Many travelers consider themselves to be “foodies,” but what about “drinkies”?
Just like food, there are hundreds of thousands of drinks to try around the world. Some of these are fairly common – variations of tea, coffee, soft drinks or alcohol. But other beverages are mysterious, sometimes curious, concoctions with cultural significance, medicinal properties and/or mind- and body-altering capabilities.
A few other drinks are just plain weird. (Looking at you, Sourtoe.)
If you happen to travel to any of the countries or regions discussed below, and you’re feeling extra-adventurous, then you can stop into a pub or restaurant – or find a way to partake in a local ceremony – and sample one of the world’s most unusual beverages.
Tuna tears soju: South Korea
If you’re planning on traveling to South Korea, then chances are you already have a long list of foods and drinks you’ll want to try, from Korean BBQ, to kimchi jjigae to soju – the country’s potent elixir. It’s a must-try in a country that has a reputation for “going hard.”
Soju, a distilled rice wine with a high alcohol content, can be found in nearly every restaurant, bar and convenience store in the country. It comes in many different flavors (peach and blueberry are some favorites) and Koreans love to mix the drink with beer to create another beverage called “maekju,” which is put together like a Jägerbomb (a shot of Jägermeister dropped into an energy drink such as Red Bull).
Sometimes, they even mix it with tuna eye fluid.
The “tuna tears shot,” or “chamchi nunmulju” in Korean, is typically served at Japanese-style restaurants or seafood spots, known as “tuna houses.” The drink incorporates fluid from the eye of a tuna fish with the soju. The combination results in a beverage with a jelly-like consistency.
Anjee DiSanto, an American English teacher living in Jeonju, on South Korea’s west coast, tells CNN Travel that trying soju this way is an unusual but exciting experience.”The server pours the shot out of a tea kettle, but it’s so thick that they have to cut it with scissors. Sometimes there are gold flakes inside of it, too.”
Sinchicara is an Ecuadorian drink produced in Sucumbíos province in the northeast of the country.
While most Ecuadorians have bottles of the commercial version in their fridges, the natural version of the drink is popular with Amazonian communities.
You can buy the retail beverage or you can DIY it: simply find a recipe online and mix your own at home. You’ll likely end up with a drink which is more similar to that enjoyed by indigenous communities.
Sinchicara is cane brandy fused with the bark of indigenous rainforest plants, and is unique to this region. While it’s an alcoholic drink – one of the main ingredients is “aguardiente de cana” (alcohol from sugar cane) – sinchicara is also used as a cold medicine (great for those living in the Andes). It’s used to soothe rheumatoid arthritis, and, believed to be an aphrodisiac and libido booster, it’s also a bedroom aid.
If you just want to party Ecuadorian-style, take a shot of this straight (just one, as its 25% ABV is considerable). It’s a much safer option than ayahuasca, a brew with hallucinogenic properties that’s become popular among travelers in this part of Ecuador.
Tongba (millet beer): Nepal
If you’re looking for a familiar beverage – but consumed in a different manner – then you’ll want to try millet beer. A drink that comes from the Limbu people of Nepal, it’s quite common among other Nepalese groups and foreigners who are eager to try it.
Tongba is made by a process of fermenting whole grain millet, which can take a few weeks. When it’s ready to drink, it’s typically served in a barrel-like cup, also known as a tongba.
To drink, you must pour in boiling water – the appropriate amount of millet will already be in the vessel – and let it settle. Then, you take a bamboo straw which acts as a filter, allowing you to essentially drink the alcohol – the beer – while leaving the millet and other not-so-delicious sediments behind.
Tongba is the “everlasting gobstopper” of beer. Keep adding the boiling water and you can continue drinking until you don’t taste anything but lukewarm water. If you love those two-for-one or happy hour deals, then tongba is for you.
Though Tongba is easiest to find in Taplejung, Nepal, you can easily find it in Thamel, the downtown center in Kathmandu. It’s essentially a warm beer that’s perfect for those cold Himalayan evenings.
Boza: Bulgaria and the Caucuses
Dobrina Zhekova, a freelance journalist from Bulgaria, tells CNN Travel that she remembers drinking boza all the time growing up.
“I used to absolutely love the taste as a child. We’d also have it in the afternoon whenever we went to a pastry shop with my parents or grandparents, usually on the weekends. It was sort of a classic thing for Bulgaria – a slice of cake and a glass of boza for the kids.”
Made from fermenting boiled flour, giving it a slightly sour but sweet taste, boza – a drink that’s similar to milk in the States in terms of popularity and consumption, especially in the “milk man” days – is somewhat of a national pastime in Bulgaria and other countries in the Caucuses.
Because of the microorganisms in boza, it’s believed to be an excellent probiotic that’s good for your gut.
It also contains a negligible amount of alcohol, though this doesn’t stop children and pregnant women from drinking it. Some obstetricians, in fact, say boza is good during pregnancy, as it increases breast milk supply, according to Zhekova.
