“Gastro Obscura” Explores Strange Snacks

Minnesota native Dylan Thuras co-authors new book about worldwide foods and traditions
Dylan Thuras, co-author of "Gastro Obscura"
Dylan Thuras, co-author of “Gastro Obscura”

Photo by Timothy Shivers

There’s hotdish and Honeycrisps, Spam and butter sculptures featured in a new book about culinary oddities from around the world titled Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide. But what’s missing from the Minnesota section is likely our state’s most iconic delicacy: lutefisk.

That’s on purpose, says co-author and Minnesota native Dylan Thuras. While lutefisk is definitely “bizarre” and “shocking” and “there’s a chance you’re going to die from eating it” because it’s pickled in lye, Thuras explains that leaving it off the list illustrates the painful process of creating the comprehensive, 440-page book.

“Maybe it was too familiar,” Thuras says of lutefisk.

From pig’s blood cake in Taiwan to the miracle berry that turns the taste of sour foods sweet in Burkina Faso, Gastro Obscura sets out to “explore what food and drink reveal about the places where they’re made and the people who make them.” The book is a series of short, digestible paragraphs with a fun, cheeky, awe-inspired tone.

Not every entry is about a specific food or drink—many are about a food-focused festival, a surprising restaurant, or an emerging dining trend. The book is loaded with photos, illustrations, recipes, and tips on how to try many of the foods and products, as well as a recurring Pantry Staple section that looks at an item (eggs, pickles, blood!?!) and its different variations around the world. A note to readers warns, “Not everything in Gastro Obscura should be eaten. Some of the foods in this book are a wonder to learn about, but do harm to partake in.”

Thuras says he loves those “interesting parallels and connections” throughout the book, a reminder that “wonder can be found close at hand.”

Midwesterners may think their State Fair butter sculptures are completely unique, but Thuras points out there’s a similar event in Tibet, only with yak’s milk. He also applauds worldwide efforts to bring Indigenous foods and culture to prominence, such as chef Sean Sherman’s new restaurant in Minneapolis, Owamni.

The book opens in Europe, moves through Asia, Africa, and Oceania, and dedicates nearly half of the second half to North America. Or, you can start with the index at the back to browse fascinating topics like “outlawed foods” or “mind-altering substances and hallucinogens.”

The book is the latest from the media company that Thuras helped create, Atlas Obscura, known for its books, website, guided travel excursions and community of users who love to discover and share unusual sites, events, and facts. Thuras estimates about 50% of the entries in Gastro Obscura were crowd-sourced from user suggestions while the other half came from Thuras’ and co-author Cecily Wong’s team. He says the focus on foods that may be available around the world allows Gastro Obscura to be more accessible to readers in contrast to Atlas Obscura’s more destination-driven wonders, like a cave filled with bats in Bali or sulfur baths in Tbilisi.

Thuras grew up in Minneapolis, no doubt attending the State Fair and eating Jell-O salad, and now lives with his family in New York. He says compiling the book during a pandemic was both exhilarating and difficult when it came to research.

“I hate to break hearts,” he admits, “but we don’t visit every site and try everything.” Maybe it’s OK to skip the maggot-infused cheese or cod tongues. Still, he’s discovered some new favorite foods, like baby pinecone jelly and clarified milk punch, and failed miserably at attempting to make others, like Persian cotton candy. As part of the launch for Gastro Obscura, the company purchased a vending machine that offers some of the foods found in the book. It has been a hit during its pop-up appearances in New York, Chicago, and Portland. No word yet if it will appear in Minnesota, sans lutefisk.

As editor of Minnesota Monthly, Amy works collaboratively with a team of writers, designers, photographers, and digital producers to create impactful, surprising, timely and insightful content that reflects the Spirit of Minnesota. An award-winning newspaper and magazine editor based in the Twin Cities, Amy has decades of experience guiding coverage of luxury living, arts and culture, style and travel topics across multiple platforms. She has interviewed personalities ranging from Prince to Roger Goodell and has stories to tell.