Americans only know how to eat American food…really?
While dining in a Spanish restaurant in Italy, it struck me how little regard Europeans have for Americans’ palette when it comes to culinary refinement. When we told the proprietor that we were Americans and love Spanish food, she inquired as to whether we had mistaken Spanish food (i.e. tapas and paellas) with Mexican food…C’mon! Feeling a bit insulted (and made it known via a less than stellar review on TripAdvisor), I later realized that her question was not a direct verbal assault at me and my wife, but more of a misconstrued indictment of the American palette.
I suppose such general characterization of Americans’ tastes is somewhat warranted as some American tourists anecdotally seek out “familiar” cuisine when traveling overseas and refrain from expanding their culinary horizons by not trying out the local fare. (Most) Americans can be squeamish when faced with “bizarre foods”, specially in most Asian countries (and I suppose in the southern part of the U.S. as well…can someone say “chitlins”) where bugs, rodents, offal, and other peculiar sources of protein are just part of the normal diet. I even know someone, who shall remain nameless but whom I will not travel without (and no, it’s not Melican the pelican), who refuses to eat food that looks like it did while it was alive walking on terra firma or swimming in the water…no fish except for fileted fish, no heads on shrimp or lobster, no crabs except in a crab cake…you get the idea.
I supposed I contributed to the America stereotype when I was younger as my buddies and I, while visiting European cities, would make a beeline towards the nearest McDonalds. The more mature I got, however, the more refined my tastes became (at least I think so) and willing to experience new cuisines. Now there are limits to what I would try to eat, but I would generally be up for trying something at least once. I would not claim that my bizarre food conquests would rival Andrew Zimmern’s from “Bizarre Foods” TV show (although I can stomach durian and he can’t), but I have tried some local fare during our travels that an average American would probably turn their nose up at.
The following are some of the bizarre foods that I have sampled during our travels, in no particular order:
1. While traveling through Tuscany, and Florence in particular, we came upon a decision on what to have for lunch after we left the Galleria dell’Accademia. We were on our way towards the Florence Cathedral or Santa Marie del Fiore, and we stopped to consult TripAdvisor. Lo and behold, I’ Ritrovino de’ Servi was highly recommended for a quick and savory lunch…specifically their panino con lampredotto.
It took us a while to find the hole in the wall deli but I should have known it was the one with a long line leading into it. The place was small, with very limited seating inside. Lampredotto is supposed to be a Florentine specialty, so I figured, why not try it (when in Florence, do what Florentines do)…not really knowing what it was. My wife was
smartsensible and opted for a sandwich that was fairly innocuous. I bit into the lampredotto sandwich and it didn’t really dawn on me that lampredotto is made out of the fourth stomach of a cow (apparently cows have 4 stomachs…who knew?), stewed for hours, seasoned with hot red chili sauce or green parsley sauce and placed snugly in an Italian bread dipped in broth. The name, lampredotto, was derived from lamprey eels which were abundant in the Arno River traversing the City of Florence. It was tender, fatty, with somewhat unsettling earthy undertones and I began thinking halfway though the sandwich that lampredotto is like all those so called delicacies…it is “weird” food so to make it more palatable (at least to non locals), it is labeled a delicacy. I am glad I didn’t look up what lampredotto was until I was finished with my sandwich or I might not have finished eating it…and for €3.00, not too bad. Florentines love their lampredotto but I don’t think I will try it again. I wouldn’t say it was awful…but it was indeed offal.
2. While on vacation in Bangkok, Thailand, my wife and I went walking towards Chinatown. We did a lot of walking and also made extensive use of the water taxis that take you everywhere, once you figured out what all those colored flags on the boats meant. Just as a side note, the river boats along Chao Phraya River come with no flags, green flags, orange flags, and yellow flags…and there are supposed to be special tourist boats which I don’t recall boarding.
Back to durian. We spotted a few carts selling durian in Chinatown. For those unfamiliar with durian, it is a fruit native to Southeast Asia and has a reputation for smelling awfully bad (it is reportedly banned from hotels, public transportation, and airlines) while supposedly tasting amazingly good. I remember eating processed durian while I was younger, with candies made of durian, but I have never tried fresh durian before summoning up the courage to try it in Bangkok. The vendor expertly carved out durian and I was ready to sample fresh durian in no time. I offered to share the durian with my wife but she just turned up her nose and simply offered to videotape and take pictures of my adventure.
I found durian’s fleshy fruit to be creamy, sticky, with a taste similar to jack fruit. I didn’t think the odor was as revolting as advertised, but I didn’t think the “king of fruits” (as durian is apparently known in some parts of Asia) was all that good either. No matter how much I tried to make it look like it was yummy, I couldn’t convince my wife to try it with me. It wasn’t a bad experience and I wouldn’t mind trying it again…and maybe next time, I can share that experience with my wife and we can compare notes. Then again, maybe not.
