I love food, and some of my overseas meals rank among the most memorable in my life.
When I say “memorable” I don’t necessarily always mean in a good way. I’ve discovered that dishes unthinkable to serve in the U.S. are considered everyday fare or even national pride-level delicacies, particularly in non-English speaking countries.
What a quandary: My eyes and heart are adventurous. I long to see, hear, touch, smell and yes, taste the unfamiliar, and the unknown.
My stomach? Not so much.
Unfortunately for my stomach, it doesn’t always get to decide what to eat. (Sorry, stomach.) Thus eating often becomes its own adventure.
Some days that adventure takes enjoyable turns; other days, comical ones.
Either way, they’re memorable.
So after contemplating where to “tuck in” to my culinary travels, I thought I’d start with my walks on the wilder side.
Here are the first three of the weirdest things I’ve eaten while overseas.
Don’t worry, I’ve got more.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Strict vegetarians and/or vegans, and those with sensitive constitutions might not enjoy this post. Reader discretion is advised. Yes, seriously.
CUY CHOCTADO – FRIED GUINEA PIG
I landed in Cusco after two weeks journeying through the inner realms during an ayahuasca retreat in the Amazon rainforest. The retreat center provided dietary guidelines to follow afterwards, and I’m pretty sure fried foods weren’t on the list.
But as they say, when in Cusco, do as the Cuscans do! And cuy choctado – fried guinea pig – is what the Cuscans do. In fact, I often saw habitrails full of the adorable squeakers coo-coo’ing around.
Unfortunately for the guinea pigs, those habitrails were usually in restaurants.
As I walked into TripAdvisor’s recommended destination for the dish, I imagined how “fried guinea pig” might present on the plate. Nuggets with sauce, perhaps? Or a chicken-like combination of legs, breast, and thighs?
I definitely didn’t picture this:
Yes, that’s a little guinea pig splayed open, hammered flat, and deep fried.
Yes, that is its little guinea pig head.
No, I don’t know if its little guinea pig brain was still inside. I was too afraid to look.
It took me a second, but I decided not to run out of the restaurant. (I didn’t want to seem rude.) So I gamely tried the dish.
I nibbled the delicate bones to extract a morsel of meat.
It tasted of rodent, persecuted in an afterlife of oil and salt. My skin exhaled grease.
I was stuck. Do I abandon my plate and feel like a wastefully unappreciative foreigner? Or do I attempt to finish it and probably feel sick? (“Mama” Ayahuasca cocked a knowing eyebrow at me here.)
Then, hidden beneath my flattened, formerly-furry friend I found a pair of roasted potatoes, an empanada of minced meat that might have been cuy, and a bit of salad.
I ate them gratefully and left the crispy corpse on the plate before I walked to the door, paid the bill, and left, hoping to find snacks on the way home.
Sorry, little guy.
And sorry to my Peruvian friends! I tried.
BASASHI – HORSE MEAT SUSHI
If I were stranded on a desert island and could only have one kind of food available for delivery, that food would be sushi. (I’m sure I’m not alone in this.)
Visiting Japan for the first time felt like a pilgrimage to sushi’s birthplace. To make my first offering, I found a well-regarded restaurant near my hostel in Tokyo’s Akasaka District.
Excitedly I strode through the streets. In I walked through the doors. Down I sat at the bar. An Asahi was ordered!
I surveyed the beautifully-photographed menu, labeled in Japanese and English. My mouth watered at my favorites: ikura (salmon roe), hamachi (yellowtail), negitoro (tuna belly), and more.
Until I looked at the corner of the menu and saw… horse.
My bubble of blissful ignorance burst. I now knew that horse sushi (“basashi”) existed.
Again I had a choice: I could surrender to my disgust and not eat raw horse meat.
Or I could not be such a wimp, and try it.
I sipped my Asahi. It’s obviously a thing here, because it’s on the menu. I said to myself. When in Japan, why not do as the Japanese do?
So as the waiter took my order, I asked for one piece of basashi. It arrived on a tray beside savory, delicious tuna belly, of course.
