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Food & Beverages May, 21 2012

Guide | Testing Culinary Courage

More from Martin Pilkington. Today, he discusses some tough guy eats.

In a past life I was sent around the world to eat interesting things. That was how it often felt, anyway, and I will admit I came round to the idea. Business gets done over dinner, and part of doing the deal can be using food as a trial, a culinary personality test. Or even as a weapon to establish hierarchy. And not just in commerce—friends sometimes like to push your culinary envelope.

There’s a socio-cultural study in there somewhere, phrasing in endless academic jargon the simple question: ‘Will he (or she) eat it?’

Photo: flickr

Read more on “Testing Culinary Courage” on the following page.

by Martin Pilkington

Take France—you’d not be the first—a country we all love and whose inhabitants we try to accept. But they won’t accept you if you don’t do their food culture. A morning meeting ended, and with a seven-hour drive in prospect, I said my au revoirs only to be told a little food had been laid on. “Ok, a quick sandwich then” elicited a reaction like I’d suggested sodomizing the guy’s grandmother. Five courses and two hours later I hit the road.

In Indonesia, the wonderful Mr Agus clearly tried out my sensitivity the first time we met, looking to set up a long-term agency. He watched as I ate the fish-head soup he’d ordered to begin our meal. I enjoyed it, and we became friends. The colleague who was rumured to demand steak, fries and onion rings for every lunch and dinner overseas may have struggled.

Photo: flickr

He would have died rather than ingest bugs. In Pretoria, South Africa, two very macho Boers pushed me to try a mopane worm, something they ate during military survival training. They each forced down what is in fact a huge caterpillar, gutted and cooked (in that case in tomato and onion). The worm did not look appetizing, but tired of their posturing I tried one. It was like leather, with a touch of mud beneath the tomato. Their faces fell when I ate another, saying they were good worms. They were really not.

Sometimes the test like that one can be personal. My-schlong-is-bigger-than-your-schlong style. Or smaller, as occurred in Shenzhen once. A fine banquet in the company of eight or nine Chinese businessmen ended with me alone presented with what was described as Chinese sausage. Sausage only in the euphemistic sense. It was clearly the male member of some small creature, or a totally inadequate bull. In a long career of culinary curiosity that was the only thing I ever refused. And since then I wish I hadn’t, because it may have been the most delicious thing (as it were) ever, though my host’s sniggers hinted otherwise. And why one should baulk at eating that but love, for example, liver (served with some fava beans and a nice Chianti) or kidneys, given their functions?

Photo: Flickr

A friend once served me ‘white kidneys,’ which I didn’t question. They were delicious, moist, almost creamy and slightly earthy. When told afterwards they were sheep’s testicles should I have been horrified, or keen to cook them myself next time?

Likewise when a Japanese friend ordered sashimi for us, and I found out afterwards that the chewy stuff was whale, something I would not have eaten on personal ethical grounds. Or, at a friend’s house in France where she served us tasty salami that turned out to be horse, though I have no logical explanation as to why that feels wrong.
That not knowing what certain foods are before tasting them gives pause for thought. Years ago a journalist related how as his initiation to a dining club in the Far East he was served a small portion of plain-cooked white fish. His new friends asked him to describe the flavors, but he could only tell them it was very ordinary. They then revealed it was fugu, the fish (beloved of the Japanese) that if incorrectly prepared can be deadly poisonous. Diners aware of the danger find the flavor superlative.

But of course the test-with-weird-stuff business depends on what you think is weird, or your subject will. In Nagoya my host set out—rather unpleasantly, which is unusual for the hospitable Japanese—to show my culinary-cultural limitations: “English people don’t like ____ do they?” preceded dish after dish. But he got it very wrong. Raw oysters was the first shot. Love them. Giant prawns the next. Want to marry them. His final attempt was a local dish, an oily fish of some sort smoked with the guts in. In Great Yarmouth where I spent my childhood our traditional delicacy is the bloater, oily herring smoked with the guts in. White kidneys to you, sir.

Photo: Flickr

I suppose the real test is forcing oneself to try something against cultural programming. In Malaysia I was curious to try Durian, a fruit whose reputation like its stench goes before it. Crudely, even still intact Durian smells like shit. How hungry must the first person to try that have been? But the flesh, as I found out, is pleasant, a sort of mucal paw-paw with a touch of nuttiness.

To my shame there is one persistent failure in my culinary exploration. Steak—big, and anything but fillet please—should, in my opinion, be served rare. Very bloody rare. As my like-minded son is wont to say, a decent vet should be able to get its pulse back. Yet time and again in restaurants, though I have intended to do so, I’ve never had the courage to order steak tartare. That, for the uninitiated, is finely chopped raw beef with a few vegetal additions and tracklements. As a wise man has said, in the eternal battle of Man vs. Food, sometimes food wins. But maybe not next time.

We’d love to hear about your own stranger culinary adventures, and we don’t mean baking chichi pastries.

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