31 May 2015

A Taste For Travel



“What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?”

As someone who travels frequently this is a question I’m often asked. And the truth is I’ve eaten a lot of strange and unusual things, but without hesitation I know exactly which one tops the list. It’s … “Fried donkey skin.”

This usually guarantees the kind of response the gleeful question-poser was seeking, and I can’t help grinning as I watch the shudder of mixed revulsion and momentary disbelief ripple across their face as they realise I’m not joking. I really did eat fried donkey skin once, whilst I was working with the famous terracotta warriors in Xi’an in 2007. The added background detail only seems to enhance the sense of mystification. The follow-up question is obvious, and my answer is: “It tasted like oily rubber bands.”


Food and travel are closely interlinked themes. I’ve frequently found myself in bars with my well-travelled colleagues swapping stories of the weirdest feasts we’ve been presented with, many of which we’ve shared. Reminiscences of food and faraway places are part of what travelling is all about. It’s one of the many reasons why we like to travel – to test ourselves, broaden our horizons, to see how others live, and to marvel at our adventurous bravery in challenging our palettes and testing the resilience of our bowels!


"Ah, Desert ... Chilled Monkey Brains!" 

But bouts of food poisoning and ‘Delhi belly’ aside, it probably says more about us than the places we’ve been too. There’s a definite trend of thought which pervades our approach to cuisine which is utterly foreign to us. And I think it must go back a long way. There's a certain slightly squeamish sense of delight to it. Think of the farcical banquet scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (a film where Hollywood ‘Orientalism’ goes into overdrive!). 



It’s probably a remnant legacy of empire that the British are on the whole quite open to a cosmopolitan smorgasbord of different menu options. I remember some Korean colleagues of mine being stunned by the fact that we were so eager to try their famously spicy food, they were convinced we wouldn’t be able to handle it, and so we struggled to convey to them that curry is now seen as a staple part of the British diet.

The proof of the pudding as they say is in the eating, or in this case instead of pudding it was the hot-pot and kimchi. We ate it, and indeed our heads duly exploded, but we clearly went up several notches in their estimation given how game we were to try pretty much anything they prompted us to!



Whilst waiting for our main course to be served in another restaurant in Korea I remember challenging one friend, who was really rather hungry, to eat an entire leaf of the most livid red looking kimchi which was as big as his outstretched hand in one mouthful. He looked at it for a moment and then shaking his head in self-disbelief he proceeded to pick the leaf up with his metal chopsticks, saying: “I know I’m going to regret this, but – I’m soooo hungry.” We watched with amazement as, having swallowed the entire thing, his face slowly screwed up into the tightest knot. A flushed line of red then rose up from his neck to the top of his head and his ears turned purple, yet all the while he remained perfectly silent – he didn’t speak for half an hour afterwards (I have a photo to prove the chameleon-like colour change, but out of common decency I shall refrain from posting it here as an illustration).




By far the spiciest food I’ve ever eaten however was probably when I was travelling in Sichuan. But it’s not just spicy food which presents a challenge, sometimes the challenge – if not from the oddity of what the foodstuff actually is – can come from the smell or the texture.

‘Stinky tofu’ in China is a renowned example, as well as ‘natto’ in Japan. Natto is a kind of fermented bean paste which most westerners are absolutely repulsed by – it’s hard to describe what it smells like, somewhere on a spectrum between vomit and smelly socks, or maybe even something worse. And it’s a question which Japanese people unceasingly delight in asking westerners: “Do you eat natto?” – I once saw a westerner walking through a busy part of Tokyo wearing a T-shirt which had written in big letters across the front: ‘Yes. I hate Natto.’ ... But then, I suppose, there are equivalents - some people in the UK love Marmite, while others hate it.

  

I’ve never (yet) eaten durians, but I believe this fruit can be so stinky that’s it’s even been banned on some metro systems in southeast Asia, where passengers aren’t even allowed to bring it onto the trains in their shopping bags when making their way home from the supermarket.

