Bizarre foods and other gastronomic delights on four continents.
Some time during the 80s the first Chinese restaurant opened in my town in Germany. My mom had always been very flexible when it came to food and she quickly organized several of her friends and made a reservation. It was my first time experimenting with non-Western food. It was also the first time I used chop sticks, something I’d only seen in movies. I remember clutching them tightly, probably too tightly, and trying to grab the food. It was the most tricky thing ever. None of us knew how to hold the Chinese utensils properly, much less how to make them work together. I was the only teenager in the group and not about to ask for advice, so I crossed my chop sticks near the narrow ends, clutched them between my fingers, and shoveled away as best as I could, trying to look like I’d been doing this forever. Only about three or four grains made it to my mouth at a time but I made up for the lack of volume with increased speed. Everybody struggled but I was intent on winning the race and I did, if rather inelegantly.
I remember how mad my dad was when my mom ordered frog legs during a trip abroad. They talked about it for years. I may not be the most intrepid or experimental of eaters but I do think I got at least a little of my mom’s culinary curiosity.
The first real test came less than a decade later when I was living in Santa Barbara, California. A friend of mine had discovered an Australian restaurant in another neighborhood, and we immediately decided to try it out. Two days later we arrived at a Spanish style building that was decorated like a safari lodge on the inside. After carefully perusing the menu we decided to go all out and do the full down-under immersion via the three meat platter – crocodile, emu, and kangaroo.
Neither of us had been to the southern hemisphere and our knowledge of Australia comprised the existence of marsupials (my friend was studying biology) and a massive red monolith* somewhere in the middle (I was studying geology). While we waited for our food, we chatted excitedly about the possibility of traveling to the vast country continent one day. Eventually, the food arrived and the plates were enormous. The meat dishes covered everything. I don’t remember much in the way of greens or starches but maybe that was because I was so distracted by the sight of an unreasonably large insect presiding over what I assumed was the kangaroo.
“Excuse me, there is a grasshopper on my steak” I complained to the waiter. He bent down and peered at my plate, as if trying to locate the topic of my concern or maybe he was simply considering snatching it off my plate and being done with it so he could return to the kitchen. Finally, he straightened and looked at me and explained that it was a roasted cicada, a crunchy complement to the soft meat of the grilled-to-perfection emu steak. He then looked across to my friend who was presently mulling over a similar albeit much smaller dilemma, on her own plate.
Since neither one of us wanted to appear uncultured we thanked the waiter and took our utensils in hand. We had missed the explanation about which meat was which so we made wild guesses about whether the light colored chop was the croc or the kangaroo. We had just learned that the dark, beefy looking steak was emu, a fact that greatly confused us since we’d both expected the bird to look like a bird, just smaller. The roo was delicious, the emu equally so, the croc, surprisingly, tasted like chicken. As far as the cicadas are concerned, neither one of us did more than move them around on the plate, making it look like we were about to fork them, without the least bit of actual intent. Still, we felt adventurous and open minded enough when we left. After all, we had indeed sampled three alien foods, just not all four.
A couple of years later, in grad school, I went to spent a few months in Japan to work with other researcher’s from the Tokyo area. We were going to spend two months on a research ship and I’d flown in a couple of weeks early to get acclimated and to travel a bit. I spent the initial few days in Tokyo seeking immediate and full immersion into the culture. Japanese food is phenomenal, lot’s of seafood, mostly fresh ingredients, delicious flavors. I was in culinary heaven. Most of the day, at least, except during the early part. I’m talking about the time when most people enjoy an egg dish or a bakery item. I had already learned that the Japanese like rice bowls. They like them so much you can find them anywhere and anytime. Even in the early morning, during that delicate time when some of us indulge in caffeine and sugar to jumpstart the brain and convince it to collaborate in the daily effort of productivity. You know the time.
I had gone to a street shop for coffee and a breakfast bowl and I sat down at a small table in front of a window to enjoy my first Japanese breakfast. I poured some cream into my coffee, sipped, looked out onto the already busy street, sipped some more coffee and removed the cover of my rice bowl. And that is when I saw a good dozen blue eyes staring right at me. A sea of small, shiny blue fish had found a bed on a pristine ball of rice. Each fish had eyes that were way too big for its head and all the eyes were wide open. Here’s looking at you, kid, they smirked. I was mesmerized. The fish were small but their eyes were so incredibly big. And there were so many of them. I poked around my bowl, worked my way down to the rice and considered my options. The sea of blue was taunting me. Still, I couldn’t see how I would munch on all that ocular goodness. I covered one of the fish with lots of rice, grabbed a good hold with my chop sticks, and pretty much gulped it down. Same with the next one, and the next one after that. I only stopped when all the rice was gone and that was as far as I was willing to go in terms of early morning cultural immersion. I flushed everything down with the rest of my coffee and went on my way to find more far east adventure.
Japan is full of culinary delights and occasional challenges. I ended my exploratory trip around Honshu and Kyushu in Yokohama where I met the ship and crew. I checked in with the captain, met the science party and introduced myself to some of the crew. At my quarters I put my luggage on my bunk. Amanda, my cabin mate for the first cruise was already aboard and we introduced each other and chatted for a bit. There was food available from the galley but we decided to hit town before spending a prolonged time at sea. We found some really neat neighborhoods, bought lot’s of oriental looking nicknacks, and picked a hole-in-the-wall sushi bar for dinner.
Amanda and I sat down at two of the six stools that lined the bar and made up the restaurant. I recognized some of the words, like maguro (tuna), and ebi (shrimp) but the menu was surprisingly long and most items meant nothing to us. We ordered from pictures, pointing and laughing with the guy behind the counter. Amanda played it safe with vegetable and sake (salmon) rolls and I felt cosmopolitan about ordering tako (octopus) and saba (mackerel). The sushi was out of this world. The man with the big knife behind the glass counter was a magician. He chopped and rolled and we ate, ate, ate.
I don’t remember when the old lady at the end of the row of seats came in but she was there and watched us for a while. The customer sitting next to her translated that she wished to invite us to some real Japanese sushi. Amanda and I discussed it for a moment We looked at each other and I said “Hai. Arigatto.”
To be continued… come back to read about:
namako – squishy, tarako – subgai – fish eggs the size of marbles at a corner sushi shop in Yokohama, hoya sea squirt, salmon eggs
chicken legs with a Chinese family and a puking Chinese baby at a Chinese restaurant in Silicon Valley
the one that got away: roasted guinea pig
(my childhood rabbit in Prague)
in a staring contest with my conch salad on Eleuthera (first time in Belize, ice bucket, we were told the conch will walk out of it’s shell if too cold, cucumber and lime juice)
crunchy snacks: roasted ants in Colombia
alligator bites in the Everglades in Florida
chocolate snails in Vienna
In the market for something exotic? Try Exotic Meat Markets for some less well known cuts of, hmmm… meat.
Here is a link for more information about snails and snail farming (in German).
* I know what’s coming… so, for the geologists/stratigraphers/geomorphologists: yes, monolith is not the right description. However, sedimentary inselberg would have disrupted the flow of the sentence. And besides, I’m a geophysicist so give me a break. (Thanks Prof. Sylvester for giving me that out.)