigger or just better endowed. I didn't ask. The membranes are light pink in color and most are marked with a number of horizontal purple lines reminiscent of stretch marks. A few of the testicles I purchased had what appeared to be large, dark purple veins along their sides — crowd favorites, to be sure.
There was a surprising dearth of lamb testicle recipes on the internet, so I played testicle-frying by ear. I started by combining two cups of flour, a tablespoon of salt, and two teaspoons each of turmeric, cumin, curry, and black pepper in a large bowl before setting it aside to prepare the juicy bits.
The process of removing membranes from testicles was the most fun I've had in the kitchen since Mom let me bang on pots and pans with spatulas. It's equal parts slimy, technical, and horrific. The process begins with an incision into the membrane, or the thin outermost layer of the testicle, with a sharp knife. My knife was not, however, as sharp as it could be, which made for a not-so-appetizing grinding sensation and sound (sorry guys).
Once the two-inch slit was carved, I slid my fingers between the membrane and the gelatinous orb within and carefully removed the outer layer. At some points, the membrane stuck to the insides and would only detach after some light scraping with my fingernails.
With the membranes removed, the testicles flopped around, drooped into an amorphous pile, and practically melted after sitting out for just a few minutes. The inside of the testicle smelled like fish approaching expiration.
Next I cut the testicles into smaller chunks and coated them with the flour mixture. I added the chunks to a pan coated with an inch of sizzling hot oil and fried them for about two minutes on each side. When they lost their amorphous quality, they were ready to be served.
Split between four people, the plate of fried testicle bits was devoured within 10 minutes. I preferred mine with ketchup, but others enjoyed them plain. They were extremely lamb-y, perhaps a stronger flavor than any other lamb product I've ever tried, and they do retain some, but not all, of their gelatinous texture.
Back in my bloody kitchen, I stared at the butcher knife and the trail of incriminating footsteps, wondering how to transform the scene into something less grisly before my guests arrived.
Removing blood stains from the grout proved to be a bigger hassle than I planned for. I decided to work around it.
Since most of the first container of blood ended up on the floor, I cracked open another eight-ounce serving of pig's blood and prepared to add it to my mixing bowl. But when I peeled off the lid, I was met with an unpleasant surprise: a blood clot bigger than the palm of my hand floated to the surface.
It was firm. I know this because I spent five minutes poking at it before finally holding it up to the light to see if any alien creatures lurked within. Alas, the mass was no more than a coagulated sphere of sadness fated for the trashcan.
I got back to work. Blood pancakes, or blodplättar in Swedish and veriohukainen in Finnish, are exactly what they sound like. My recipe called for a cup of milk, a cup of pig's blood, one and a half cups of flour (rye flour is preferable), two tablespoons of molasses, a pinch of salt, and some marjoram. The wet pancake mix was a vibrant red, but quickly blackened when it hit the buttered frying pan.
Blodplättar is traditionally served with lingonberry jam, so I picked up a jar at Ingebretsen's for $8 and spread a tablespoon on each cake. The combination reminded me of cranberry sauce on injera, with a hint of tinfoil aftertaste.
My friend Curt was especially pleased. "I'm actually really into this pancake thing," he said, his mouth full of bloody gluten. "Next time, maybe put some powdered sugar on it."
DAYS AFTER MY STRANGE foods experiment ended, I found a dead rabbit in the street near my apartment. At first I cringed and kept walking, bidding the rabbit farewell. But 10 steps later, I stopped and turned around.
I bent down for a closer look. The creature had been hit by several cars, causing its organs to explode from its stomach and lie exposed on the pavement. The only recognizably rabbit feature was the ears.
The carcass appeared fresh, almost clean. There were no visible maggots, flies, or rotting flesh. The smell was neutral.
Not bad, I thought. I could probably eat this.
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