Sunday, January 2, 2011

Squeamish Ominvore

Once, long ago, I was a vegetarian. Now I define myself simply as a ‘squeamish omnivore’.

To explain – I have never seen the Sardinian cheese meant to be consumed maggots and all, and I don’t know how I would fare with that. But washed rind cheese is fine with me, and while we are onto smelly food, so is durian that love-it hate-it fruit of south east Asia, every bit as ugly to look at as some people say it tastes.

But perhaps the worst-smelling dish I have ever encountered was in the Marquesas in French Polynesia. A favourite local delicacy is raw fish marinated in seawater – for a few days. The stench when the lid was lifted to show me the great treat inside was overpowering. Thank goodness they liked it so much (or me not enough) that they did not offer a taste.

There are some things, though, that I’ll be happy if I don’t ever eat again. Witchetty grub comes right up there at the top of the list. Vic Cherikoff is an Australian bush food expert and he was at a food event many years ago, which I also attended. He was determined I should try witchetty grub. These are fat white grubs a few centimetres long, which live underground and are actually moth larvae. I grew up in Western Australia knowing them as bardi grubs. Either way I had no desire to eat one, even though indigenous people regard them as a delicacy.

Vic was adamant I should taste a grilled grub and I gave in when my generally honest husband, assured me he had already downed one. I have to say the taste was not so bad – buttery (some say they are like peanut butter) and not unpleasant – but it was the texture that got to me. Because it had been grilled, the skin was tough and rubbery and I could not chew it and had no option but to swallow it down pretty well whole. It was only after we left the event that my partner admitted he had disposed of his witchetty grub in a convenient nearby potted palm!

Chicken’s feet in China, or in any dim sum restaurant for that matter, need never be on my plate again either. Nor sea cucumber which I once ate (no, I didn’t – it was like chewing an eraser so I spat it out) at a Vietnamese wedding, and water rat (in France – that story coming up soon) or raw crab in Seoul. Even my Korean guide shuddered at the idea of eating that.

Some other foods I am simply ethically against. Shark fin soup, turtle, bear, tiger, monkey – anything that is rare (and here I don’t mean barely cooked), endangered, or may have been treated cruelly in order for it to be considered fit for human consumption. Foie gras is borderline for me, because of the last point, although I have eaten it often, especially in France.

I can tackle a plate of haggis, and black sausage or boudin noir depending on which country you are in. Andouillettes, too, without a quibble, although for some reason once I get as far south as Lyon they become so strongly flavoured and rank smelling that I swear off them until I reach Paris again on the next trip and discover I can’t resist them, all over again.

In China I have been served pigeon (or some entire small bird, with its head hanging over the edge of the bowl) and camel, alligator, caribou, snails and frog’s legs in other countries.

I grew up eating offal, so brains, bone marrow, tongue, liver, even stuffed heart are no problem – which is lucky, as once in France my husband ordered cervelles d’agneau. The last word meant ‘brains’. We weren’t sure what the other was until the dish arrived – perfectly cooked lamb’s brains, as any Francophone would have known. A quick switch of plates saved the day. Emu, kangaroo and possum, I can stomach, and wallaby is delightful, but caribou - sampled once in the US, was too rare and too sinewy.

Then there is what I call shudder-territory. I hope I am never in the position of being expected to eat any of these creatures – or parts of them: crickets, bugs, snakes, centipedes, dog, cockscombs, bull’s ‘bits’, lark’s tongues, silk worms, duck webs, white veal (aka the unborn foetus), partially developed chickens still in the shell, puff balls, eyeballs, snake blood or fallopian tubes!

And, no, I did not make that last one up – I have a photo of it listed as an ingredient in a restaurant dish in Shanghai.

There’s a lot to make you think twice in this omnivorous world. So, how about a nice drink to calm our nerves?

But not tequila, please. I hear there are worms in that!