The nasty metallic tang of the brussels sprout was sold to us kids as ‘fairy cabbages’, which no amount of butter and salt could transform into make-believe food from the top of the Faraway Tree. The oddly-textured and thickly-sauced ‘lamb’s fry’ turned out to be liver and bacon. This culinary experience was enhanced by my sister (who has wanted to be a doctor since she clapped eyes on one at her own birth), who would observe all its anatomical features to the family, pointing at lobes and ganglia with her fork as we ate. Nothing like phrases such as ‘sagittal fossa’ to get the tastebuds going, eh?
My Mum’s not the only one fond of christening suspect dishes with grand titles. There’s a brand of tuna called ‘Chicken of the Sea’. The mighty durian is the ‘King of Fruits’. And while the Rocky Mountain Locust is now extinct, Jules Verne once referred to it as the ‘Prawn of the Air’.
Although we have a locust plague on at the moment, this delicious-sounding grasshoper is unlikely to turn up as a crispy option to the roast chestnut carts on Swanston Street any time soon. Aussies are by and large prissy when it comes to strong flavoured or interesting foods (which is why it’s so hard to get a decent hot curry in this country and no I will not shut up about it). This is not so surprising when you consider that maybe only half a century ago, spaghetti bolognaise and a cappuccino was considered the height of worldly sophistication, even more so when followed up with an After Dinner Mint.
But when one goes beyond our shores, to experience what a Lonely Planet author might call world food, the word ‘delicacy’ is bandied about with indecent enthusiasm. Exotic treats from afar will be described with such tired phrases as ‘eye-watering’ and ‘not for the faint-hearted’ in a manner that hints that one is somewhat middle-class for not daring to embark upon that particular foodie adventure. But when I first started travelling, I too was keen to not be this fictional wowser. I fancied myself a gastronomic Mary Kingsley; a lone woman against the restaurants of the world, armed with nothing but a trunk full of stays, a sharp knife and a pair of pursed lips.
And it’s true – I’ve delighted in durian and natto and springbok biltong and roast chicken hearts. I’ve eaten bushrat (overcooked chicken), goose feet (rubber marinated in cold vomit) and raw horse sushi (like having a tongue in your mouth then eating it). I’ve gagged over yak’s butter tea and pito, still fermenting in the coconut shell. In West Africa you can buy edible rocks from street vendors, and I ate those too. Down the hatch.
As I’ve grown older (and matured, hem hem), I’ve realised that these so-called international delicacies can encompass a great variety of edible and inedible foodstuffs. One’s culture hangs on tight like a live octopus to a Korean’s throat, and on the inside, well I’m as white as the driven snow. Despite how fancy you dress it up, there are simply some things I will not put in my mouth:
-Chimp. The soft, human expression of apes frighten me at the best of times, but the idea of shaving, then ingesting these beasts would have me reaching for a shotgun pretty quick.
Anything still alive or observed moving:
-Casu Marzu, or Sicilian cheese with maggots. Sometimes the larvae can breed in the intestine, where they attempt to bore through the walls, causing vomiting and bloody diarrhea. Yum.
-Ikizukuri, or fish served alive. This is served with the heart still beating. Sometimes it is returned to its aquarium, to swim around until recovered for a second course of soup.
(Exception: oysters. Just give me a dozen oysters with a martini served in a frosted glass and I’m anyone’s)
Any part of the genitalia:
-Ox penis stew
-Prairie oysters, or cowboy caviar. This is deep-fried balls.
Any items produced by the human body:
-Placenta. This is an option, for hippie mums.
-Human breast milk. There is a restaurant in Hunan province that offers dishes cooked with human breast milk. The chef says “When the customers are having the human milk banquet, they can experience maternal love at the same time.”
-Urine (own or another person’s). I don’t care if Bear Grylls dresses it up in a fancy snakeskin decanter, I won’t go there.
Anything pretentious or beat up by the media on a slow news day:
-That coffee with the civet shit in it
-Anything served by Heston Blumenthal eg the seafood dish served next to a conch shell, into which had been placed an iPod playing the soothing sounds of the sea. MERCY.
-That $100 burger, or anything described as the Rolls Royce/beluga caviar/Dom Perignon of blah, or any other antique expressions of the ‘20s used to express gross wealth
Anything that fucks around with the egg:
-Balut, or the ‘egg with legs’. This is a semi-fertilized duck or chicken egg with bits of beak, feathers and skull that I could not go near in the Philippines.
So going back to food prejudices and what I would technically call the ick factor, Stevyn Colgan blogged here about the prawn vs locust question. He observes how prawns and locusts are both arthropods with external skeletons, and almost identical internal arrangements. ”However, one evolved to live on land and in the air; the other to live in the sea. Locusts eat grain and corn and green leaves and fruit. Prawns eat fish crap, bacteria and micro-organisms and quite frequently hang around near sewage outfalls. So which would you rather eat?”
Someone pass the thousand island dressing!