Enjoying the local cuisine is a big part of the travel experience. And when you travel the world the way I do, you get to try an awful lot of traditional dishes — some better than others. But in almost every national cuisine there are a few things that make you step back and say, “What the heck?” And despite yourself, sometimes you eat them.
I’m not the most adventurous of diners: in fact, I choose what I eat very carefully when I travel, and avoid most street food, as I explained in this post on staying healthy in the tropics. But on the other hand, I do like to experience the local culture, and sometimes that means eating the things they consider lip-smacking good, even if I don’t. So now and then I dive in, and I’ve lived to tell the tale.
If you’re wondering what culinary challenges that entailed, here’s a list of five strange foods I’ve eaten on my travels — and five foods I just won’t eat, no matter what.
Where I come from, guinea pigs are pets, but in Ecuador and Peru, they’re a favourite food, called cuy. Every rural family has a pen of them in the back yard, kind of like a chicken coop, and cooked cuy are sold like roast chickens in restaurants like this one in Baños, Ecuador.
I had some roast cuy in Peru, and the meat was moist and dark, tasting like a cross between chicken and duck. The delicacy, I’m told, is eating the head — but that was a bit too Peruvian even for me.
The Borneo jungle is home to a lot of strange and wonderful species, like the hornbill and the orang-utan. But one of the oddest is the mouse deer, a miniature deer that stands only 12 to 14 inches (30 centimetres) high, with a narrow face that does look a little like that of a mouse. There’s a picture of one here.
I encountered mouse deer long ago in a restaurant up the Rajang River in Borneo, where I had dinner in a restaurant with my friend and guide, Malcolm. I ordered a stir-fry that came with some unidentified meat. “What is it?” I asked. “Mouse deer,” someone said. Not bad — kind of like venison, only smaller. The mouse deer is not endangered, but I suspect with the Borneo jungles under siege, nowadays these animals are best left alone.
In China, almost everything that walks, swims, flies or crawls sooner or later ends up on someone’s dinner table. And if you need proof, you could find it in a street market right in the middle of Beijing, where I saw counters filled with rows of everything from tiny birds to huge, black scorpions, freshly roasted and offered up as snack food.
There were also smaller, lighter-coloured scorpions threaded onto satay sticks and toasted on a grill. And as you can read in this post, my curiosity overcame my aversion to eating poisonous insects. I got a skewer of three scorpions, and munched down the crunchy critters in a couple of minutes. Not bad-tasting at all, though with a little oily slick that lingered for a minute or two. At least they didn’t have a sting …
If you travel through the Andean countries of South America, you’ll see fields with large flocks of llamas and their smaller cousins, alpacas, lovely animals prized for their soft wool. But the locals use them for more than their wool: they’re a source of meat as well.
I had some in a buffet that also featured quinoa loaf, among a number of other Andean delicacies. The meat itself was very light-coloured, looking much like pork, and mild-tasting. In the Andes, it really is “the other white meat”.
I was waiting for my dinner to arrive in an open-air restaurant in Singapore when a strange and sickening smell wafted through the air. “I hope that’s not my food,” I thought. Luckily, it wasn’t, but after dinner I found the source right around the corner — a fruit stand filled with spiky, green melon-like fruits called durians.
The durian is a prized food on the Malay Peninsula, despite its smell — something like the fragrance of an open sewer. Some hotels even post a “No durians allowed” sign to keep them from fouling the premises.
But when durian season arrives, aficionados crowd the markets like the one seen here, to pick out the juiciest, smelliest ones — they’re noted as an aphrodisiac. I’ve had them tucked into in a pastry, a kind of creamy, fruity flavour with a dirty aftertaste. A whole durian? I’ll pass.
And five things I won’t
One of my favourite things to do when I visit Puerto Vallarta is to go whale-watching. Yet despite the fact these amazing creatures are still recovering from being hunted almost to extinction, some people — most notably the Japanese — continue to slaughter them under the flimsy and transparent excuse of doing scientific research.
I understand that some Inuit people in Canada’s north have the right to take a limited number of whales in keeping with their traditional way of life. But with a vast array of other fish in the sea, there’s no need for anyone else to eat whale meat, and I won’t be eating it — ever.
Fertilized duck eggs
One of the most famous dishes in Filipino cooking is something called balut. If you’re not in the know, that’s 18-day-old fertilized duck eggs, with a whole developing baby duckling inside, feathers and all. Devotees say it’s delicious — it even has its own “soup” inside.
I don’t know if this is any more cruel than killing live chickens or eating spring lamb, but there’s no debate over whether it looks revolting, especially to someone like me who didn’t grow up with it. The sight of that baby bird is one of the few things that make me feel queasy even to think about it.
This seems like a pretty tame choice after whales and baby ducks, but even though poutine is one of my national dishes, I give it just as wide a berth. French fries, cheese curds and gravy: could there be a more unhealthy food on earth? After 50 years of research showing the results of a high-fat diet, do we need to eat an amalgam of the three fattest foods known to man?
The bizarre thing is that while for many years poutine was a little-known snack, mostly confined to Quebec, it’s now gone viral. Suddenly Americans looking for new ways to fuel their obesity problem have started selling poutine from food trucks — presumably, with a little bacon on the side. And last year, browsing through a mall in Beijing, I looked over and saw a sign advertising — don’t tell me …
If you watch a lot of travel shows, you’ve probably seen the ultimate Chinese culinary shocker — the extraction of bile from a living snake. The unfortunate creature is decapitated, drained of its blood and then sliced open to take out the gall bladder, which yields a few drops of bile. Drinking both the blood and the bile is supposed to give you an instant boost.
There may be some nutrition involved, but to me, there’s no earthly need for a spectacle like this. Let’s face it, animals have to be killed if we want meat, but killing them in front of you so you can drink their bodily fluids is senseless, not to mention gross.
This is only one of my objections to Chinese medicine, which has played a part in putting a lot of animals on the endangered list — but don’t get me started …
Back in university, I roomed with a fellow from Australia who now and then got a care package from home. One of the items inside was a jar of something called Vegemite — apparently Australia’s answer to jam. My curiosity was piqued even more when he opened it and revealed a substance that looked a lot like road tar.
Apparently Vegemite is a concentrate made from the yeast left over when they brew beer, plus a few other things like malt and vegetable extracts. And apparently Australians swear by it — they even have a variation that mixes it with cheese, seen here. What’s Vegemite like? My roommate spread some on a piece of bread and let me try it. It tasted like … well, road tar.
So that’s the pick from all the strange foods I’ve eaten — though there are a few more, like those toasted grasshoppers I ate in Huatulco, Mexico, washed down with mescal, or what I’m pretty sure was a water buffalo pizza I had once in India.
In truth, most of them weren’t too bad once you got used to the idea. And despite some of my aversions, I guess that’s part of the experience of travel: what people consider good food in different places is as subjective as the way they choose to live, and once you get that into your head, travel becomes a more rewarding experience.
So if you’ve taken that message to heart and tried some truly crazy food on your travels, leave a comment and tell us what they were, so we can try them too — or maybe not.