Beaver Tail, Fish Bladder Jam & Other Odd Foods From History
Image Credit: England's King Charles II liked his eggs folded in with ambergris, a waste product of whales. Wikimedia Commons

"LIFE is too short for self-hatred and celery sticks," author and activist Marilyn Wann once said, voicing the collective disdain many feel towards veggies. And yet, while veggies get a bad rap for being boring or bland, they’re harmless compared to some of the other culinary experiments our ancestors engaged in. From what was, in effect, whale excrement to oddities that might turn even the most cast-iron of stomachs, here’s a look at the peculiar items that made it to their dinner plates. 

Fish Bladder Jam

Victorians sure were experimental — be it in their attire or their food choices. They discovered this squishy substance by squeezing out the slimy essence out of sturgeon fish bladders, which they called 'isinglass'. Victorians devoured gallons of fish bladder jam and sugary treats until gelatin swooped in as a cheaper substitute. 

Before making its way to the culinary world, isiglass was a non-negotiable ingredient in glue-making. Today, isinglass has found its true calling in the brewing industry. It helps speed up the sedimentation process in beer production. Who would have thought we have unwittingly been savouring pints of delightful fish bladder ale for years! 

Beaver Tails

In England during the Middle Ages, folks had to endure half a year of fast days, when meat wasn’t allowed on the menu. Fasting in the Middle Ages was considered a form for self-discipline… “a spring cleaning for the soul,” as described by Bridget Ann Henisch in her book Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. But fish was not considered meat back then, so those fasting days — like the lengthy Lent period, Wednesdays, Fridays, and even the days leading up to Christmas — became a fin-tastic opportunity to dine on fish preparations. 

The tradition of feasting on fish and chips on Fridays is said to have sprouted from those fast days. Of course, since not everyone could get their hands on fish, they settled for — beaver tails. Beaver tails were reminiscent of flat fish with their scaly appearance. So, they were deemed fish and became an affordable substitute for the fishless masses. 

The other delicacy of the time was barnacle geese, an Arctic bird scientists believed didn't hatch from eggs, but was born out of ripe fruits. Others argued that barnacle geese were too close to the water at all times to be a bird. 

Bird Nests

Ancient Chinese cuisine is home to possibly some of the strangest food in history. The showstopper, though, is edible bird's nests. These are not your typical sticks and twigs affair. They're made by Swiftlet birds who craft their homes using their own saliva. 

These nests are a real delicacy, so fancy that they were only reserved for the high and mighty during the Qing Dynasty. Poet Yuan Mei even dedicated an entire book to the art of eating these nests, considered an ultimate treasure.

So how do you turn a gob of bird spit into a mouthwatering treat? First, the nests are cooked in a scrumptious soup. The nests slowly soften up in the broth, unveiling a delicate, stringy texture. Packed with protein, the dish is a powerhouse of nutrients. This delicacy is still consumed throughout China, but comes with a hefty price tag of $6,600. 


Take a gander at that tiny mouse scurrying about, and you'd never imagine it as the star of a grand feast. To modern foodies, a mouse incites more disgust than adoration (except for when you are watching the Stuart Little movies). But hold onto your togas, because the Romans were absolute daredevils when it came to dining. They had a peculiar taste for a certain plump and hefty breed of dormouse, way larger than the puny ones we know today. These dormice were the rockstars of Ancient Rome's culinary scene, the crème de la crème of delicacies. 

The elite of Roman society would go to great lengths to outdo each other at their fancy feasts and banquets. It was all about showing off the biggest, fattest, and juiciest dormice. 

Now, here's the secret to transforming the dormice into plump proteins. They were captured and kept in dark pots where their only feast was a gourmet diet of walnuts, acorns, and chestnuts. These mice had the ultimate all-you-can-eat buffet, with no treadmill in sight. They simply ran around a bit, caught some sleep, and stuffed their bellies. 

When these dormice reached their optimum size, they were plucked from their pot prisons, and met their ultimate destiny — becoming the pièce de résistance of Roman extravaganzas.


Kings and monarchs have historically been famed for their peculiar taste palates, and England’s King Charles II was no different. One of his favourite ingredients was ambergris, which he insisted be folded into pretty much everything he liked, from cigarettes to hot chocolate and even eggs. 

This choicest ingredient is nothing but a substance that forms in the gut of sperm whales over the course of many years. Waxy and greyish-brown, whales produce it to help them slide out objects they have gobbled up but cannot digest. 

Not just Charles II, this whale wax also caught the fancy of the perfume industry, and still continues to be heavily used as an additive in fragrances, except for in the US and Australia, where the product is banned. However, ambergris is no longer used in food making, possibly owing to its origin inside whale gut.