Are you the sort of traveller who moans and groans at your in-flight meal? Who disdainfully picks at that suspicious little morsel in the gravy, and prods at the sad looking salad with its wilted brown lettuce? Well, allow me to serve you some food for thought to chew over.
Half the fun of globetrotting is experiencing different cuisines, not only the delicious, but also those less palatable. Milking tall tales to squeamish friends and family back home has gained me a reputation as a bit of a gastronomic Hannibal Lecter. It’s true, I’ve banqueted on a menagerie of delicacies from all corners of the world, from the primordial slime, up through the evolutionary ladder of insects, amphibians and most critters scaled, furred and feathered. It’s strange though, how the most obscure of beastie still tastes like chicken. Travelling not only broadens the mind but it also toughens the gut.
Does the slightest whiff of masala give you a case of Delhi Belly, the mere sight of Jalapeno chillies breaks you out in a cold sweat or just the thought of fried bugs make your skin crawl? The trick is not to focus on what you’re putting in your mouth, rather try to find similarities with foods you enjoy back home. For example, eating green sugar ants in the north of Australia taste like candy, while widgety grubs taste like toasted cheese. From Australia’s interior, barbequed goanna and crocodile are similar to, you guessed it, chicken – as does snake soup from Kowloon in downtown Hong Kong, grilled guinea pig in Cuzco, central Peru and frog legs in southern Brazil. Deep fried grasshoppers and cockroaches in Bangkok are similar to peanut butter. Snails in Paris are like garlic prawns, seaweed in Tokyo is like salty lettuce and durian in Borneo.
By applying this method, you can steel yourself to the most gruelling cuisine safari and not offend any generous host’s offer of local dishes. It has allowed me to gleefully suck the eyeballs out of fish heads in China, chew on living sardines in Fiji, as well as drink snake’s blood, nibble duck’s feet, sheep brains, cow tongues and fried monkey liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Still finding this hard to swallow? Well one person’s food is another’s poison, sometimes quite literally. At least with most of these strange dishes you have an idea of what you’re in for, which is more than can be said for some of the popular fast foods in the west. Do you really know what’s in that burger? It’s often the parts of the beast normally destined for the glue factory, and who knows where else! There are enough additives in a New York hot dog to preserve it well into the next ice age. Some soft drinks share ingredients with floor cleaners; ice cream has anti freeze, gummy bears have car wax, some canned meats have the same chemicals used in film processing. By products of coal and gas production are used in some cake mixes. Makes you wonder what those eleven secret herbs and spices in your fried chicken really are. Deep fried grasshoppers all of a sudden sound a little more appealing!
I’m not going to sanctimoniously preach that you will always have pleasant experiences with food when travelling. That would be naive and dishonest. The meals most strange or grotesque do usually make the best stories even if, or maybe because of the fact that, you are biliously ill. It’s inevitable you will come across the occasional bad egg that will not sit well with you. Sometimes it's just a case of "‘lost in translation". I hope this is true of meals I’ve tentatively consumed such as, the “Fried Yak’s Ball Cheese” in Pokhora, Nepal, or the “Tom Yum’s Cum Soup”, on the Andaman Islands. I dare not let myself think they were anything more than simple spelling mistakes. Of course, there are times when the lines of communication completely fail, and you can be left with a nasty taste in your mouth. Allow me to dish up some examples of experiences that have left a lump in my throat.
In Tokyo, everything is sealed in plastic and automated – soup, beer, noodles and underwear from train station vending machines. Even sushi is individually wrapped. So I thought nothing of it when my bag of donuts had the icing sugar separately packaged. I sprinkled, I ate. They tasted disappointingly dry, sticking to the back of my throat. Then I read the sugar packet’s fine print, "Silica, do not eat".
Piece a la resistance
Being the guest of honour at an authentic Laos family's BBQ demands you be culturally respectful. Eating in their bare earthen floored kitchen, as chickens ran about under the table, I gazed at the wistful looking Labrador puppy staring back up at me. I wondered why he whimpered at the offerings of my scraps. Only after I was licking my fingers clean did I discover the main course was in fact, man’s best friend – the puppy's mother.
For your refreshment
The holy Indian city of Varanasi is where Hindus are cremated, where their smouldering remains are tossed into the sacred Ganges River. Sipping on tea by the water's edge, I pondered on what secret ingredient made it so tangy. To my consternation, I watched the tea maker scoop up a bucket of river water to refill the pot. A week later and 18 kilos lighter, I emerged a gaunt shadow of my former self. Now there’s a weight loss method you won’t see advertised on late night television.
So remember, when you end up getting more than you bargained for, whether it be fried insects, a pinch of human remains or a barbecued Lassie, just chalk it all up as character building. Anyway it couldn’t be any worse than the contents of your average drive-through. Add a dash of exaggeration, mix in a couple of white lies and your recipe for intestinal disaster will feed your captive audience’s imagination and satisfy their appetites for curiosity. If you happen to find an insect in your soup when you're abroad, graciously ask if it’s a local delicacy. Should the contents of that hot aluminum dinner box that lands on your fold down tray table during your next flight taste like chicken, pray it really is chicken.