I have cracked open suckling piglet skulls to eat its creamy brains and brainstem. I have sipped on warm turtle blood, poured straight into a cup from its jugular. I have chewed on live octopus legs, its powerful tentacles tightly gripping onto the insides of my cheeks. I have drunk warm camel’s milk, freshly hand milked from the teats of a West African desert camel. I have devoured whole sparrows, crunchy beak, skull, wings and all. I have relished whale blubber, deliciously cold smoked in the dead of winter. I have slurped creamy fish sperm sac, perfectly seasoned with a dash of ponzu. I have noshed on charred armadillo flesh and mystery primate limbs. Bugs, amphibians, mold, reproductive organs and appendages are no sweat for me. In fact, every such unique culinary experience I have thoroughly enjoyed, licking my chops at the end of the meal.
My humanitarian work and travels have taken me all over the world, to countries some people may have heard of, but have no idea where to locate on the world map. New types of animals, novel methods of cooking and interesting dining rituals have opened my eyes to a whole new way of appreciating food. What may seem strange and bizarre to one can be a delicious afternoon snack in another country. What may be perceived as animal cruelty in one place may be the only mode of survival and a long standing tradition with great historical significance in another. Through sampling various types of foods all over the world, I have enjoyed learning about other cultures.
Opening your mind to trying local delicacies also means opening your heart to accepting the people and the customs of that particular culture, and for that reason I never turn down an exotic bite, no matter how strange or gory it may appear. I will try anything twice, and as long as it tastes good, I will do it with an enthusiastic smile. But even I, an adventurous eater with a strong stomach, have my Achilles heel- something that will bring me to my knees and leave me begging to be put out of my misery. I have finally met my match, and my nemeses come in two forms: first, the French andouillette.
‘French, pork, tripe and sausage’ seem like a no-brainer. A culmination of all of my favorite things should automatically make it into my Top 10 favorites, but strangely enough, it is one of the most repulsive foods I have ever encountered. A course grained bulky sausage stuffed with pork chitterlings, pepper, wine and onions, the andouillette is a French delicacy that dates back to 877 AD. I’m still perplexed as to how I, an offal loving eater, cannot make peace with andouillette, but it is that distinct foul odor of dirty urinals that makes me shudder with disgust and defeat. My first experience was in Paris as a teenager, completely sickened by this mound of innards that as a culinary icon holds a formal title: AAAAA, for Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique. My second experience was 2 years ago in a well known bouchon in Lyon, one of the regions famous for andouillette (the other is Troyes). Again, that distinct stench of locker room bathroom urine and feces made me wimper and recoil in fear, as I watched my dining partner roll his eyes in ecstasy as he savored every morsel of what he claimed was one of the best French inventions.
My other nemesis is a Japanese delicacy. Funa zushi is a traditional and sacred Japanese dish, said to be the oldest sushi in history dating back 1200 years. Fresh female funa (Crucian carp) from Lake Biwa is scaled, then gutted through their gills to preserve the integrity of the body and the roe sack. First it is cured in salt for 6 months, then rinsed and dried. Then it is stacked inside a wooden barrel with cooked rice, allowed to ferment for up to 3 years under layers of salt, water and heavy stone weights until full maturation. As the mixture rots and ferments, it produces enough carbon dioxide to topple a 70 pound boulder off the top of the barrel. The result is a well fermented piece of fish, rotted down to its bones and cartilage which have become soft enough to render the entire fish edible. Some liken this extremely rare and valuable delicacy to Roquefort cheese. I, an avid Roquefort fan, disagree.
Many years back, this seemingly harmless slice of fish with an impressive stuffing of bright orange roe, drove my body into sensory shock. It wasn’t the initial sour smell or the doughy sticky consistency of rotting flesh that surprised me. With the first bite, a caustic fume of ammonia-like gas shot straight through my palate into my eyes and my brain, precipitating massive tearing, temporary blindness and a strong gag reflex. In the presence of important company, I forced myself to swallow and keep silent.
My second experience came, ironically, at the same restaurant with the same company- again, as I vow to try everything at least twice, I took a bite. The funa zushi was just as horrible the second time around, its putrid smell and rotted flesh taking me back to anatomy class in medical school. My dining partners, who were more accustomed to this highly prized delicacy, slurped up their sushi with joyful tears in their eyes as I held back my urge to hurl.
Andouillette and funa zushi have traumatized me for life, but I am determined to continue eating the world and not letting anything else come in the way of my appetite and my desire to connect with other cultures. At least for now…until I’m faced with Cambodian fried tarantulas and decomposed walrus meat prized by the Inuit.
Where will your culinary adventures take you next?