Yet I’ve heard devotees of the durian rave about how delicious they are – even the famous naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote at length about his love of eating durians, claiming that they were “worth a voyage to the East to experience.” He thought the durian and the orange were the king and queen of all the fruits in terms of tasting the most delicious.




Texture is often another challenge. It seems amazing now how sushi and sashimi have taken off in terms of their recent rise in popularity in the West. Certainly when I was growing up the thought of eating raw fish, like eating steak tartare, although perhaps regarded as an expensive delicacy, was still quite strange. As a kid I didn’t really like eating fish, but fortunately I developed a taste for it in my early twenties, which luckily stood me in very good stead when I became a frequent traveller to Japan in later years.

Oddly enough though, I actually had my first taste of sushi when I was staying in Switzerland. So it seems quite a journey from there to the many other kinds of sashimi I’ve since eaten in Japan: – raw horse, raw deer, raw whale, and even, raw chicken … Raw chicken has to be the weirdest (and yet, somehow, I’m still alive!) … Although whole baby squid probably comes a close second.


The freshness of sashimi is seen in Japan as the key to a real connoisseur's taste, and so some restaurants try to excel themselves by serving the sashimi exquisitely arrayed around the still gasping corpse of the fish whose bones have been stripped bare at lightning speed, with just the head and the tail left intact and skewered together for decorative effect - as though it had been caught in mid-leap from the water ... It's really quite disconcerting to sit being watched by the very fish you are eating (if you still have any appetite for it, of course).

 



Uni, sea urchin, or Umishi, sea slug, or Namako, sea cucumber are all quite challenging too – none of which I have to say I've ever really warmed to, despite all the times I’ve been prompted to try. Likewise deep fried chicken’s feet – but then I’ve never been a fan of pork scratchings either. But my strangest and perhaps most unsettling encounter with a type of sashimi was some kind of fleshy pink sea worm which an adventurous friend and I tried when we were in Busan, South Korea.

It had been served to us alongside ordinary sashimi (made from a fish which we’d murderously selected ourselves from a tank where all the fish seemed to be staring out of the glass with wary expressions of morbid expectation). Having eaten all the sashimi and tried some of the pink sea worm, we sat there chatting and relaxing over the remains of our lunch, sipping what was left of our large bottle of beer, when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was moving. It was the sea worm, which must have simply been stunned; and, despite having been chopped up, as is often the way with worms, each piece was only now becoming reanimated. With one piece blindly fingering the edge of the plate, like one of the disembodied hands in an episode of The Addams Family.


Other exotic challenges can come simply from the perceived – danger factor! … I once gingerly ate an expensive meal of fugu, or puffer fish in Japan. Fugu is poisonous, and so fugu chefs need special training (to safely remove the poison) and a special licence to serve it. It tasted, to me, like an inky kind of scampi, and, to be honest, wasn’t really anything much to write home about. But there was a slight frisson in swallowing something which felt akin to playing Russian roulette with a tube of Smarties and a cyanide pill! 




Another danger at the dining table happened when I was once in Shanghai. My colleagues and I had gone out in search of something unusual to eat, and to our trepidacious glee we’d found a restaurant which had snake on the menu. As we were ordering it one of my colleagues suddenly got a bit of a bee in his bonnet about the fact that the snake had to be fresh, and consequently he kept asking the waiter for reassurance on this particular point, to which reassurance was duly given – and to back the point up, two minutes later two members of the kitchen staff came running in holding a blanket between them, which was then quickly flapped open to reveal the writhing coils of the snake itself, causing my colleague (and the lady dining a few feet away at the next table) to jump several feet out of their seats!  “See? Very fresh! Very fresh snake!” – I think the waiter knew how best to make his point! … What little meat there was on the snake tasted rather like pork, I thought.