I put the basashi into my mouth and chewed hesitantly.
The meat was thick and sinewy, and it tasted like horse. Whatever you imagine horse tasting like is what the horse tasted like. Combine the bitterness of fresh alfalfa with a faint tang of iron, and a hint of leather?
My guilt at eating The Black Stallion, Mr. Ed, Secretariat, hi-ho Silver, and possibly Shadowfax didn’t help.
Fortunately everything else I ordered far exceeded my hopes for Japanese sushi. The tuna belly melted in my mouth at butter-fast speeds. The salmon roe popped exuberantly between my teeth, expressing a perfect salinity. The yellowtail sang with sweet, cool freshness.
Leaving the restaurant, I vowed not to experiment further during my sushi meals in the country.
That was a good decision, because I later discovered that the Japanese eat raw chicken sushi, as well.
No, I’m not joking. Look it up.
SHIRAKO – TBA (CONTINUE READING)
Not every weird food I eat overseas turns out to be terrible. Some taste amazing! Which is great because I can enjoy them before I find out what they are.
On my second visit to Japan I traveled to Wakkanai, located at the northernmost tip of Hokkaido, the northernmost island.
In summer, Wakkanai is a beach town. Tourists flock from all over the country to relax and enjoy.
I visited two days before Christmas. It looked like this:
Not a lot of tourists. Probably just one.
But cold waters mean good sushi, and the cheerful girl working at my hotel’s reception desk recommended a popular spot nearby.
Everyone knows the movie trope where the protagonist walks into the wrong bar or restaurant, the door opens with a jingle, the locals turn to look, and all conversation stops as they see the obviously-out-of-place stranger.
It was just like that.
I looked back into the small room, acting completely natural, I’m sure. I saw a young man sitting at the bar alone. He smiled at me. I smiled back, and walked over to sit one allegiance-building chair away from him.
As I read the menu he spoke up in uncommonly clear English and introduced himself. I exhaled a sigh of relief to make a friend. His name was Kentaro.
He soon became a translator, too. Many eyes around the room, including the sushi chef’s, broadcast their understandable curiosity at me. With Kentaro’s help I explained my presence in such a remote reach of the country during an unfavorable season.
We continued talking while we ate. Kentaro was undoubtedly the most extroverted Japanese person I’d ever met. So much so, he asked if I wanted to try a dish called shirako with him.
Only, he wouldn’t tell me what it was.
I was suspicious. But when he said we’d eat it together, I felt more comfortable that I wasn’t about to be the butt of a fish-out-of-water joke. (Pun intended)
And you know what they say: When in Wakkanai… So I agreed.
Soon the shirako arrived:
I examined it under the watchful eye of the sushi chef. Its appearance yielded no clues to its composition, nor did an exploratory poke with a chopstick. But I detected the faint scents of sugar and smoke.
Encouraged by Kentaro, I spooned a mouthful. He followed.
The restaurant watched.
The shirako was cold, and tasted of soft, sweet cream pouches swimming in fine teriyaki. The thin-sliced green onion sounded a welcome sharp note. The texture reminded me of a delicately poached egg. Each spoonful went down smooth.
It was delicious. I loved it. Between the two of us the bowl didn’t last long.
Only after finishing did I concede to ask Kentaro what we had eaten.
He smiled with a light in his eyes.
The sperm sacs of the male codfish, he said.
I laughed warmly. The dish was so flavorful, I wasn’t troubled about what it was. And Kentaro had been a kind and welcoming dinner companion. How could I be mad?
So we ordered another bowl for us to share. I put this one on my tab.
Sometimes it pays to take a risk.
Reader’s Note: If you’d like to try shirako for yourself, it’s available at Ryoko’s Sushi Restaurant, in San Francisco. I know because I ordered it there. It was great. Maybe not Wakkanai quality, but still pretty good.
What are the weirdest foods you’ve ever eaten? Do you consider yourself an adventurous diner? Would you eat these dishes? Let me know in the comments below!