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.

cockroaches, scorpions and more
cockroaches, scorpions and more

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.

    Frogs legs
    Frogs legs
  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.

    Cuy
    Cuy
  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.

    Chicken feet
    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?

Shanghai Stirfry

Wet markets are brilliant, all that fresh produce, some so fresh they are still alive, at least until you pick them out from the display. This local market in Shanghai has live chickens, fish, crabs and frogs amongst others.  And lets not be squeamish about this, the floor is very wet from the constant hosing off of blood and guts as we pick out our live ingredients and the stall owner dispatches them quickly into whatever serving size and shape we find appropriate. Add to that the array of fresh and exotic fruit, veges and spices and we soon have all the ingredients for our cooking lessons. Luckily we are not cooking frogs, or even the black chickens that I saw, the strangest things – their skin and flesh (raw) is completely black. All in all a lot more fun than a supermarket.

Shanghai Stirfry Cooking Class.

We make our way back  a couple of blocks to an edgy industrial Shikumen block that has been converted into a maze of small creative businesses. This is where the Chinese Cooking Workshop has one of it’s two classrooms, near the centre of Shanghai.  We all share one large central bench to prepare, and each have a dedicated gas burner and wok to cook with. The classroom is on the top floor of the building, and we can climb out the sash windows onto a roof terrace to take a break and take in the view. We have Chef Huang teaching us stirfry dishes today, and I am excited. The wok has been a staple in my kitchen since my student days, it’s quick one-dish cooking at its best. But I know there is a big difference between cooking in a wok and creating a genuine chinese dish, and I am hoping to bridge that gap a bit today.

Colourful Fish Strifry.

We start with San Se Yu Si, which translates literally as colourful sliced fish. It’s a simple dish of thinly sliced fish with red and green peppers. This is when we learn that pretty much every stirfry in Shanghai has a base seasoning of salt, sugar, pepper and chinese cooking wine, only small amounts, maybe half a teaspoon each of the salt, sugar and pepper per serving size, and a splash of cooking wine. In the same way, most will be finished with a last minute addition of corn starch (half a tablespoon) in cooking wine, to thicken any juices and create a glossy glaze so that the meal presents well. We slice the fish up into small strips by removing the skin, and then slicing the fillet into two layers about one cm thick each, and then slice across the fillet to create even strips one cm wide as well. Then we slice the the peppers into strips of the same size, as we strive to create the visual appearance of balance, so important in chinese cooking. Now its time to practise our wok skills, getting it really hot over the gas, first adding some green onion and ginger and then the peppers and fish, keeping the wok moving, tossing the ingredients around constantly. A quick final swirl of the cornstarch/cooking wine mix, and we serve up and sit down to eat our own creations. Now this is delicious,  it looks and tastes better than any stirfry I have cooked before, and is one I want to try again at home.


Shanghai stir-fried mushrooms.

Now we move onto Chao Shuang Gu, two mushrooms with oyster sauce, another descriptive name. This time we dunk the mushrooms and bok choy in boiling water briefly first, then start the stirfry with the salt, sugar, pepper and cooking wine, add oyster sauce and mushrooms, then the corn starch. Plate up with the bok choy and a dash of sesame oil. Another chance to sit down and eat our own efforts, and its also a good opportunity to hear about the life of Chef Huang and his family in Shanghai.

Shanghai Chaomain.

Our final dish is also a classic, Shanghai Chaomian. This follows the methods and techniques already learned, except we boil the noodles first, then stirfry shredded pork, baby bok choy, mushrooms with both light and dark soy sauce, and then mix through the noodles. This dish is so filling, on top of the two plates that I have already eaten, that I can’t even finish it, but it does taste delicious as well.

And all too soon our half day is over, our bellies are full, our cooking skills improved. I want to make sure I remember my salt/sugar/pepper/cooking wine seasoning mix as the base of each dish, the dash of starch/cooking wine at the end to make it shine, and the need to constantly throw the ingredients around by agitating the wok continuously over the flame, using my wrist, not by stirring. These are my souvenirs to take home and put into practice. Now it’s time to explore all the studios in all the alleyways in this Shikumen building, full of all sorts of intriguing creative studios and businesses.