I recently visited a new experiential museum in Sweden, looking at various culture’s eating habits. The museum was filled with some of the world’s most disgusting foods; and I got to taste some of them.
Located in Malmö, the gastronomic capital of Sweden, the Disgusting Food Museum is housed in an old slaughterhouse, fitting to the theme.
Upon entering, visitors receive their admission ticket: a throw-up bag. This set the expectation that there was going to be some strong reactions when experiencing the museum; some people did make use of the bags (not me – I bravely ate everything I tasted).
The Nature of Disgust
The start of the exhibition introduces visitors to the “Nature of Disgust”. According to Samuel West, the Curator and Chief Disgustologist, disgust is a feeling of extreme repulsion towards certain things. This can be shaped by a variety factors; our subjectivity as individuals, the context we consume our food in and the culture we have grown up with. Disgust is an evolutionary function that helps us to avoid diseases and unsafe food. Furthermore, it is universal across cultures and is one of the six fundamental human emotions.
West believes that our idea of disgust influences our lives in more ways we can imagine; it is prevalent in our choice of foods, sexual behaviour and even our morals and laws.
However, West says there is another important message underlying this exhibition. He challenges the museum’s visitors to consider environmentally sustainable alternatives to meat consumption. And with the Disgusting Food Museum, he hopes to change people’s notions of what food is disgusting and what isn’t. There is a need, he feels, for us to transition to more sustainable protein sources like insects.
A gastronomical journey around the world
The exhibition begins in the Americas, takes us to the Caribbean and Africa, then to Australia, Europe, Scandinavia, and finally Asia. There are 80 food items on display; some are replicas, a few are on video display, but most of them real. Each exhibit is accompanied by a short description. And of course, there are a number of special exhibits that invite you to ‘Please Smell’ them.
It was fun to walk around the museum but more so to see the other visitors’ reactions to the foods on display. Using minimal technology, the museum paired these fun elements with thought-provoking moments on some of the video displays.
Disgust is subjective and cultural
Whilst not a big museum, it was easy to spend a lot of time in it, intrigued by the amount of disgusting food. I was surprised by the number of foods that I have tried and don’t find them disgusting at all. Foods like Twinkies, Pop Tarts, Vegemite, and even Kit Kat are presented in this museum of disgusting food, although Soy Sauce Kit Kat sounds a little strange. It reinforces just how disgust is subjective to the individual and their experiences.
On a personal level, I grew up in Singapore, where the durian fruit is loved by many. Sure the smell is pungent, and it’s banned on our public transportation; but the flesh is sweet and delicious (if you buy the right grade of durian). Just as salty liquorice is loved by the Swedes, and root beer by the Americans, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.
Top 3 gut-wrenching (and favourite) moments at the Disgusting Food Museum
Immersive & interactive: Even though the museum is very different to other Instagrammable museums, there are a number of activities to get you engaged and involved. There is an instagram-worthy wall stacked with cans of Swedish fermented herring or surströmming, a library with books on disgust, and a “Wall of Disgust” for visitors to share the most disgusting foods they have eaten. You can also smell jars of food and there’s one exhibit even asks you to touch it: the bull penis.
The Altar of Stinky Cheese: I’m not a big cheese lover and smelling these cheeses did not make me love them any more. 5 different types of cheese were on display and visitors could open ‘Smell Jars’ to get a whiff of them.
Fermented shark and herring, anyone?
My favourite moment was the food tasting part. There were 12 items for the visitors to taste; of which 4 I’ve tried before. I knew I wasn’t going to put anything with legs in my mouth, so I stayed away from the insects. However, I saw that there was Hákarl (Icelandic for fermented shark) and its smell was described by West to be like “death and ammonia”. I can’t really say much for the smell except that it was really strong. You are supposed to wash it down with Black Death schnapps; and I guess I should’ve done that because the after-taste was one of the worst things ever.
The Swedish fermented herring is cleverly sealed in a can and according to Swedes, you never open it indoors; which is why the museum has outdoor tasting sessions. When a small incision is made into the can; the smell hits you within seconds. I was apprehensive to try it, but I figured I had to check this off my bucket list. I took the smallest piece I could find and wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry or spit it out but I definitely wanted to wash the taste out of my mouth.
Challenging taste buds and notions
The Disgusting Food Museum has created a novel and innovative experience involving something that most of us have come to take for granted – food. Visitors are exposed to explicit and graphic exhibits of real food and video depictions; this makes it’s hard not to give a second thought about how we consume our food. At the same time, the museum challenges its visitors to try foods that are delicacies where they’re from. And it was encouraging to see people willing to step out of their comfort zone, hands shaking (mine included), to put disgusting food in their mouths.
Is this the beginning of a food revolution? We don’t know yet, but the Disgusting Food Museum is determined to continue to challenge both taste buds and our notion of disgust.
All images credit of Anja Barte Telin and courtesy of the Disgusting Food Museum.