A friend of mine once said that the only thing he would never eat is a kitten.
He admitted this at a pub in Portland a few years back. It was well after midnight and our table had completely run out of things to talk about. I don’t know how the topic came up but, at some point, we had begun a spirited round of “What Would You Never Stick in Your Face Hole?” He was the last man standing, the only one of us willing to admit that, if given the opportunity, he would at least try a bite of kitten meat, preferably in burger form.
I thought I was cavalier when it came to odd foodstuffs but even I’ll draw the line at household pets….although, if I was really hungry and didn’t have any other options, I’d consider eating a guinea pig steak., especially if it came with a baked potato on the side.
Travelling to “exotic lands” affords a person any number of opportunities to eat strange local cuisine….that none of the locals will actually go near. Do you really think that the average household in Vietnam goes through a lot of cobra whiskey? Let’s be honest, only the hopelessly naive (it works as a great aphrodisiac. Honest! Now break out your wallet!) and/or the recklessly curious will go near something like that.
I definitely fall into the “recklessly curious” category. I’m willing to try just about anything once. I still regret allowing my sister to talk me out of trying fugu at a cafe in Tokyo several years back. I mean, the annual fatality rates in Japan aren’t *that* high.
All things considered, my dietary exploits are pretty tepid in comparison to that guy who eats weird food on the Travel Channel for a living. I’ve downed tongue tacos, black pudding, tripe, calamari, chitlins, crickets, oysters from a sidewalk vendor in Istanbul (would you?), nacho-flavored worms, goat, Thai curry ice cream, ostrich, shark, escargot, Pocari Sweat (it might as well be Gatorade for androids), drop, eel (delicious!), caviar, quail, soft-shelled crab, chicken livers (yucko, they taste like dirt), kangaroo, alligator and foie gras (divine!). A 2005 incident involving chicken feet has become something of a legend in my family. The strangest thing I’ve ever eaten though? It’s this….
They look harmless enough, right? Like something you might find at your friendly, neighborhood Applebee’s. Any idea what they are? Take a guess and click the jump to find out the answer….
They’re deep fried sheep brains.
You might be thinking, “Oh, that’s it? I was expecting sheep *balls*.” Or you may have just thrown up in your mouth. Either way, sorry about that.
I ordered a plate of brains at a cafe in Barcelona, a place where live chipmunks can be purchased as pets at stands located along Las Ramblas, the most tread-upon boulevard in town. There are places in SE Asia that, in terms of weirdness, could top the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, the city’s most popular public market. Regardless, there’s enough oddities in there to appease a tourist in search of photo opps and a hearty dose of culinary culture shock. For example…
“Caps de Xai” = “heads of lamb” in Catalan. This leaves me to wonder: what do they do with the eyes? If they’re consumed, are there recipes for this sort of thing? I mean, how much can one do with fresh eyeballs in a kitchen? Now that I think about it, there are probably recipes out there for dishes like eyeball stew and deep-fried eyeballs. Based on what I’ve heard though, they’re not so great. They tend to be gooey and the muscles in the back are tough and chewy.
But back to the brains. With all sincerity, I can say that I’d definitely order them again. They tasted a bit like shrimp, which I developed a peculiar allergy to when I hit my early 20s. Eating the brains brought back many happy memories of childhood trips to Sea Galley, a chain of seafood restaurants best remembered for its “WE’VE GOT CRAB LEGS!” commercials in the ’80s. They also had the consistency of bitterballen. All in all, they make for a great, if unusual, appetizer.
The more I travel, the more I’m fascinated by the lines cultures draw when it comes to what they eat and their various culinary/societal contradictions. Hot dogs aside, Americans are impossibly finicky and uptight when it comes to food. This whole thing reminds me of that scene between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. While Travolta’s character reminiscences about his recent trip to Amsterdam, he mentions that the Dutch are fond of putting mayonnaise on French Fries*. The two of them recoil at the mere mention of this…as they drive towards an apartment where they’ll execute two men. That’s where these two cold blooded killers draw the line— at mayonnaise on French Fries.
Looking back at my friend’s comment about the kitten, I can’t help but wonder why I’m totally cool with eating veal or foie gras but I’m completely disgusted at the thought of that. I was raised to associate kittens with “adorable and cute” not “mmmm…..tasty!” Let’s say a hypothetical kitten is raised under the hypothetical kitten equivalent of free range conditions, perhaps in a large room adorned with fuzzy perches and plenty of things to claw. Is eating it really any worse than a chicken raised in a nightmarish factory straight out of a Clive Barker novel?
Rather than diving into a perilous discussion of cultural standards, the history of food and a cost/benefit analysis of veganism, I’ll stop here and take a small bow.
Bon Appétit, y’all.
* For the record, that’s not entirely true. What the Dutch call “mayonnaise” isn’t the same as the American variant. It’s thicker and tastes different. It’s also known as “fry sauce.” With that out of the way, here’s a few more snapshots from the Boqueria….