But the novelty of eating certain foods simply comes from how odd and out of the ordinary such dishes are to us in our normal day-to-day lives back at home. Be it Captain Cook eating kangaroo in Australia; Walter Henry Bates eating toucan in the Amazon, or perhaps even John Franklin eating his own boots in the Arctic.

I’ve eaten reindeer and elk in Sweden, which would be unusual at home in England ... But then again, I’ve eaten ostrich in Lincoln – so maybe the world is simply becoming smaller? … Sardines are quite commonly found in tins, but I distinctly remember the sense of surprise and wonder which I felt when a school of them raised their little heads out of the water surrounding me whilst I was swimming off a beach in Portugal. I was only twelve at the time.


It was also in Portugal that I first tried swordfish, which seemed suitably exotic for one of my first few trips overseas! … Since then I’ve gone on to eat such oddities as alligator in Taiwan, cactus in Mexico, frogs in Shanghai, Tacoyaki (fried balls of octopus meat) in Japan, yak meat in Kham, all of which – the mere prospect of simply nibbling – probably would have blown a microchip in my-younger-self’s mind. 

 

 

In travelling though, I’ve discovered countless types of food which I now dearly love – Pho (noodles) in Vietnam; Soba, Udon, and Ramen (noodles) in Japan, as well as Tonkatsu (breaded pork with a special sauce made of grounded roasted sesame seeds, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce!), Unagi (broiled eel), and Okonomiyaki (a kind of omelette); Tteokbokki (a type of glutenous rice-fish cake served in sweet red chili sauce), Bulgogi and Samgyeopsal (barbequed meat) in Korea; Xiabu Xiabu (hot-pot) in China; Chamorro Beef Tinaktak in Guam; as well as foods closer to home, such as Houmous and Tzatziki in Greece, Bratkartoffeln in Germany, even simple Italian Spaghetti Bolognese, and many more besides – some of which I’ve learnt to make myself, or which have influenced the way I cook at home.



And I haven’t even mentioned drink yet … Asides from different beers and wines, there’s Makgeolli in Korea, Sake in Japan, both of which might as well be called ‘Giggle Juice’ – but beware of anyone who keeps saying ‘Gambei’ ('Bottoms Up!') if you’re drinking Korean Soju – it’s lethal stuff! ... And there’s also a whole world of different teas which I discovered in Asia – Anxi Oolong, Puer, Jasmine Pearl, Iron Buddha, Júhuā Chá (Chrysanthemum tea) from China, Hyeonmi Nokcha from Korea (green tea with roasted brown rice, known as Genmaicha in Japanese), and Houjicha (roasted green tea) from Japan, being just a few of my favourites; plus Vietnamese coffee, which is genuinely a coffee in a league of its own.



It’s perhaps the taste for travel which is the real reason why food and drink is such a recurring talking point for people who like to travel. It’s as much about memory as it is about the unusual, a rite de passage, or a badge of courage. Food, in terms of taste and smell, can be deeply evocative – a sense memory which transports us back in time to other places, where talking of shared memories can enhance our mutual conviviality as we reminisce together years later.

We may well forget the facts and so while away the time in pleasantly trying to recall the correct time and place where and when so-and-so’s ears went purple when he ate that huge cabbage leaf of kimchi … The more unusual, the better the story (however, let’s hope it’s never a story about needing to eat our own boots!).

Captain Scott and his men ate penguin for their Christmas dinner in 1911. But whatever food we eat when travelling far from home, as Tom Bourdillon, a member of the 1953 British Everest Expedition, once commented: “The most important thing, is that there is some.”

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scotiapiper.jpg

Piper Gilbert Kerr serenades a penguin in Antarctica in 1903

2 comments:

  1. Fascinating post that somehow made me hungry and queasy at the same time, especially the live worm! I wonder what British dishes are detested by tourists. Thinking out loud I wonder if haggis, marmite or salted porridge would be regarded as mad and disgusting cuisine.

    ReplyDelete
  2. How about ... jellied eel?

    ReplyDelete

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