Odd Eats: Ambergris, A New Dimension Of Flavor

by Karen on Tuesday, April 26, 2011

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Ambergris.  Sounds whimsical, like an beautiful flower or a rare gemstone. In actuality, it’s whale poop. Well, sort of. Ambergris is a waxy solid substance that is produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and protects the digestive track from sharp items ingested like squid beaks. Freshly regurgitated or excreted ambergris supposedly smells horrific (like most freshly discharged things do) but after years of floating around and aged by the sea it becomes something entirely different. It’s most traditional and popular use has been in perfumes, used like musk is. But what many people don’t know is that for centuries ambergris was also used in food.

I have Deana from Lost Past Remembered to thank for introducing me to ambergris and its culinary applications. After meeting, or ‘e-meeting’, and sharing our love for food and history, we got to talking about ambergris. She spoke so passionately about its magical properties in food that it got me excited to try something I normally would wrinkle my nose at. As you can imagine, ambergris is not easy to come by, and like anything that is difficult to find, it comes with a hefty price tag (almost $10,000 a pound!)

Luckily for me, Deana understood the foodie desire to break all palatal boundaries and was kind enough to send me a chip of the precious cargo. Never been so excited to open a package of animal excrement!

As any adventuresome eater knows, when encountering a new and exciting ingredient, you must relish it with not just your taste buds but with all your senses. Upon taking a hearty waft, I noted the briny yet musky scent.  But really the smell is unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

Per Deana’s recommendation, I sprinkled a bit of ambergris into some warm port. The heat melts the wax releasing the aroma. Ambergris doesn’t provide a specific taste as much as it opens up a completely new experience in your consumption of the liquid or food you’ve added it to. After racking my brain for words to describe the experience, the best way I can sum it up is that it adds a depth of flavor to the port. It turned the port from an ordinary drink into something unique by giving it a “fleshy quality.” As unappetizing as “fleshy quality” sounds, the experience was not distasteful.

In sum: Ambergris to liquids is much like 3D to movies; it gives new meaning to the otherwise familiar.


(Images from herehere, here and here)

 

{ 21 comments }

Belinda @zomppa April 26, 2011 at 7:06 am

Now THAT is some food for thought!! Incredible – thanks for sharing (I wouldn’t even know where to begin to find this). =)

Karen April 26, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Oops I should’ve put a link to where you can buy ambergris: http://www.ambergris.co.nz/

Chad April 26, 2011 at 10:24 am

I would love to try some of this whale poop to have its fleshy quality.

The Quest For Zest April 26, 2011 at 1:18 pm

I thought I had heard it all with Civit coffee; this is just… wow. Not sure I could do this one. Have you tried it on anything else since then?

Karen April 28, 2011 at 10:05 am

Not yet, but thinking hot chocolate. Deana’s recommendation– she’s my guide to ambergris! Here’s a link to her post on it– VERY informative: http://lostpastremembered.blogspot.com/2010/01/ambergris-lost-chord-found.html

Lentil Breakdown April 26, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Wow! I’ve never even heard of this! I feel like a nincompoop!

Karen April 28, 2011 at 10:05 am

Don’t worry neither had I!

Sasha (Global Table Adventure) April 26, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Wow. I’m alternately loving and hating those photos lol. Do you know which main cultures use(d) this as food?

deana@lostpastremembered April 26, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Fabulous post… your take on its effects is spot on. It makes things more of what they are. Heston Blumenthal put it with cucumbers!! SO pleased you tried it.

To answer Sasha (if I may) cultures from china to england have taken ambergris for thousands of years. It was thought to be an aphrodisiac in the middle east and a protection from the plague in Europe (the very rich would carry around golden pomanders ––pomme d’ ambre- amber apples –– filled with ambergris). It’s magical stuff.

Karen April 28, 2011 at 10:06 am

Thanks again for a unique experience Deana!

Sylvie @ Gourmande in the Kitchen April 27, 2011 at 2:33 am

Now that certainly is an odd eat! I’ve never heard of it before now. You are a much braver woman than I to try this Karen, I salute your adventurous tastebuds!

Mely@MexicoinmyKitchen April 27, 2011 at 6:34 am

Thanks to you, I am learning something new today! That is a real Foodie job!

Have a great week.

Mely

elle marie April 28, 2011 at 3:08 am

OMGOSH.. food for thought ne? But you know… I’m not quite sure I’m THAT adventurous.

Deana April 28, 2011 at 9:43 am

This sounds so intriguing. I wish I could smell it.

rebecca April 28, 2011 at 11:34 am

wow how interesting and your so brave you find the coolest things

Lana April 29, 2011 at 9:11 am

Yes, I have heard of ambergris and its use in perfumes, but it would never occur to me to eat it! You are a brave soul, but if given a chance, I would not refuse to try some, just for experiment’s sake:)

Susan May 17, 2011 at 7:02 pm

That’s the bravest culinary adventure I’ve ever seen!

StephanieMichelleJones September 15, 2011 at 2:46 am

I remember reading about ambergris in some old forgotten reading supplement back in elementary school in the 1970s. I knew ambergris was from whales and used in perfume. But I had no idea it could be eaten.

And while I consider myself adventurous when it comes to food, there are certain body functions that grosses me out. Amazingly, poop isn’t one of them, which is why I would try civet coffee. If anything, ambergris reminds me of ear wax. And that is something I cannot deal with. I will live vicariously through you at this point.

Karen September 23, 2011 at 10:23 am

Ah civit coffee! yes ambergris is waxy which I can see how that would creep some people out!

Larry February 22, 2012 at 9:04 pm

Loved the post! You described it as having a “fleshy quality”. To me, it sounds like you are trying to describe what the Japanese call ‘Umami’.

TomBrooklyn March 2, 2012 at 10:37 am

Anything that expensive is almost always considered an aphrodisiac. And not wholly without reason. The ability to afford such a price is generally an attraction to the opposite gender.

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