photo credit: deadspin.com
When traveling I’m often conflicted when offered local specialties. And the anecdote at the end of this post is a great example of why.
As a travel writer who’s eaten my way around, I’ve consumed local products that I’d never find again, or anywhere else. Wild boar, squid in black ink, raw seal liver, air-dried whale blubber, zebra. I’ve tried them all, and have had my share of turista.
And I’ve consumed proteins connected with exterminators, sometimes by chance. In a café on the Pan American Highway in Mexico, a crouton in my bowl of tomato soup turned out to have six legs. And in a well-known Washington DC restaurant, a baked cricket was an unwelcome addition to an otherwise ordinary veal casserole.
(After the apoplectic owner comped the bill, I mock-whispered to my friend, “Got the cricket? It worked again!”)
In Bangkok, our group of Thais and Americans working on a video project made faces at each other as we consumed unpeeled, whole shrimp that looked like magnified bugs. The Americans removed the tops and consumed the bottoms, and the Thais did just the opposite.
“How can you eat the eyes and brains?” asked the Americans, disgustedly. “How can you eat the intestinal tube?” asked the Thais, just as disgustedly. We wasted nothing by exchanging both disgusting parts, much to both groups’ satisfaction.
Worms to some are as delicious as eels to others, but many of us can’t stomach either. I have passed on sheep eyes, grubs, ants, Amazonian rodents, and cat. In the northern hills of Vietnam, I admired dogs that I learned later were raised to be eaten. That would be a no for me!
I have eaten alligator and iguana, which yes, taste like chicken. (Would people used to eating these two say that chicken tastes like reptiles?)
In Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, after a trek on an elephant named Sarah, my friend and I chose a restaurant with a snake pit at the entrance, set much like a lobster tank at a neighborhood seafood joint. The boa became a burger, filled with what tasted like pebbles. Thecobra was tender, but left funny ribs on a plate. And snake also tastes like chicken, perhaps because reptilian dinosaurs were the precursors of birds.
In Tokyo I savored a porcelain bowlful of blush-pink jelly that turned out to be jelly –fish. But that’s nothing compared to my son Randall, who once ate fugo, a potentially deadly blowfish prepared by only a few Japanese chefs, for a magazine article. At least he got paid well, and lived to write about it.
And now for my favorite carnivore memory. It was 1984 in Hong Kong, at a new restaurant on the Kowloon harbor. I was invited along with a rather snobby writer for a science magazine. I called him Macho Man.
The owner took us first through a kitchen that looked like a mordant petting zoo, with cute, caged bunnies, birds, turtles and such and an aquarium full of colorful and presumably delicious fish.
Our pre-chosen menu was highly unusual, in honor of our visit. Our appetizer was sashimi of geoduc, a bi-valve as big as a pizza. The waiter wheeled it in and sliced the raw foot. Ouch.
Shark fin soup followed. I’m not sure if this is still served, but it is said that the entire shark can be thrown away, just to get the fin, which is considered an aphrodisiac. I wasn’t interested in making love just then, and felt awful about the waste.
The restaurant owner sat with Macho Man and me, Buddha-like, eating nothing, saying little. And his wife picked at tea and rice, silently, head down. Macho Man bragged throughout the feast of the many icky foods he had eaten, including monkey brains and locusts. I didn’t care for him or his culinary sophistication.
He downed the first course with gusto, and I liked him less and less with each enthusiastic bite. When he learned that dessert was to be sea fungus in milk, he exclaimed that he had enjoyed it recently.
The main course was the most unusual of the meal, a sliced meat, mild flavor. Macho Man chewed carefully, but couldn’t recognize the taste, and finally asked our host what we were eating.
The restaurant owner’s wife, who had been silent throughout the meal, looked up from her rice, and whispered, “deer penis.”
Well now. Macho Man threw down his chopsticks, in a reflex action.
“Finishing that?” I asked innocently.
And yes, it tasted like chicken.