Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Weirdest foods I've eaten

My post last week about eating spongy taro shoots and stinky durian ice cream made me reflect on the other strange foods I've eaten. Of course, the nature and location of one's upbringing will influence what one deems as a "strange" food. Pumpkin pie is a staple of the American Thanksgiving tradition, but I've eaten it with some Japanese friends who thought it was pretty bizarre. Taro pie is sold at McDonald's here in Hawaii (as mentioned in my previous post), but I bet a lot of people haven't heard of such a thing. And octopus pie is the signature dish of Sète, France (I bought a postcard there with a picture of it), but it's not something most people in the U.S. would know about.

In any case, I've compiled a list here of foods I've tried that I thought were strange. Most of them are sea animals; the ocean offers a spectacular smorgasbord of edible invertebrates, but because of their relative inaccessibility (not to mention oftentimes unappealing spininess or squishiness) they are often neglected as a food source, giving them "strange food" status. A couple odd "land meats" came to mind, though not too many. Strange vegetables were particularly hard to come up with; I guess that's because, while some vegetables may taste weird, most of them look fairly unremarkable, generally conforming to some familiar form (root, stem, leaf, fruit). I tried to think of some fruits and vegetables that were relatively uncommon, if not strikingly strange. Anyway, here's what I came up with.

Vegetables (and fruits):
Lychee is relatively well known in the U.S., but I've also had a couple of its lesser-known relatives, rambutan (hairier), and longan (smoother and more fragrant). They aren't that strange, though. I've also eaten jackfruit. I can't really count durian because I've only had it in ice cream (probably only its juice). Mountain apples (not related to other apples) may be the rarest fruit I've eaten; originally from Malaysia, they were brought to Hawaii by the Polynesians. They grow here but I've never seen them sold in stores; they may not be farmed much.

Mountain apples (not my photo)

Bitter melon is common in some Asian countries, but it's very bitter and understandably hasn't caught on in the U.S. Other than that, the only vegetables that come to mind are the pea eggplant and taro shoots I talked about last week.

Land meats:
Certain parts of commonly eaten animals may be considered strange if those parts are rarely eaten. Beef tripe (stomach lining) and tendon, then, may count for this list (they're not uncommon in Chinese restaurants). The less commonly eaten land animals I've had are buffalo (or was it bison?) and ostrich, both in burger form. I've also eaten frog legs, though that's...well...amphibious meat, rather than land meat, technically.

Sea meats:
In the vertebrate categories, I've had shark and skate (maybe uncommon in some places?), as well as eel. Eel is great on sushi.

I've had a lot more strange invertebrates. Some semi-strange foods I've had (maybe strange to the unadventurous) are soft-shell crab, raw oysters, and several orders of cephalopods, including squid, octopus, and cuttlefish. Funny tangent story about the squid:
When I was about three, my older brother (who would have been about five) and I were walking around a fish market with our mother. While standing near a display of squid, my brother pointed to it and asked our mom, "What's that?" She answered, simply, "It's squid." He asked, "Can we have some?" but Mom said, "Uh, you probably wouldn't like it." What possessed us, neither of us can remember, but suddenly my brother and I were jumping up and down chanting, "We want squid! We want squid! We want squid!" Well, my mom got some pretty odd looks from the other patrons in the market. She agreed to buy some squid to shut us up, but she planned to teach us both a lesson when she served it to us and we realized how gross it was. Her plan didn't work. We both loved it! It has been one of our favorites ever since (we frequently order spicy salty fried squid at Chinese restaurants, and squid sushi is another favored dish).

OK, end of tangent. Time to get to the more impressively strange foods I've eaten.

Snails. And I'm not talking about just a little escargot smothered in butter, or Chinese snails drowned in a strong black bean sauce (though I've had those too). In Sète, France, as part of an assorted seafood platter being shared around the table, there were steamed whelks. No sauce, no seasoning, just the white and black speckled snail that I had to pluck out of its shell. It was big (a full mouthful, maybe the size of a man's thumb) and really chewy--I had to chew it for maybe a minute before swallowing. It was strange eating the whole animal, with the different textures and flavors of the different parts of its body, but it tasted kind of like steamed clams, and was not disagreeable. I ate two, though, full disclosure, that may have been mainly to show off for the French guy sitting across from me.

