The key to eating grilled mutton is to chew and swallow it before the fat cools and congeals on the roof of your mouth.
— Our guerrilla eating tip for Central Asia
“You guys seem to have only good things to say about your experiences, especially the food. Have you ever had a bad meal? Something disappointing, gross, or even repulsive?”
First off, I understand that what one eats is based in great part on habit and how one was raised. So chicken feet in the morning will never do for me what it might do it for the boy we met in Guizhou, China. But I do enjoy peanut butter on toast, something that repulsed our Tajik, Kyrgyz and French counterparts when we served it in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan.
And before I’m accused of throwing cultural stones from my glass house, I understand that the United States knows some of its own rather questionable delights. When we queried the Twitterverse about gross American foods, things like Cheese Whiz, Velveeta, Spam, refried beans in a can, root beer, pop tarts and pizza rolls topped the list.
So here's a sample of treats — that we've encountered, eaten or both — that render me thankful for different cultures while giving me culinary pause.
1. Guinea Pig
As a child, I never owned a pet guinea pig, but some of my friends did. And I never harbored even the slightest interest in eating their furry little friends.
Then we visited the Ecuadoran Andes. We priced guinea pig at the market, we photographed guinea pig farmers.
Then came time to eat it.
In the words of our table mate, a fellow traveler who was totally stoned: it's like “a frog in a chicken orientation with the skin of a duck, almost like pork crackling.” (Coincidentally, I highly recommend eating guinea pig with friends who are baked — very amusing.)
And he took great interest in inspecting – and eventually eating – the little guy’s testicles. We opted for the other bits and were underwhelmed.
On a side note, the owner of the restaurant in Vilcabamba, Ecuador serving the critter told us that pet stores in U.S. cities with large Ecuadoran and Peruvian populations are careful who they sell to because they know their goods may end up on the dinner table.
2. Blood bouillon
Two words that simply do not belong together.
But the blood bouillon chunks are cheap as chips and ready to take away at the otherwise beautiful Phousy fresh market in Luang Prabang, Laos.
3. Goat blood soup and “Five Fingers”
Goat, the gift that keeps on giving.
Your impression of beshbarmak (meaning “five fingers” in Kyrgyz) will depend entirely on whose five fingers are fingering your noodles.
I’m all about going outside of my comfort zone, except when it comes to pizza.
To my dear Argentine friends reading this: referring to a crust rubbed oh-so-minimally with tomato sauce and piled high with ham slices, marinated palm hearts and thousand island dressing as “pizza” is almost criminal in my book.
5. Sea Horse
Eating a sea horse strikes me as belonging to the class of offenses that includes “eating a penguin.”
6. Sheep-head somsa
We understand that in the photo below, the Uzbek (or Kyrgyz) somsa looks quite tasty and delicious.
Now, imagine it being made:
I once described the filling of a somsa as “akin to a sheep doing a swan dive into a meat grinder.” Head, legs, and all.
I stand behind that assessment.
7. Bats on a Skewer
I just don’t eat rodent, even when it has wings.
This Burmese bat vendor had such a sweet smile, but not quite sweet enough to entice me to break my rodent fast.
Yeah, I know. Everyone does bugs. Everyone loves bugs. It’s a rite of passage for the world traveler.
I chewed this palmetto bug looking thing for at least five minutes. The texture reminded me of a nightmare I once had where I was forced to eat a bag of shrimp shells and wash it down with licorice-flavored printer cartridge ink.
Would I try bugs again?
Only if I were guaranteed an invitation to a Cambodian Buddhist wedding blessing.
9. Cow Stomach in a Peanut Sauce
Take a cow’s stomach, turn it inside out, cut it into little cubes and stir it into a peanut-based sauce with some potatoes and you’ve got something the Andean folks call guatita.
The peanut sauce has its moments.
But those stomach-y bits — that's where things start to go wrong. Besides being rubbery, their texture reminds me of dryer balls.
Should your digestive constitution remain intact after the completion of today's reading, make your way to Ibarra, Ecuador. You'll find guatita served at night on the main plaza for a tidy $2.
Until I encountered this scene in southern China, I kept a partially open mind regarding testicles as a culinary experience.
Would we do it all over again? Whether we ate it or just sniffed it, I'm certain we're all the better for it.
Or are we?
Either way, we've only just begun. The world is big…and we are hungry.
Editor's Note: We ask you to excuse the censored profanity in the title. It's the author's (Dan's) birthday, so he's allowed to do whatever he wants today.