Did I really eat that? – weird and wonderful food in my travels

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.
Weird & wonderful food - bugs on sticks

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.

  1. 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.
    Weird & wonderful food - frogs

  2. 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).

  3. Tripe.

    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.

  4. Silkworm pupae.

    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.

  5. Cuy.

    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.
    Weird & wonderful food - hamster

  6. Armadillo.

    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.

  7. Chicken Feet.

    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.
    Weird & wonderful food - Chicken feet

  8. Piranha.

    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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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?

Eat Drink Venice

Tourist pizza Venice
It is all too easy to go to Venice (or anywhere in Italy) and sit outdoors at a café, under an umbrella, on a plastic wicker chair – just like at home at a cheap Italian themed chain restaurant. And the food will be as bad (and more expensive) than those same theme restaurants at home. But it doesn’t have to be like that, just watch where the locals seem to go and give that a try instead. Back when I was a young backpacker I was pretty happy with over-cheesy, over-greasy faux-italian, but now I want to find the genuine local food, I want to eat and drink well in Venice.

First: What not to do.

There was a tourist restaurant, right next to my hotel, a block from Plaza San Marco (the Hotel Al Ponti dei Sospiri was brilliant by the way). On my first evening, succumbing to jet lag and sore feet from walking, I decided this would be good enough. It wasn’t. I didn’t make that mistake again for the rest of my stay. If the menu looks a lot like this one above at Trattoria Canonica, if it is headed “Pizza + Soft Drink” and has a special price in a big star, it’s probably best to avoid it.

5 ways to eat and drink well in Venice.
Venice Bacari
  1. The markets. Head to the Rialto markets first thing in the morning and stock up on your own supplies from the fruit and vege stalls and specialty stores. Bread, cheese, cured meats, sweet treats, can all be picked up for a picnic breakfast or lunch, sitting under a tree in cobblestoned square, or watching out over a canal. It’s all fresh, it’s tasty and there’s a huge variety
  2. Caffeine. No surprise that Italians do coffee well, and as I love my coffee black, I was in coffee heaven in the morning, sampling perfect little expresso and ristretto. For the best coffee go into the little ‘stand up” bars, where the patrons order and then drink their coffee while standing up at the bar – don’t look for sit-down coffee shops. A bonus first thing in the morning was finding I was drinking my coffee while standing next to Gondoliers, resplendent in their black and white stripes, who were knocking back their expresso shots and then putting some muscle into getting a perfect shine on the paintwork and gilding of their gondolas- fun to watch while drinking my coffee.
  3. Drinks. Prosecco is my local summer favourite, and of course you can’t be in Venice and not try the Bellini – Prosecco and peach nectar. You can pay a small fortune for bad service at the famous Harry’s Bar, or pay only half a fortune at any flash outdoor waterfront bar on the bigger canals, which is a nice way to watch the sun set in the evening. In cooler months I found there are some great red wines to sample from the surrounding region, particularly the pinot noirs (Pinot Nero).  
    Venice Bacari
  4. Bacari. These are the local taverns, mainly small, hole-in-the-wall places. Many double as stand up coffee bars in the morning. But it’s not just drinks, they also serve a selection of appetisers or small dish snacks, called cichetti in Venetian dialect. (It sounds something like “cheekattee” with accent on “a”.) You can create your own dinner or graze from one Bacari to another. Some may also have tables to sit at, some may have a dinner menu in addition to the cichetti, but most customers will be standing at the bar, ordering their wine and their desired snacks. It’s fair to say that I fell in love this this style of establishment, food, and drink, and sampled far too many of them. The variety and quality was amazing. Here’s some of the cichetti I sampled:
    1. a single boiled egg skewered with an anchovy,
    2. fresh sardines in tomato sauce
    3. Calamari in black ink sauce
    4. numerous versions of bruschetta – tomato, salmon and cheese; gorgonzola and walnut; raw white fish with tomato; prosciutto;.
    5. and the places I ate at included
      1. Al Stagneri on Calle dei Stagneri. It also has an amazing roof inside  – look up from your bar stool.
      2. Osteria De Carla in a laneway off Frezzaria – you’ll see it at the end of the tunnel, the bruschetta selection was phenomenal and went well with a cool prosecco; it also has a sit-down restaurant part but I didn’t try that.
      3. Bar Piccolo Martini, also on Frezzaria, had beautiful dainty fresh little sandwiches.
  5. Restaurants – I was very happy sticking to Bacari for lunch and dinner every day, until I stopped off at a cool wine bar for a late afternoon glass one day. Not only was the wine bar and it’s wine list lovely, but it was part of a cool restaurant with a mouth watering menu. I decided to splash out for the evening. The place was Osteria-Enoteca San Marco, on Frezzaria just west of San Marco Square – it was a modern take on Italian cooking, I can still taste the perfect gorgonzola and asparagus soufflé I had there.

Do you have a favourite spot to eat in Venice -do share!