Zhekova also remembers her classmates giggling about how boza can help make your breasts grow bigger, too; somewhat of an urban legend in Bulgaria.
These days, boza has lost its sheen. “It was one of the first drinks I was introduced to as a child growing up in the then-communist dictatorship. As with everything, there were very few drinks one could choose from. But, now, drinking boza is seen as uncool,” Georgi Georgiev, an online marketing consultant from Bulgaria, explains.
Despite the decrease in popularity, boza can still be found in most local grocery stores in Bulgaria.
Mamajuana: Dominican Republic
If you’re heading to the Dominican Republic, then one drink you’ll want to keep an eye out for is mamajuana.
Though it’s a national drink, there isn’t an agreed-upon single recipe for mamajuana, as each family makes their own. But one ingredient that every recipe contains is bark, which historically has been harvested by the country’s indigenous people.
Red wine, honey and rum are poured over the bark – along with any other ingredients the maker wants to add.
Mechi Annaís Estévez Cruz, owner of a language school that teaches Dominican culture in the Dominican Republic is nostalgic about the beverage, saying: “We drink mamajuana, and in a way it’s like we don’t forget our past.”
Mamajuana’s purpose is wide-ranging: It’s an aphrodisiac, can be used to treat digestive issues, cure colds, and get rid of the flu.
It’s also consumed with the sole purpose of having a good old-fashioned time – so long as you don’t mind the licoricey (think Fernet Branca) or floral taste.
Next time you’re in the DR, you can always head to La Casita De Papi in Cabarete and ask about the local post-meal digestif.
Kava is an important part of Fijian ceremonies and the roots – sevusevu – are often a main component of formal meetings and special occasions.
If you attend a kava ceremony while in Fiji, you’ll have the unique opportunity to try this drink, which comes from an intoxicating pepper plant common across other countries in the region. The plant is pounded into a powder and then mixed with water.
Diane Selkirk, a Canadian travel writer and photographer, attended one such ceremony while traveling in Fiji. Selkirk sampled kava and describes the experience affectionately: “There are a bunch of reasons it affects people. Apparently, it has 18 active compounds. It made me extra-cheerful and very mellow and gave me a numb lips and tongue. It also makes people talkative and cooperative.”
Kava is a psychoactive drink and while it’s legal in Fiji, it’s banned in some countries, so read up on the potential side effects before you decide to partake.
Meat breast mezcal (mezcal de pechuga): Mexico
In and of itself, mezcal – a popular drink in Mexico – doesn’t meet our criteria for odd and unusual. You can find all kinds of mezcal in bars throughout the country and internationally too.
But there’s one type that stands out from the rest.
Mezcal de pechuga – “meat breast mezcal” – isn’t produced in the say way as your average mezcal.
In the mezcal de pechuga process, a raw chicken breast (or hen, rabbit or turkey) is hung over the still where the mezcal is being distilled and slow-cooks in the vapors. It’s said to give the drink a fuller punch.
Miriam Rodriguez Gonzalez, whose grandfather owned a palenque (or distillery) in Oaxaca, tells CNN Travel, “He would take the chicken breast and put it inside a plastic bag with small holes. Then, he would place the bag inside of the huge container where the mezcal has been filtered, and leave it there for some time. We don’t know many people who make it like my grandfather.”
Mexicans believe mezcal can be good for several health reasons, such as digestion. But, this version – and, mezcal in general – is a great celebratory drink that shouldn’t be messed around with.
The Sourtoe Cocktail: Dawson City, Canada
The Sourtoe Cocktail isn’t a drink for the faint of heart. Served in a shot glass with Yukon Jack or tequila, the imbiber must take a swig and let the toe touch their lips.
By the way, this is a real human toe.
Legend has it the tradition started when a man named Louie Liken – a rum runner – lost his toe after it was frostbitten in the snow. His brother chopped it off, then he stored it in a mason jar. Decades later, it was found on a shelf in his cabin and served in drinks to brave bar-goers.
Photographer and writer Meghan Young tried the peculiar drink when she visited Dawson City. When asked about her experience, Young told CNN Travel, “I stared at the toe as it lay on a bed of salt. Clearly a hammer toe, it has a distinguishable nail. As gross as it looked, I felt surprisingly calm. I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all.”
Since then, other toes have been generously donated and used in the cocktail, especially since several of its predecessors have been stolen and/or swallowed.
As a matter of fact, Terry Lee, the Toe Captain at the Downtown Hotel where the drink is patented and copyrighted (so, you can’t have it anywhere else in the world) mentioned another drink called “The Foot.”
It’s going to be a double-shot with all five toes (from different humans) served in one drink, and will be ready once the toes are finished mummifying.
And, if you’re secretly wondering what other mammals “taste” like in a beverage, Lee said that once a year in Dawson City, the Humane Society serves the Dog Ball Highball, a similar drink with a dog’s testicle.