3. While on assignment in the Philippines’ northern city of Pampanga, during a military exercise, my co-workers and I kept hearing about sisig and how delicious it was. Growing up in the Philippines, in Manila and just south of Manila, I have never heard about sisig, let alone knew what it was. Apparently, it is a specialty of Pampanga, a city about 80 kms from Manila. It is a dish made from pig’s head (mainly ears, snout, tongue, and jowl) and liver, normally seasoned with calamansi or calamondin citrus and chili peppers. Much like how invention is a product of necessity, in this case, sisig was a product of cheap, available and unwanted pig parts from Clark Air Force Base, a former U.S. Air Force base just outside Pampanga.
Our curiosity got the better of us, and my three other co-workers and I tried the dish. The pork sisig dish we tried was served on a sizzling platter (ala Mexican fajita or Korean bulgogi) accompanied by white rice. It was tangy, spicy, and actually quite good. I was a bit surprised at how flavorful it was and wondered why I never heard nor tried it before. Maybe because of the way it was prepared (pig parts being boiled, broiled, then grilled and seasoned with vinegar, citrus, onions, and chili peppers) but I didn’t think I was eating undesirable cuts of pork while I was chowing down.
Yet another bizarre food from the Philippines that I have tried previously, although not in the past 30 years, is balut. Balut is a fertilized duck egg, between 17 to 21 days old, steamed and normally served with salt and eaten as street food. This type of street food is apparently also common in other parts of southeast Asia such as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was introduced to the Philippines by Chinese traders. I remember trying this more as a dare, specially when the balut has matured closer to 21 days, with feathers developing on the duck embryo and a well developed beak…not a very appetizing sight.
Incidentally, both of these “bizarre” foods were featured in Andrew Zimmern’s visit to the Philippines while filming an episode of “Bizarre Foods”.
4. While on assignment in Kumamoto, Japan, an area known for horse meat, my friends and I figured, how bad can horse meat be. Horse meat is not readily available in the U.S. as it is in other parts of the world such as Asia and Europe. One can recall an incident last year involving American outcries against IKEA after it was reported that there were traces of horse meat in the meatballs IKEA served in Europe. There is general American aversion and, indeed, revulsion to the idea of eating horse meat. Despite a federal ban on slaughtering horse being lifted a few years ago, there still isn’t any slaughterhouses for horses in the U.S., where horses are considered pets and sporting and farm animals. I guess the idea of slaughtering Sea Biscuit doesn’t carry too much appeal…let alone eating the horse meat. Why, you might as well slaughter and serve dog meat…but that’s next on the list.
We tried horse meat at Horumonman Restaurant in downtown Kumamoto. It was served as raw, thin slices of meat that we would cook ourselves on top of a grill over an earthen pot with smoldering charcoal. I do not recall any seasoning on the meat nor do I recall anything sensational with regards to its taste. I was expecting the meat to be leaner than beef. Texture wise and taste wise, however, I found it less appealing than beef. I wanted to try horse meat mainly just to be able to say I have tried horse meat. It was OK but more of a non-event. When offered horse meat in the future, I would simply decline and say “Neigh.”
5. About 20 years ago, when I was posted in South Korea as a young adult, I vaguely recall having tried gaegogi or dog meat. Traveling along the South Korean countryside, one sees quite a few packed kennels, without really realizing that those dogs were being bred for their meat. Full of vim and vigor and eager to try as many off the wall adventures as I could, I didn’t hesitate when offered dog meat by local Koreans. I vaguely recall dog meat being served in a stew but hardly remember anything of consequence from that experience. Maybe it was the soju but I don’t think so. It was one of those things where the hype fell short of the actual experience. It was OK but far from some revelatory epiphany it was built up to be.
There are other food and beverages I’ve tried that most Americans might cringe at. I have tried civet coffee (this time with my wife…and we both loved it) while visiting Vietnam. I ordered and tried valiantly crunching my way through an ossi di morto (literally meaning bones of the dead in Italian) while visiting Volterra, Italy. I am sure there are other meals I’ve tried that would give one pause but my memory bank is currently drawing a blank.
I have yet to try lutefisk nor haggis but might do so when we visit Norway and Scotland in the future. Lutefisk is dried cod that has been soaked in a lye solution for several days to rehydrate it, rinsed with cold water to remove the lye, then boiled or baked, and then served with butter, salt, and pepper. It is said to have an off-putting texture, let alone the taste. My wife, who is of Norwegian descent, have tried this dish before, although not willingly I was told. Some say Norwegians left Norway to put some distance between them and lutefisk…while others opined that Vikings sailed the seven seas to spread the lutefisk “gospel”. Haggis, of course is considered the Scottish national dish. It is “a large spherical sausage made of the liver, heart, and lungs of a sheep, all chopped and mixed with beef or mutton suet and oatmeal and seasoned with onion, cayenne pepper, and other spices.” The descriptive preparation alone makes the mouth water…like a rabid dog.
I am up for culinary adventures but I have my limits. I draw the line and will not try “snake surprise and chilled monkey brains” served up in a feast at Pankot Palace in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. Paraphrasing Zimmern’s catch phrase, “If it looks, smells, and feels awful…don’t eat it.”