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?
To come up with the top 10 best travel list? Thats too hard, there are so many to choose from!
But the top 10 most disappointing, that’s more manageable. I’ve always believed that I can find something to enjoy, to appreciate, anywhere I went. And the vast majority of the time that has been true. But let’s be honest, sometimes, not very often, I am really, really, disappointed. Maybe it doesn’t measure up to the hype, maybe something else interferes with my enjoyment. So at the risk of generating a bit of an argument, in no particular order, here’s my 10 Most Disappointing from 28 years of travel:
Venezuelan beaches. The beaches along the Venezuelan coastline are beautiful, but are ruined by the locals. In short, the beaches are junk yards, with litter throughout the sand and the water. It’s particularly bad if it’s a weekend and the beach is within a daytrip from Caracas. Playa Colorada looks beautiful, but the sand was full of glass, bottle tops, cigarette butts and other litter, and many of the families visiting the beach disposed of their litter each day by throwing it into the sea.
Taj Mahal. I have never met anyone else that didn’t love the Taj Mahal so I know I am out on my own on this one. But I can’t help it, when I visited the Taj Mahal I thought “great, looks just like the post card”, then I thought “I should take a photo” , and then I was bored. All those lovely large alcoves are empty, it’s a big hollow tomb and has no atmosphere. However I loved Agra and I spent hours enjoying the Red Fort, and found the distant view of the Taj Mahal from the Red Fort the most interesting way to see the Taj Mahal.
Postcard perfect Taj Mahal, Agra, india
Is the Taj Mahal really boring? Agra, India
Alcatraz. Reputedly the most visited attraction in San Francisco, and I cannot understand why? The boat trip to the island and back is very enjoyable and provides a great view of either the bridge or the fog, depending on weather. Maybe if I had grown up with the history, with Alcatraz stories, it would’ve seemed more atmospheric. But it’s some old, not really ruined, buildings on a rock, that was once a jail. And Hollywood made some movies about it. I even did the night tour to try and amp up the atmosphere, but it still felt like a school trip to a not very exciting museum.
Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco. It’s sounds good doesn’t it? The harbourfront wharf, the famous clam chowder. Maybe a few decades ago it was like that. Now it is a plastic theme park of fast food and tacky souveniers. There is so much good food, great shops, interesting neighbourhoods and great views in San Francisco, so avoid this bit and enjoy the rest.
the Mona Lisa, the Louvre. Mona Lisa’s smile is the most visited (and best known) art work in the world, housed in a massively impressive building. So by the time you search through the vastness of the Louvre and queue for a while, it’s a bit disappointing to discover the painting is so tiny, and for its own protection hidden away behind perspex. Maybe if I could see if alone, instead of from beneath a rugby scrum, I could appreciate it more.
Dallas, Texas. To be fair, I didn’t choose to go to Dallas as a tourist destination – I was sent there on a work trip – for seven weeks. On the first afternoon I had covered the two things worth getting excited about – SouthFork Ranch (preserving the iconic Dallas TV show) and the Grassy Knoll. With hindsight I kind of wish I had done the second one with the “JFK death route” tour company who drive you along the same route that he took, in an open top limo, and they even play a gunshot sound in the car as it passes the appropriate spot. Sick and yet at least not boring. After that afternoon I was done, Dallas beat me down into sheer boredom. I saved my sanity by racing to the airport every weekend and jumping on a Southwest flight to anywhere else!
Salar de Uyuni. This is a very different kind of disappointment. I was really keen to see this, one of the world’s largest salt lakes and at a high altitude of over 4000 metres, with it’s quirky salt hotels and traditional villages and cottage salt businesses. It’s immense and links Bolivia and Chile. We arrived there during floods. The arid salt flats were under water, not just a normal downpour but a real flood. The owners of the 4×4 tour vehicles that normally take tours around the salt lakes were not running, as they feared their vehicles will stall and break down in the wet. We finally found one guy who took us a few hundred metres into the vast flats and then chickened out and took us back to the town of Uyuni which was also completely flooded. I am absolutely sure that I will go back one day and see Salar de Uyuni and not be disappointed.
Broken down in a flooded Salar de Uyuni Bolivia
Not how Salar de Uyuni is supposed to look
Theres a salt flat hidden under that flood, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Riding camels. If you read my blog about camels in Morocco, you will understand why I find camels disappointing (as well as scary and distinctly dangerous). Suffice to say, do not ride a camel that is in heat, or is being mounted by another camel. Actually just don’t ride camels, end of story.
Riding elephants. Yes, it does seem like a theme is developing here. I love elephants, they are beautiful, fun animals. In Laos I went to one of the many good elephant sanctuaries that are dotted around South East Asia. I fed the elephants, I stroked them, I talked to them. They were in an idyllic riverside setting next to some stunning shallow pools under the tropical jungle foliage.
I thought an elephant ride would be slow and majestic. It turned out more like an out-of-control rollercoaster. I sit on a wooden plank (seat) with another thin plank for a backrest and a tiny dowling rod across the front of me, to keep me in the seat, all tied loosely to the creature’s back. Suddenly we were climbing up near vertical 3 to 4 metre high mud banks and back down near vertical drops of the same scale – all in deep slippery mud, me at a right angle to the banks. And the elephant was sliding everywhere. Gravity was trying to claim me, and most of the time I had my eyes squeezed tightly shut and was hanging on to the dowling rod for dear life. The mahout, who seemed about 10 years old, was finding it very funny. This picture shows the misleadingly pleasant part of the ride.
10. Juliet’s balcony in Verona. Firstly, it is a fake. The “balcony” is an ugly recent addition to the outside of a house, to con tourists out of their money. The queue to get in is like standing in a particularly crowded and dirty subway. Most of the courtyard is a shop selling a variety of red synthetic plush love hearts to separate romantics from their cash. Again, Verona is a beautiful town with much atmosphere, much to see and do, and this little bit of fakery is not a good example of that.
The fake Juliet’s balcony, Verona, Italy
The fake Juliet’s balcony, Verona, Italy
Is there somewhere you’ve been that didn’t live up to your expectations? Anywhere you’d recommend against going as you found it disappointing?