Tuesday, September 17, 2013

One man's snack is another man's...nightmare?

Say the word, "piranha."

Now what images does that conjure up in your mind?

If you're like a lot of people, you're probably envisioning a swarming frenzy of blood-thirsty, flesh-eating fish that will strip you to the bone in a matter of minutes.

The fact is, not all piranha are like the ones you see chew up the bad guys when they fall into a pool of them during a James Bond movie.

While some species can indeed strip larger animals to the bone, they are not always in "attack" mode.

And sometimes you even get to eat them.

That's right - to quote Judges, "Out of the eater came something to eat." (Sorry, Samson).

I've had piranha. We caught them off the dock at La Selva Jungle Lodge in Ecuador, using a bit of bacon as a bait.

The house of Cuy.
The chef cooked them up for us. They didn't taste bad, although they were a bit bony. You'd have to catch quite a few to really have a feast.

Piranha is just one of the weird or unusual foods I've eaten during the course of my life and travels. (And you're right - there is another list coming up!)

Here is a list of some of the weird foods I've eaten (and some I still refuse to eat) around the world.

1. Piranha (see above.)

2. Cuy. Otherwise known as guinea pig. That's right - those furry little rodents sold in pet stores as pets are considered delicacies in places like Peru and Ecuador. I've had it deep-fried at a place called Mama Clorinda's (think, EFC - Ecuador Fried Cuy), and also served as a "con fit" in a higher-end restaurant in Cuzco, Peru. The former was a bit dry and greasy (the legs and head came to the table, deep-fried in batter; the latter, you couldn't tell what it was, it was so well prepared).

3. Alpaca. Again, this was in Peru (it does seem that Andean cuisine serves up more than its share of odd foods, doesn't it?) I had an alpaca steak at a little roadside cafe in a small town near the larger centre of Aguas Calientes, during a trip with Mountain Lodges of Peru. It was quite good, very rustic and simple, but very tasty, a bit like veal. Again, I tried it prepared slightly differently at a higher end eatery in Cuzco, and it was superb.

4. Ants. Back to Ecuador. Ate a bunch of small ants from the "lemon-ant tree" in the jungle during a five-day kayak trip. Just licked my finger, wiped it down the small tree trunk and popped them into my mouth. They really did taste lemony - but they were not very filling. You'd have eat a LOT to be even close to filled up.

5. Eland. Okay, taking a break from South America. Eland is a deer-like animal found on the plains of Africa. I had it in a restaurant in Zimbabwe called Ramambo's, which specializes in African game (NOT endangered species) that is farmed for the purpose of food. It tasted very much like venison.

6. Warthog. Also in Africa. Very strong flavour, like ham, but much gamier. not my favourite.

7/7a. Guinea fowl. African bird, very tasty, much like chicken. Not as tough as ostrich (which I also tried).

8. Crocodile. I ate this at a restaurant in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Deep-fried in batter, with a texture very much like fish - but it tasted more like chicken than fish.

9. Alligator. When people ask me what alligator tastes like, I say, "It tastes like ... (long pause)...crocodile." Of course, they're expecting me to say "chicken." I've had it in jerky form in Florida and cooked at Vancouver's Ouisi Bistro, a Cajun restaurant on Granville Street. I prefer the cooked version to the jerky.

The green stuff is mushy peas. "Brains" is Welsh beer.
10. Mushy peas. A traditional British side dish usually served alongside fish and chips in pubs around the UK. A friend of mine who had travelled in Wales suggested I try it when I went there, so, of course, I had to do so. The first time, it was awful. I don't know what they did to it, but an entire table of us could not eat more than one or two bites each. A few days later I had a chance to try it in another pub - much better, thank you!

11. Jellyfish. I ate this at a traditional Chinese restaurant in Richmond, B.C.'s Aberdeen Centre during a TMAC banquet. Never again. The taste and the texture were gross. Ugh!

12. Bear, grizzly and black.

13. Lynx/Cougar.

14. Beaver.

15. Deer/moose/elk.

I've lumped the last five together, sort of... Deer, moose and elk is not really odd or unusual if you have grown up or lived in rural areas for any length of time, particularly in the northern part of Canada. As for the bear, cat and beaver samplings: I ate them at the 1998 B.C. Wildlife Federation wild game banquet, held as part of their annual AGM in Fort St. John, B.C. It was actually the last event I covered for the Alaska Highway News before moving to Calgary.

Deer and elk, I like; moose, not so much (although my wife grew up eating it). Bear, wildcat and beaver - I can really live without.

16. Chicha - the good. It is supposed to be the equivalent of a traditional Peruvian beer, made from maize (corn). I had it in nice a restaurant in Quito, Ecuador, so it was not made traditionally (I hope). It was thick and sweet - more like a milk than a beer.


There is plenty of food I have not tried - and probably never will:

1. Balut. A Philippine delicacy, a cooked fertilized egg with a partially developed fetus inside.

2. Durian. A very popular fruit in southeast Asia, it reportedly "smells like hell, tastes like heaven." The first part of that description is why you see signs in hotel lobbies all over SE Asia: "No durian allowed in the room." Someone told me if you can get past by the smell, you'll love it. No thanks.

3. Bird's Nest Soup. The "nest" in real bird's nest soup is made from bird spit. No thanks.

Thai market offering: can't eat it.

4. Eel. Can't wrap my head around it. Sorry.

5. Kim chi. I guess it's supposed to be good...and maybe the stuff they sell in stores and Vancouver-area eateries is not made in the traditional way - but I don't even like sauerkraut, so forget this.

6. Most Mongolian dishes that involve brains, eyes, stuff rotting in the ground, etc. I would not do well at the Temple of Doom.

7. Bugs, slugs or anything else I've seen at traditional Thai markets. Especially if it's still alive.

8. Chicha - the bad. Had the chance to drink this traditionally-made brew in a Huaorani village in Ecuador. "Traditionally" made means the maize is chewed up in people's mouths then spit into a container, allowing the saliva to help it ferment. No, thank you!

So I guess one man's food is another man's reason for ... reaching for a bottle of Pepto Bismol and a packet of gravol.

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