A taste of the bizarre . . . but mostly a fat lot of good


The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - FRANK SMITH

ONE of the great joys of travel abroad is get­ting to grips with lo­cal cui­sine. Hav­ing spent my for­ma­tive years at an English board­ing school, I can usu­ally swal­low even the most dire food with­out fear of in­di­ges­tion.

But not so on my first over­seas trip, across the North Sea on a Dan­ish ferry. I tried the smor­gas­bord, un­wisely choos­ing eel and pineap­ple cubes with salad dress­ing. I’m un­sure whether it was the food or the choppy waves (or both) that led to the re­gur­gi­ta­tion of that par­tic­u­lar meal.

Later, on a road trip in Turkey, I found my­self faced with a plate of the in­trigu­ing beyin salatasi. I might have hoed in with more gusto had my com­pan­ion, a med­i­cal stu­dent, not iden­ti­fied the grey­ish gelati­nous lump as pick­led sheep’s brain.

My wife, Mary-Helen, has reg­u­larly taken ad­van­tage of my usu­ally dar­ing ap­petite. If an eastern Euro­pean rel­a­tive were to serve us, say, carp in sour cream, her plate would sud­denly be mirac­u­lously empty and she’d be gra­ciously de­clin­ing a sec­ond help­ing, while my serv­ing would have dou­bled in size. In the Ukraine, rel­a­tives once served us an en­tree of salo, or raw pig’s fat. But, you know, with plenty of salt, slices of rye bread and a sub­stan­tial slug of vodka, it went down quite well.

Some­times Mary-Helen re­fuses to look at what I am con­sum­ing, es­pe­cially when it is some­thing fishy, and par­tic­u­larly oc­to­pus or mus­sels, or of­fal such as kid­neys. Her train­ing in bi­ol­ogy re­minds her how the seafood gained its nu­tri­ents or the orig­i­nal pur­pose of cer­tain or­gans.

My then 14-year-old-daugh­ter once bravely ate her way through pike, a bit­ter-tast­ing fish, at a friend’s house in Bri­tain. But she even­tu­ally got her re­venge. In the US, she re­fused to eat any­thing but McDon­ald’s ham­burg­ers or Taco Bell bur­ri­tos.

We were once per­suaded to cross the Ma­son-Dixon line into Ten­nessee to taste a typ­i­cal south­ern meal. This con­sisted of deep-fried chicken and cat­fish in bat­ter with french fries, hush pup­pies (deep-fried dough balls) and a mi­nus­cule serv­ing of (healthy) coleslaw. And all of this was served with redeye gravy made by pour­ing left­over cof­fee into a pan of drip­ping and thick­en­ing with corn­flour.

In Spain’s La Man­cha re­gion, I tried mi­gas made from gar­lic and bread­crumbs. My pores oozed gar­lic for three days and my­wife re­fused to be in my vicin­ity un­til the stench even­tu­ally faded. And in the Perig­ord re­gion of south­west France, we en­joyed pate de foie gras for the first time. ‘‘What a silly goose,’’ said Mary-Helen. ‘‘Eat­ing all that grain so its liver gets fatty.’’ I fool­ishly ex­plained to her that the geese were ac­tu­ally force-fed and she hasn’t touched pate since.

I have en­joyed chou­croute in Al­sace-Lor­raine, leber­kn­odel­suppe and bauern­schmaus in Vi­enna and eis­bein in Ber­lin, but the zep­pelins of Lithua­nia are in a dif­fer­ent league al­to­gether. They con­sist of tor­pe­doshaped pieces of suet pas­try filled with cream cheese and served in a sour cream sauce.

Ever op­ti­mistic, I am still look­ing for­ward to a fatty wat stew in Ethiopia. And if I get to Ti­bet, there is al­ways the prospect of tea made with ran­cid yak’s but­ter to tempt my palate.

But when I get home there re­ally is noth­ing like an in­stantly iden­ti­fi­able Aussie bar­be­cue.

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