Bizarre foods and other gastronomic delights on four continents – or why we sometimes accidentally eat strange foods.
Some time during the 1980s, 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, too tightly, and trying to capture a few grains of rice. It was the most tricky thing ever. None of us knew how to hold these Asian 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 clumsily.
This was one of the least experimental culinary outings for my mom, however. I’ll never forget how mad my dad was when she ordered frog legs during a trip abroad. My parents argued about it for years. I may not be the most intrepid of eaters but I do think I got at least a little of my mom’s culinary curiosity.
My first real challenge came less than a decade later when I was living in Santa Barbara, California. A friend of mine had discovered an Australian restaurant in a nearby 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 by way of 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 find a hair. Maybe he was considering snatching the insect off my plate, getting it over with, so he could return to the kitchen. Alas, he straightened up, looked me in the eye, and explained that it was “a roasted cicada, a crunchy complement to the soft meat of the grilled-to-perfection emu steak.” He then glanced at my friend who was mulling over a similar, albeit much smaller dilemma, on her own plate.
Since neither 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. We figured it out, in the end. The roo was delicious, the emu equally so, and the croc, surprisingly, tasted like chicken. As far as the cicadas are concerned, neither of us did more than move them around on our respective plates. Occasionally, we made it look like we were about to fork them, but never with any real intent. Still, we felt adventurous and open-minded. After all, we had indeed sampled three out of four alien foods – a respectable outcome, for sure.
A couple of years later, in grad school, I went to Japan to work with other scientists from the University of Tokyo. 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 started in Tokyo, seeking immediate and full immersion into the culture. Japanese food turned out to be phenomenal – lot’s of seafood, mostly fresh ingredients, delicious flavors. I was in culinary heaven. Most of the time, anyway. There was just one little hair in my rice bowl.
I had gleaned, right at the start, that the Japanese love, love, love said bowls. They love them so much you can find them anywhere, anytime. Even in the 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 towards 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. I discovered a good dozen bright blue eyes staring right back at me: a sea of small, shiny blue fish, delicately placed over a bed of snowy white rice. Each fish had eyes that were anatomically humongous for its head and all eyes were wide open. Here’s looking at you, they smirked.
I was horrified but mesmerized. The fish were so small and 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 could munch down all that ocular goodness. I cleverly covered one of the fish with lots of rice, grabbed a good hold with my chop sticks, and pretty much swallowed 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 merry way to find more far-east adventure. As it turns out, there are a number of Starbucks in Tokyo and I am not ashamed to say that they serve western baked goods in addition to Japanese rice bowls.
Japan is full of culinary delights and occasional challenges. Two weeks later, after exploring Honshu and Kyushu, I reached Yokohama, where my ship was waiting. I checked in with the captain, met the science party, and introduced myself to some of the crew. In my cabin, I put my luggage on my bunk. Amanda, my room mate for the first cruise was already aboard and we introduced ourselves 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 asian looking nicknacks, and picked a hole-in-the-wall sushi bar for dinner.
Six bar stools lined the sushi counter – they made up the whole restaurant. Amanda and I grabbed a menu each and started perusing. I recognized some of the words, like maguro (tuna), and ebi (shrimp) but the menu was surprisingly long and most items meant nothing to me. We mostly 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 flavors were 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.
Meanwhile, the place started to fill up. I don’t remember when the old lady, two seats over, had came in but she was there and had been watching us for a while. Another patron, sitting next to her, translated that she wished to invite us to try some more authentic Japanese sushi than we had eaten so far.
“What do you think?” I turned to ask Amanda. She was hesitant but I said “Oh, come on. It’ll be an experience. How crazy can it be?”
She wasn’t completely convinced but I turned around anyways and said “Hai. Arigatto.”
The old lady cackled and proceeded to throw sharp orders at the sushi chef who looked startled at first. He quickly recovered and started to chop anew. The smirk on his face should have been a warning but I was too excited to pay much attention.
To be continued…
In the market for something exotic?
Try Exotic Meat Markets for some less well known cuts of, hmmm… meat.
* I know, I know… so, for the geologists/stratigraphers/geomorphologists: no, 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.