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Vitamin Q: the book!

~ Saturday, December 06, 2003
 
ONE MAN'S MEAT

20 foods I hope never to taste:

One man's meat is another man’s muck. Strange foreign foods are not strange to those whose ancestors came up with the idea. I consider this as I knock back a plateful of the much maligned and misunderstood Scottish haggis (which, apparently, over 40% of Americans believe is a real creature). Okay, so it’s a mulch of spiced innards and oats loaded into a sheep’s stomach and boiled, but it’s wonderful (and an aphrodisiac, probably)! Here though is a rundown of some dishes I won’t be choosing from the world’s great menu:

20 Although nowadays usually made from chicken, ham and thin noodles, proper bird’s nest soup uses the nests of Bornean cave swifts and is said to be an aphrodisiac and to lead to long life - the usual excuses for eating something disgustingly exotic. The seaweed nests are held together with a mushy substance made from a mix of super-thick bird saliva, fish spawn and plankton.

19 Enjoyed in various cuisines, the soft shell crab is, to my mind, an abomination of a culinary idea. Hmm, this crab has a soft shell, so why don’t we chow down on its stinking carapace as well, eyes, claws and all? I don’t think so. At least it doesn’t have a tongue, though in Newfoundland, deep fried cod tongues are a common snack. And you thought Mars Bars were an odd thing to deep fry? Mind you, my niece Mhairidh recently spotted a girl in a Scottish chip shop ordering deep fried Milky Bar (sickly white chocolate) with chips and salt and brown sauce.

18 Though the Thais prefer their shrimp flavoured condiment in bottled liquid form (nam pla), Malay cooking tends to use a product named belachan - blocks of dough made from salted, decaying shrimps. Thought it adds great flavour to food, the blocks smell so pungent that they can clear a room in seconds and have to be kept in airtight containers.

17 The eccentric English father and son scientists William and Frances Buckland both experimented with eating exotic dishes in an attempt to find new foods which could aid Victorian food shortages. Although they found kangaroo and hedgehog palatable, William declared that the only thing worse than mole meat was cooked bluebottles. It is claimed that he also ate the embalmed heart of King Louis XIV of France.

16 Ever wondered what that musky tang is in the air at markets in your local Chinatown? That’s the durian - the fruit that ‘tastes like heaven and smells like hell’. Banned on public transport in the Far East, the delicious fruit unfortunately smells like a sewer. Eating some will give you bowel breath for hours.

15 Take one cuy, defur and skin it, leaving on the head and legs. Remember, however, to remove from its skull the tiny earbone so admired by gamblers as a gaming token. Then split it, grill or deep fry it and devour (soft, small bones and all). Cuyes are known in English as guinea pigs. Meep meep.

14 I know! Why don’t we take large amounts of fish egg gunk, turn it into a paste flavoured with lemon and garlic, make it look like strawberry ice cream and call it taramasalata!

13 Maybe tales of serial killers have put me off the idea even more, but any soup or stew made by long-term boiling of a whole head seems a debatable idea. In Scotland, we used to do powsowdie (literally 'scalp-broth'), a sheep-brain stew. In the West Indies, goat’s head soup is still popular and goes by the wonderful name of ‘mannish water’

12 Akutuq, sometimes called Eskimo ice cream, is a treat enjoyed by the Alaskan Eskimos (the Inuit are those in the Canadian north). It takes a long time to prepare and is made from caribou fat and marrow, seal oil, snow and berries. It is whipped (women used to hold singing parties while doing so) for an hour or more until it is light and creamy.

11 In Tibet and Mongolia, a tea is sometimes drunk made from heavily salted, rancid mare or yak's milk. Yak's milk is pink of course, due to a taint of blood. Except it isn't - that's just a rancid old myth.

10 They taste a bit like chicken (what doesn’t?). They taste like sweet fresh cream. They taste a bit like prawns. They taste like scrambled eggs. Mmm, what are they and can I have some now? They’re the larvae of the ghost moth, also known as witchetty grubs? Actually, I’ll take a lifelong raincheck on these Aussie overgrown maggots.

9 What to do with a honking great half-fish / half-monster full of bones and tasting of silt? How about jellied eels - a speciality of London's East End. Anything that has to be masked with a layer of slime made from calves’ hooves and served with various pungent sauces is probably fairly rank to begin with.

8 L’enfer c’est les autres, they say. But hell is also other people’s offal. I’ll happily tuck into liver and onions, but watching Turks sup up a plateful of kidneys or South East Asians tucking into blood and entrail stew, well, no thanks. And may I never have to nibble on the humble andouillette, a French sausage made from that foul tummy cloth known as tripe.

7 As with the oyster, the food of the poor often in time becomes that of the rich. A rustic Italian stew called cibreo is another good example. Using those bits of a chicken most of us don’t want to sample, namely the testicles and combs of the cockerel, it has become an unlikely delicacy. And while we’re on the subject of testicle eating (orchiophagy to give it its posh name), why all the coy euphemisms - 'calf fry' and 'mountain oysters'?

6 You may have heard of kopi luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee. Gourmet delicacy or money-stripping con, you decide. The luwak is a Sumatran palm civet, a mammal which feeds on the fruit surrounding the coffee bean. The half-fermented beans are harvested from their faeces and are sold for up to £1000 per kilo. Just a cup of Maxwell House for me please, Mabel.

5 Though a fabulous cuisine blending SE Asian and Spanish recipes, some Filipino food can seem odd to the Westerner. Everything is sweeter - a lasagne sauce will taste pretty much like custard, bread like cake. But the ‘scare the tourist’ food in Manila is the balut - an incubated duck egg with a half formed chick which is boiled and eaten with salt. The true balut experience is not complete unless you feel the beak catch momentarily in your throat!

4 Casu marzu is a Sardinian pecorino cheese which has now been banned by the Italian authorities. It is livid with small maggots. Farmers claim these are just oversized bacteria, but the cheese has been ripened outdoors uncovered and in truth, flies have been laying their eggs all over it. Inevitably, it is considered an aphrodisiac. Some slightly squeamish cheese lovers wrap the cazu in an airtight bag and wait for the noise of wriggling and hatching to stop, then enjoy.

3 The proper way of preparing escargots (snails) for cooking is to starve them for a week, or perhaps feed them only herbs to give them flavour. They should be kept in wooden boxes to help dry them out. They are then covered in salt at which point they begin disgorging and foaming as all their inner juices leak out. They are then cleaned, their pancreases are removed and they are scalded and boiled.

2 Fancy some cucumber? Not if it’s the brown, cone-like sea cucumber, known also as beche de mer or ho cham. A relation of the sea urchin, it is said to have a bitter taste and a rubbery, gelatinous consistency. Sour, slimy starfish with fries and a shake anyone?

1 Common street food in Cambodia, deep fried tarantulas must be the dish I most hope I never have to try. The legs are crunchy and fibrous, the head contains soft white meat and the abdomen is filled with a cooked brown mush consisting of innards and excrement. Bon appetit!

Source: by RcL from various sources

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