I recently got back from a trip to Central America and while traveling I posted a few pics of something a little strange I had ordered off the menu. My friends all agreed that there was no way they would ever order such a thing and couldn’t believe I would. I thought about it for a while and realized that I felt the same way but I almost had a responsibility to try it. You never know until you try it.
I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life as an entertainer and I’ve had more than my share of improv classes at one time or another. The rule of improv is never say NO. Saying NO stops the scene dead in it’s tracks and makes what might be a great funny comedy into a dead end skit. I’ve applied the same rule to life and travel whenever possible. Getting outside of your comfort zone and experiencing new things is what travel is all about. This article is about a few culinary highlights and lowlights I’ve experienced in my adventures.
The most recent odd thing I’ve eaten was in a beach bar in Nicaragua. The name was not very appealing: Sea cockroaches. I don’t know if they sell a lot of these but a better name might be in order. I had been discussing weird foods the day before with my traveling companion and we both agreed roaches were something we would never eat. However, sea cockroaches? What exactly were sea cockroaches? I decided to order them just for curiosity sake and see what the hub bub was about. It turns out they’re really a type of crustacean called an isopod. They do look disgusting though and not that different than land cockroaches. Here’s what they look like when you make ceviche out of them…
Yes….pretty disgusting, I have to agree, but if no one had told me what they were, I wouldn’t have minded them at all. They had a seafood taste, but a bit of a gummy thing and of course they just don’t look very appetizing.
So, what’s worse than eating sea cockroaches? The most difficult thing I ever got into my mouth was in China. I was traveling in Beijing and a friend of mine sent me a note on Facebook (which is illegal in China by the way) and admonished me to visit the night market. The night market? Wow… it sounded like where vampires might shop. There’s some strange food in China. If it moves, crawls, creeps, they eat it. If it’s rare, almost impossible to find then it’s officially an aphrodisiac. However, the night market brings out a whole new cuisine: fried scorpions. Not dead canned processed scorpions mind you, but 5 of the little creatures impaled on a skewer with their little pinchers trying to get a little piece of your finger before they go off to scorpion heaven. So, you pay the fry cook, point to your favorite stick of writhing insects and he dips them in the oil and they’re ready in seconds. What do they taste like? Chicken? No. Exactly like pork rinds!
The first time I had kangaroo meat,it made made me a little jumpy at first (get it?). You can actually buy it in the grocery store in Alice Springs, Australia. Sydney has restaurants that do burgers, pizzas, skewers and even joey tartare. On a completely different continent I found myself in a buffet in South Africa that had elephant stew…yes, elephant stew. Was it tough? Sort of like chewing on a wallet….did I feel bad? Yes, but if you see elephant stew on a buffet, you must admit, you have to be a little curious what it would taste like. Zebra meat is white and isn’t bad at all for an animal that seems like a horse. There’s no stripes on it ironically enough. I wouldn’t really want to order horse meat. I feel like I’m violating a petting zoo. However, after spending a week in Easter Island and eating a steak every night, I was shocked to find out that there are no cows in Easter Island. Mr. Ed was on my plate.
In Vietnam, you can order cobra wine, which is a bottle of local spirits with a marinated cobra in every bottle. That’s pretty extreme when you first see it, but the cobra restaurants of China go a little further. You look at the cobras in the window, pick one that looks tasty, then he is decapitated, sauteed and served with garlic sauce at your table. If you want to be lucky (and who doesn’t?) The chef will remove something that could be a spleen or liver from his chest cavity, drop it in some strong liquor and then you shoot it like a kamikaze. The cobra is good, better than python in my opinion, but what doesn’t taste good with butter and garlic?
In Iceland, it’s easy to enjoy a reindeer burger. I doubt if it ends up in the kids’ menu, but it’s mixed with beef and doesn’t taste that much different than a camel burger in Oman or a Whopper in New York. The most bizarre thing on the Iceland menu is whale. There’s a lot of whales in Iceland and no one has a problem with a little Shamu as a main course. Whale is a red meat as is ostrich and they’re both very lean and full of iron. Ostrich is fantastic, whale tasted almost like liver to me. It had such a metallic taste, I found it disturbing.
I was enjoying some strange items at an African buffet and there was a big chafing dish of worms. The placard listed them as Mopani worms, which I suppose was to make them sound more imported. It turns out that they’re really a caterpillar. If you’re like me, eating a caterpillar is not a very appetizing goal. As I stared at them, trying to make my mind up whether I should put one on my plate, another American said “You’ve got to try them, they don’t really taste like anything…… like eating cardboard”. I’m not crazy about the taste of cardboard, but it did sound a little better than what it really was. As I looked at the larva on the end of my fork, I decided that it really couldn’t be that bad. After all, it’s on the buffet, right? Guess what? It really IS that bad. It was bitter and tasted like a bug. Cardboard! Lying Americans!
I found the calf brains in Bosnia to be squishy and an uncomfortable texture but even more unsettling was the “scallops” of Slovenia. It seems that the Slovenians have made up for their distance from the ocean by offering bull testicles cleverly disguised as seafood. They come with tartar sauce and look pretty good on the outside. Once you get past the batter and see the little hair follicles and pores, it just isn’t the same. As for other genitalia culinary delights, I once had to sample bull penis in Morocco. I tried everything to get out of it, but there was no nice way to say no. It was sliced crosswise so it looked like a giant gummy lifesaver. I don’t know why I’m writing this blog. I suppose it’s therapy or something.
I’ll confess that I’ve never eaten monkey brains, swallowed a live goldfish or had dog fajitas in Korea. I do still have my psychological limits and I wander the planet for new adventures and experiences, I’m sure that something stranger and weirder will always be on the horizon. Sauteed Iguana anyone?