As a food explorer, Anthony Bourdain was just about the best. His Parts Unknown show explored the human side of the cuisine of unfamiliar territory. But it’s an occupational hazard that when you make a living by tasting and testing new dishes, you’re going to run into some that are not good. In fact, some are going to be downright terrible. Of course, the determination of what is good food—and what is not—is necessarily influenced by culture.
In order to examine and rank which of Bourdain’s food samplings were worthy of being called the worst, it is most useful to apply a generic, mainstream and less-than-adventurous filter to the foods. Anything that one might be surprised to find on the dinner table in the average US household is fair game. It’s by no means a perfect way to whittle down the possibilities since it ignores the sensibilities of many cultures and glosses over the contributions of many heritages. After all, for every food Bourdain tried, there was someone who liked it. No one is likely to agree with all of the entries on the list. But everyone should be able to find at least one food included here that they would concede is, really, just the worst.
Jollibee is a popular fast-food chain in the Philippines and dining there was one of Anthony Bourdain’s guilty pleasures, despite his reputation for exotic culinary adventures. The spaghetti and hotdog meal is known as spags, according to the Chicago Tribune, and includes a noodle base with sweet red sauce—often a concoction known as banana ketchup—and bits of hot dog. In the Filipino culture, this is a dish that is often considered to be a comfort food, one that brings back nostalgic memories of childhood.
Much of the food that is on the menu in countries across Asia would seem out of the ordinary when considered from the mainstream of US dining. One such dish that Bourdain enjoyed while in Japan was eel livers grilled on a stick. Kyoto Foodie says that this food item can be considered as a casual snack, but that eel liver can also be a component in more elevated recipes as well. Eel itself is said to be a nutritious food, but the liver provides even more vitamins and minerals.
Surely, even though the food is called ‘blood sausage’, that must be some sort of slang, and it is really made from some more mundane ingredient? But no—in fact, this particular item so enjoyed by Anthony Bourdain in Cologne, Germany is prepared by congealing real and actual blood. Trip Savvy says that particular type found in Germany is from the pig, boiled with oatmeal or bread so that it firms up when removed from the heat.
To many, discussion of a salad would involve speaking about lettuce, tomatoes and other vegetables. When Parts Unknown took Anthony Bourdain to the Greek Islands, however, the salad that he tried there boasted a main ingredient of octopus. In fact, this eight-armed ocean-dweller is a popular ingredient in many dishes from Greece, according to Greek Boston. Their recipe stresses ensuring that the octopus is well tenderized, and suggests cooking and marinating it in advance of actually putting the salad together to be served.
When Anthony Bourdain went to Buenos Aires with Parts Unknown, he explained how so much of the local cuisine was based around beef. But not content to stop at just the meat that we are so familiar with, beef intestine also makes it onto the menu in Argentina. The Los Angeles Times even reports that the small and large intestines—the chinchulin and the tripa gorda, respectively—hold very specific places in the traditional order of being grilled and eaten during a standard barbeque in Argentina.
If one were to identify a theme for foods that make this list, it might be that it usually isn’t considered appetizing to eat something’s head. In this case, it’s a smoked pig’s head with vegetables and chilies that Anthony Bourdain tried in Minas Gerais, Brazil. In CNN Travel, he says that the cuisine of this section of Brazil is dependent upon pork, and discusses the many ways that they prepare it and feature it in their cooking.
Some of the dishes that Bourdain tried and that make this list of worst foods do so only because they are unfamiliar to a tame palate. Others, however, are here because they truly do seem terrible, such as the next entry. In Sichuan, he chowed down with much gusto on a sampling of bunny heads. Yes, the actual heads of rabbits. The New York Times says that rabbit heads have become quite popular in China, a street food that has gained widespread popularity.
A Parts Unknown episode that was filmed in Hanoi featured a brusque restaurateur who served a soup of rice vermicelli that included pig’s knuckles, tongue and more. While not unheard of, these parts of the pig are not usually on the menu in most dining establishments in the United States. In an interesting turn, however, VnExpress noted that officials in Hanoi want the eatery’s owner to stop getting upset with customers who accidentally order ground pork instead of the pork knuckles at her shop.
The sea urchin makes this list because it looks so alien and dangerous. This little creature is actually enjoyed as a food in many different seaside cultures around the world, and it was in Japan that Bourdain tried it. But still, the combination of wicked spikes and slimy underside make this a candidate for the title of a ‘worst food’. Food Republic notes that someone who still wants to eat one despite its appearance may want to pair it with a strong libation.
When Anthony Bourdain and Parts Unknown made the trek to Los Angeles, he tried some tacos, which doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. But when you realize that tacos lengua translates into tongue taco, it is understandable why this item is on the list of the worst foods. LA Weekly tells us that tongue is prominently featured in several dishes that are popular in the City of Angels, not only in tacos but in soups, sandwiches, even schnitzels and more.
Pig’s trotter is another one of those foods that seems as if it can’t really be what it sounds like. In this case, it actually does belong to a pig, and it is, in fact, the part of the animal that it trots around on. A pig’s trotter is a pig foot, and it was on the menu when Parts Unknown shot in London. Saveur says that the time-honored tradition of pickling this particular body part is a good way to prepare it for consumption.
Prawns and shrimp and such are a fairly common menu item and aren’t usually considered too bad. The reason for the rock prawn to be included here is the way in which it was prepared when Bourdain had it in San Sebastian. As Parts Unknown explains about his dish, the rock prawn’s head and body were separated, and the body served mostly raw while the head was grilled. It’s the fact that the head is still a part of the meal that makes it count among the worst.
