October 22, 2004

You Are What You Eat!

Snake soup, skin and cutlets at a restaurant in Beijing.
Photography By El-Branden Brazil

It is hard to believe that I was once a vegetarian for five years. Since I moved abroad, my meat indulgences have consumed me on the various travels I have taken.

Some people are so conditioned by their own culture's culinary habits, that to try anything that may challenge what they are accustomed with, instantly is rejected. I have never been like that, and enjoy nothing better than consuming the traditional cuisine of whatever country I find myself in. This is part of the travel experience. Travelling at its best, is about challenging all the preconceived notions that we have, so ingesting what seems inedible and discovering edibility, is in itself a wonderful educational experience. If the locals can swallow it, then I bloody well can!

On several occasions, I have eaten snake. As you may imagine, snake is a very bony animal, so as cutlets, it requires some tenacity with the teeth and tongue. However, in soup when it is stripped off the bone, it adds a fantastic chewy texture that thickens up the broth that it is incorporated in.

Regardless of the icky factor, snake is delicious. Unfortunately, the heavy mass consumption of snake in Asia, has led to an increase in rodent populations, which has resulted in both the damage of crops and the spreading of disease.

In South America, guinea pig is on the menu. As much as I was determined to try this dish, I just could not remove the image of my darling childhood pet, Skip. So, while I watched my friend dig into a fully cooked corpse of something resembling my pet buddy, I continued eating a chicken breast. Perhaps, if my pet had been a chicken, may be I could have eaten the hairless, roasted rodent that lay on my friend's plate.

One of the most memorable items of international cuisine I have eaten, was an embryonic egg. These are popular throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam and the Philippines. Unlike an egg you may find at Sainsbury's supermarket, these are fertilised bird eggs. When you crack open the shell, instead of runny yolk, you find a perfectly formed bird's embryo, with a beak, feathers and wings. Unbelievably, it is possible to eat the whole thing, as the bones are not hardened. While it tastes just like a hardboiled egg, it looks awful.

In several countries, I have consumed a variety of bugs. For some reason, grasshoppers and large crickets seem to dominate Asian menus. In Japan, they fry a dish called inago, which consists of small grasshoppers fried in honey. At first, it looks shocking, but in fact, it tastes and feels like eating fried shrimps in honey. Very tasty.

In Thailand, when I was trekking among the hill tribes, I ate flying ants, large grasshoppers and chewy worms. The local children gladly consumed the gifts I gave from the various bags I obtained from the markets. For them, it was like candy from the finest store. The interesting thing about the large, white worms, is that they have a gooey substance inside that tastes just like peanut butter!

Whilst travelling around the Amazon, I had wanted to eat piranha, which is a customary dish. Unfortunately, while we caught piranhas, they were not large enough to consume, so they were dispatched back into the river. Another dish I had my eye upon there, was fried tarantula. But again, no opportunity arose. However, I did eat the very fishy, thick chicken-white meat of crocodiles, which tasted fabulous.

On my travels, I have also experienced such delights as Durian - The King Of Fruits - which is found throughout Asia. It is famous, or rather infamous, for the vomit-like smell it exudes. However, the actual fruit tastes like a thick custard, after you overcome the pungent nostril attack.

Again in Japan, fugu has a well-deserved place on the menu of weird international foods. Fugu, also known as the Puffer Fish, contains one of the most dangerous natural poisons found anywhere, Tetrodotoxin. Tetrodotoxin is 1200 times deadlier than cyanide! Yet, Japan has created the ultimate dish from the fugu fish. The chef who prepares the raw slithers of white flesh, must have a government licence. All the deadly organs are carefully removed, so that fatality does not occur, and discarded and locked away for special disposal. Legend has it, that if a customer should die from poisoning, the chef is required to commit seppuku - ritual suicide! I am glad to inform, as is my chef, that I survived the encounter with the delicious fugu.

Back in Vietnam, the airports stock various tacky souvenirs for tourists to pack away with them. The one souvenir that caught my attention, was that of a bottle with a cobra inside. It looked rather tragic that such a beautiful animal should end up in such a tacky bottle. Besides, no one should bother buying such an item, as customs would surely confiscate it back at home. However, at a snake farm, I could not resist tasting the strong ginseng liquor that makes up Cobra Wine.

I deeply appreciate and adore all living creatures. However, the adventure of travelling is about experiencing new cultures, and this often requires the consumption of meat. One day, I will be a vegetarian again, but it is impossible to live in Japan and not eat sushi. The culinary scenery to be found when travelling is as important and interesting as the mountains and ancient sites that reside within any country. TRY, TRY, TRY AND BE THANKFUL FOR AN OPPORTUNITY AND A FULL STOMACH!

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