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