Once again we return to London for one of the worst foods on Parts Unknown. The folks over in Britain seem to enjoy making foods out of parts of the animal that would otherwise go into the rubbish. Organ meats, which include the kidneys that Bourdain tried in London, are often considered in that category. Eater notes that this isn’t too far from the truth when one considers chef Fergus Henderson’s reputation for cooking up these somewhat undesirable ingredients.
Elk is a big-game animal in Montana with lean and tasty meat. Something that many wouldn’t find so tasty, however, is its liver, but Bourdain tried elk-liver loaf when he visited Big Sky Country. The more mainstream version of this dish—with beef liver rather than one from an elk—is said to be tasty even to people who don’t like liver, according to New England Today. But like so many foods, it’s probably more appetizing when you don’t think about where it came from.
The nose-to-tail idea of eating every part of the animal isn’t confined to any one part of the world. When Parts Unknown traveled to Rome, oxtail was one of the foods that was included, and it’s been a traditional item there for a very long time. But as Forbes Travel Guide observes, traditional necessarily doesn’t mean desirable. The oxtail and other bits of the animal were all that was left to sell to the commoners after the upper classes took the better cuts of meat.
Dishes featuring animal heads are prevalent on this list, but so too are meals that include intestines. By the standards applied here, pig intestines fall into the category of foods to be avoided, although it is acknowledged that these parts of animals are considered desirable in many cultures around the world. For example, when Bourdain traveled to Sichuan, pig intestine was on the menu and according to the Telegraph, when paired with a chili sauce, it is a top choice for diners.
Speaking of eating an animal’s head, it isn’t a habit exclusive to cuisine from Asia. It was in jolly old London that Anthony Bourdain tried a pig’s head and potato pie. British chef Fergus Henderson discusses in Gourmet Traveler how he came to develop such a food item. The pig’s head and potato creation is something that the chef—widely known for his work in using in his cooking the parts of meat and animals that most other people would discard—describes as a winner among pies.
The ocean holds so many strange life forms that it is not surprising that many of the entries on this list come from the sea. While in San Sebastian, Anthony Bourdain found yet another off-putting food in the form of barnacles. Food & Wine says that these crusty little sea creatures are good enough eating that they show up among the daily specials in the city’s eateries, but it’s difficult to reconcile that with the image of barnacles clinging to the underside of boats and docks.
This entry isn’t a strange part of a pig or a treat made out of its insides. It is just a tiny little fish known as whitebait that Anthony Bourdain sampled as a pub snack in London. These are baby herring that are tossed into the flour whole—head and all—fried and served up like French fries. BBC reports that there may be some issues with the sustainability of the whitebait due to the rate at which they are harvested.
Speaking of treats made out of blood, Bourdain got to try some from the buffalo when he visited Laos and even as experienced as he is in exotic foods, it seemed to take him a bit by surprise. It was poured over herbs and thickened to almost a jelly-like consistency. The website Facts and Details notes that this style of preparing this dish into a food item that resembles tofu is just one of the out-of-the-ordinary aspects of cuisine to be found in Laos.
Eels appear once again on this list, and the food is a custard of eel and egg with bean curd and kelp in a bonito broth. Anthony Bourdain and his Parts Unknown show ran into this dish while filming in Japan. While this version of the chawanmushi custard included eel, according to Saveur, this dish is more traditionally known as being an egg meal. It doesn’t have to include the snakelike creature, although the recipe does call for the bonito broth.
We return to London for one of the worst foods, although Parts Unknown featured it in Chicago as well. It’s exactly what it sounds like: the marrow of the bone, a treat once reserved for people’s dogs but now served in restaurants. Newsweek even attributes some of its current appeal to Anthony Bourdain himself and his mention of the food item in one of his books, but also notes that even some of the chefs who serve it find it to be a bit off-putting.
The Sichuan hot pot is essentially a cauldron of boiling spices aimed at combining any number of unappetizing items—such as tripe and fresh duck intestine—into a sauce that is too hot to be enjoyed. And as the meal progresses, the spices blend and congregate in the serving dish to create yet more intense levels of heat. Travel & Leisure notes that this Chinese province is known throughout the world for its spicy hot foods and Bourdain certainly pushed this reputation to the limit.
While visiting Hanoi, Anthony Bourdain and Parts Unknown went fishing out on a boat, and when the nets came up, they were full of squirmy tentacle-covered creatures about the size of one’s fist. Eating something that looks as if it came from a science-fiction film does qualify as trying a bad food, although you wouldn’t know it by listening to his comments. Eater reports Bourdain as stating that the tentacles would be the best part of dining on the ‘cute’ little creatures.
Chicago is known for great steak, but when Bourdain and Parts Unknown came to town for a meal, he chose instead to dine on the lining of the cow’s stomach and tried confit of beef tripe. Yes, the concept of using all of the animal and not producing waste is an admirable goal. And yes, many people around the world enjoy tripe and happily eat it. But as outlined in the Guardian, there is a litany of reasons why this spongy organ meat is the worst.
References: Chicago Tribune, Kyoto Foodie, Greek Boston, New England Today, Trip Savvy, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Gourmet Traveler, Food Republic, Saveur, Parts Unknown, CNN Travel, Eater, Forbes Travel Guide, Telegraph, LA Weekly, Newsweek, Travel & Leisure, Eater, Guardian