Discovering the local food has always one of my great enjoyments while travelling. Last weeks #TTOT reminded me of some of the more weird and wonderful foods I have come across in my travels, and also reminded me how one person’s weird is another person’s normal – it really depends on what you grew up eating.
Some of my favourite foods I only discovered while travelling (or at least discovered how good they could be in their home country compared to our westernised versions). I loathed oysters until I tried a freshly shucked Sydney rock oyster off a friend’s plate and ended up having to order him another dozen. Then there was ceviche in Peru and sashimi in Japan – yes, raw fish does feature a lot for me.
There was the excitement of trying my first real pasta in Italy, first real burrito in Mexico, first banana pancake in Thailand, first chicken tikka in Pakistan, first croissant in France. Or the entire food menu of South East Asia, which has changed my tastebuds forever. But not everything I’ve tried went on to become a favourite, here’s a few of the weird and wonderful, the bad and the fabulous, that I may never have sampled if I had not been travelling.
Snails and frog legs.
Perhaps surprisingly my first taste of snails was not in France, it was in Morocco – djemaa el fna in Marrakesh to be precise. Wandering the stalls for dinner, I was dared to try the bbq’d snails dripping in garlic butter – by a pasty-faced englishman who prided himself on only eating meat and spuds, with no seasoning. So of course I did, and they were a revelation – let’s face it, anything tastes great dripping in garlic butter. At least I went to Paris to try the frogs legs – just like chicken really. I’ve eaten snails many times since but the frog legs were a one-off.
Squashed prawn heads.
In Tokyo, enjoying a teppanyaki feast, where the chef kept up a flow of dishes, chopping off the prawn heads and serving up succulent prawn tails in many ways. Then he gathered the prawn heads, smashed them flat on the hot plate so that the brains(?) ran out, fried them to a crisp and handed them over. I really wanted to try them and to not be squeamish, but I only managed half of one – it actually just tasted like a prawn chip but I couldn’t get past the texture (and the antennae).
I have one firm food rule – no offal (except pate, which I adore – oh well, rules are made to be broken). An overconfidence in my spanish skills lead to me ordering a cheap set price menu in Trujillo, Peru. I couldn’t quite figure out what the meat main was but using a process of elimination of the meats that I did know in Spanish, I decided it must be veal. It wasn’t, it was tripe. That was a very hungry day for me.
I had a great day at an open air cooking school in Luang Prabang, Laos, learning to cook delicious chilli hot local specialties. Then our chef threw a handful of small white bug/caterpillar things onto the hotplate, gave them a quick fry-up and offered us a taste. “This is the favourite snack food of all our local children” he said, “they take handfuls of these to school with them every day to snack on”. Well, if it’s good enough for the children. After all, I am a Kiwi, we eat huhu grubs in NZ (except me, never had one). So I pop one in my mouth, send my mind to its happy place and bite down. Yum, crunchy, warm, delicious. I grab a handful and try some more. I might have to try one of those huhu grubs next time I am back in NZ.
It’s the national dish of Peru, so in Cusco I decide it’s time to try roast cuy. The cuy is a type of guinea pig. I try not to remember that as I order roast cuy for dinner. It gets served whole, lying on it’s back, little feet sticking up, little eyes looking at me. Thank goodness I am a farmer’s daughter – carve up the cuy breast meat and dive on in, it’s like a gamey chicken, and makes an enjoyable dinner.
I can’t even remember where I ate this, it might’ve been Mexico or Guatemala. I remember many of the small villages would stop the local buses using a makeshift tollgate, and we would be swarmed by food sellers. There was always a couple of people selling live armadillos, tied up like a live chicken at a market might be. But no, this is not a story of how I bought, killed and cooked my own armadillo. I did however try a dish of armadillo in a restaurant, I’m fairly sure it was in Flores, near Tikal, in Guatemala. Tasted like chicken, looked like crocodile.
First sampled in London’s Chinatown as part of our Sunday ritual. Tastes so much better than it looks – it’s like the crunchy fatty chicken skin without the healthy white meat under it. Yummmm.
Staying at a lodge in the Amazon, fishing with basic hooks and line, there was something deeply satisfying about catching piranha and having the cook dish them up as our dinner stew later on that evening. Piranha are small fish with really big teeth, so while catching them was easy, taking them off the hook was a job reserved for the expert, to avoid too many lost fingers. They are not a good eating fish, each fish delivers up two fillets only an inch or two in size, so it’s a good thing we caught lots of them. That day, it was tourists 1, piranha 0.
All things hoofed.
I am going to hand number 9 over to East & South Africa and the amazing array of red meat, especially on the hoof. A nightly menu choice of springbok, eland, impala, kudu, gazelle, oryx, eventually I felt that I had sampled every member of the antelope family except bambi. I even extended the list to zebra, ostrich and crocodile. Some was old and tough, but most were delicious.
The one that got away.
In Beijing, at the Wangfujing night markets, there was a bizarre array of things on sticks – sea horses, scorpions, cockroaches. While most of us foreigners seemed intrigued, I only saw (older) local men actually bite into any of these. I wimped out completely and went for the “toffee grapes” stick – like toffee apples but with grapes – perfect!
So what local delicacies have you tried, and where?