Tuesday, 12 July 2011
One of the benefits of travelling is the chance to try cuisine from different countries and while some of that fare is divine, some of it is a little weird.
I thought that it might be nice to relate to you, dear reader, some of the more unusual meals I have been offered or have tried.
I am not suggesting for a second that the dishes I am about to describe are not worthy of consumption; all I am saying is that many of my compatriots would never consider eating anything other than the standard Sunday lunch of meat and two veg.
The French don’t call us Rosbifs for nothing.
I am fairly adventurous when it comes to food and I am willing to try certain things. However, there is definitely a line or two that I will not cross.
Here are some of the slightly peculiar things I have been offered or have tried.
I appreciate that foreign readers may well regard some of the items on the list as fairly normal so I will start with something that originates just a few miles up the road from Manchester, in a town called Bury. Black Pudding (or Blood Sausage to give a more sinister name) and is made by cooking pig or cattle blood until it is solid enough to congeal when cooled. As disgusting as it sounds, Black Pudding is actually surprisingly tasty and is an almost essential part of a traditional English Breakfast.
I’ve eaten haggis – once! I won’t eat it again, that’s for sure, but not for the obvious reason. If you don’t already know, haggis is a traditional Scottish dish consisting of sheep’s innards minced with onions, suet, oatmeal and spices and then stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled for a few hours. It doesn’t sound very appetising does it? And to be fair it isn’t. It wasn’t the taste of it that I disliked; it was dry and stodgy and a real chore to eat. I’m sure that there are loads of people in Britain who love it – it’s just not for me.
I’ve been offered snails on numerous occasions in Europe and I find the thought of eating a gastropod that carries its own house around a truly revolting prospect. I have refused. I see snails and slugs frequently and they leave a disgusting slimy trail wherever they go. I’m sure that they are edible but I fear that I might throw up if one were to manage to find its way into my mouth.
“You can’t eat Skippy,” said Mrs PM with a look of horror on her face when I ordered a kangaroo steak in Coff’s Harbour, Australia.
“Why not?” I asked. “It’s on the menu.”
“That’s beside the point,” she replied.
She glared at me when the food arrived and refused when I offered her a taste. At first I thought she was joking but she was deadly serious. I didn’t know that she had a soft spot for kangaroos. Sadly, I wasn’t impressed by the taste; it reminded me of liver and I’m not a huge fan of that at all.
In South Africa, I was amazed to find crocodile on the menu and initially I was not keen to try it at all. I somehow found courage and crossed a line. And I was very pleased that I did. Crocodile is strange yet totally edible. Some of my work colleagues were intrigued so I gave them a taste – they agreed with me. Others simply watched in disgust.
I tried oysters in Hong Kong. Why? Because I was under the impression that it was a sophisticated thing to do. I was in sophisticated company and I didn’t want to show myself up. So I tried an oyster and almost spat the revolting thing over my managing director. It was utterly disgusting and I was so repulsed by it that I had to go for a walk and take deep breaths before returning to the table. Never again.
In China, anything is game for food. I adore Chinese food but when I was offered “Gou” I refused to order it until they told me what it was. Thankfully my hosts translated and I was spared the humiliation of eating a pet without realising it. I could never eat a dog.
Likewise a cat. Again in China I saw Cat Soup on the menu and imagined the worst. How could anybody eat a cat, let alone turn it into soup? Even the thought of it makes me wince.
Mrs PM and I visited a French restaurant in Manchester and as soon as I saw Frogs Legs on the menu I just had to try it. The thought of eating any part of a frog used to make me feel ill but Mrs PM offered to take over if I didn’t like them. And surprisingly I did like them. I hate to be predictable but I honestly think that they really do taste like chicken, even though their appearance can be a little unappealing. Since that day I have tried Frogs Legs a couple of other times, both in China.
Thousand Year Old Eggs
A Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong offered Thousand Year Old Eggs as a hors d’oeuvre. It looked repulsive – a dark green yolk in clear brown goo. When I put it in my mouth, I said to a colleague: “Mmm this tastes just like egg!”.
A second later the real taste hit me. It was like eating a solid fart. It was utterly revolting and tasted worse than it looked. I’ve never eaten one since.
At university, a student I used to live with was trying to impress his new girlfriend by cooking her a meal. His starter was caviar. I strolled into the dining room just as they were sitting down to eat. “Is that caviar?” I asked incredulously. How could he afford such luxury on a student grant? I was clearly being an irritating spare part so in order to make me leave him in peace, he offered me some on a cracker. Caviar looks like fish shit, dear reader, and I can tell you now, if you haven’t tried it, caviar tastes like fish shit too.
I know that I’ve moaned about eating cat and dog but thankfully I don’t regard horses as pets. On a trip to Zurich, an ex-pat friend of mine suggested that I try “pferde”. My German isn’t brilliant but that is one word I knew.
“Are you suggesting that I literally eat a horse?” I said.
“Yes,” he replied. “You can get a decent horse steak in the restaurant in your hotel.”
Curiosity got the better of me and I ordered it with mild trepidation. And I loved it. I apologise in advance to any compatriots who are revolted by the fact that I have consumed horse; all I have to say to you is that you need to try it. It is wonderful.
I was in a Dutch restaurant in Amsterdam with a Belgian colleague and he was helping me to translate the menu (which wasn’t in English – a rare occurrence in Holland).
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I don’t know the English,” he said. “It is Big Bird.”
“Like Sesame Street?” I asked
“No,” he replied.
I took a chance and ordered it – and it was delicious. I discovered what it was on my return to England and have since had ostrich in Switzerland.
On my recent trip to China, I was asked by my Chinese hosts what kind of food I didn’t like. “I will eat anything apart from dog, cat, gastropods or anything with more than four legs; oh and no snakes either.”
They laughed and respected my wishes. Why was I so wary? Because on previous trips I have seen and been offered all manner of insect as part of a Chinese banquet. I have watched my Chinese friends eating large insects and small insects and I am sorry to say that I felt like running away.
To be fair, though, I have eaten one creature with more than four legs; octopus. And very nice it was too.
That’s it for now, dear reader – in fact I think it’s more than enough.
I would be genuinely interested to hear about strange things you may have eaten and even whether you consider the delicacies I have mentioned to be normal fare. Also, if you are not British, what do you think of our cuisine? You can be as honest as you like (I have been told many times what people think of British cooking).
I’m off for a curry now – how traditionally British can you get?