A photo of a European whelk (not mine)

Also in Sète I got to try some raw sea urchin, served in half of its shell. I found it salty and strong but pretty good. What annoyed me was that it was a little too small, slippery, or mushy to get with a fork, so I tried to go the raw oyster route and slurp it out of its shell. Of course, the urchin shell is spiny. That was not so great. Maybe the best solution would have been to dump what was inside the shell onto a spoon or something. Oh well.

At my first college reunion, I went to a Chinese buffet restaurant in town that I'd never been to before, which is too bad because it was great. The selection was amazing--it's actually where I had the frog legs. But the strangest food I ate there was jellyfish. A translucent white, the jellyfish was cut into strips and served in a dish with a light brown sauce. People always ask me what it tasted like, and my answer is always, "A lot like sesame oil" (likely the main ingredient of the sauce, and a very nice flavor). What struck me most was the texture. I expected it to be gooey and gummy, and there was a little chewiness to it, but what I hadn't expected was a certain crispness that I can only compare to...bean sprouts? Very hard to describe.

And last but not least, the crowning jewel in my list of strange foods I've eaten. When people ask me what the strangest food is I've had, I never hesitate to tell them: tunicate. The response is usually, "A what?" Tunicate, sea squirt, sea peach--or "violet" as the type I ate was called on the menu in Sète--it is an animal that most people probably don't even know about. Hence its designation as the strangest food I've eaten.

Coincidentally, I was assigned to do a project on tunicates in 9th grade biology, but before that I had never heard of them myself. Probably their most remarkable feature is that they are one of the animals that is considered a chordate without being a vertebrate. You know how in high school biology you learned that Vertebrata was only a subphylum, and the actual phylum was Cordata, which seemed so unnecessary because what silly animal would have a spinal chord without having a spine? Well, one of the other subphyla in phylum Cordata is the tunicates' Urochordata. The larval form is vaguely tadpole-like and has a primitive "notochord". The adult really seems more like a strange anemone, settling and attaching itself to the ground, feeding by pumping water through its two openings (one for inflow, one for outflow). Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a photo of the type of tunicate I ate:


It gets its name "tunicate" from the thick skin (or tunic) on its body. It gets its name "sea squirt" from the fact that if you squeeze it, water will squirt out of its two openings. There are actually a ton of them in Chesapeake Bay, and I've squeezed them and found they have a pretty good squirt range (a far cry from a supersoaker, but it's better than some cheap squirt guns I've seen). Chesapeake Bay's tunicates are small (like grape tomatoes) and probably don't have anything worth eating inside.

Me playing with a sea squirt on a research vessel in Chesapeake Bay. I know it's really small, but it was clipped from a larger photo with unimpressive resolution.

Sète, on the other hand, had some pretty large tunicates; the one I ate was probably the size of my fist. So anyway, the story behind eating it:

The reason I was in Sète (a French city on the Mediterranean) in the first place was for an oceanography conference (or meeting, technically); the professor I was working for at the time was leading a workshop, and she got to take me along with her as her "assistant" (in actuality, a "freeloader"). Anyway, one night about seven or eight of us went to a little hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurant down near the canal. They had a display of fresh, raw seafood on ice out in front which we walked by as we went into the restaurant. After we sat down, my professor asked, "What was that in the seafood display that looked like a dog turd? We should order one of those organisms." First, it did look a bit like dog doo in the display, and second, it somehow seemed very funny to us that she referred to the food item as an "organism", so that's what we called it for the rest of the night. We asked the waiter, and he pointed to the item "Violet" on the menu, but even the French oceanographer with us didn't know what it was (he was from northern France, so he was excused). But we ordered one. After examining the organism, we determined that it was some kind of tunicate--it had the thick tunic layer, and clearly had two openings. One of the oceanographers snapped a picture with his phone and sent it to his colleague who works with tunicates to identify it. The next day he reported back to us and told us it was Microcosmus sp. After noticing it on a poster on the ferry tour boat the next night, I figured out it was in fact Microcosmus sabatieri.

My photo of "organism". Sorry for the poor quality; this meal actually marks the beginning of my old camera troubles--it was the first time I turned on my camera and the screen didn't work.

So what did it taste like? Not much as I recall. It was raw and unseasoned, and I only had a little bit, since we ordered one for our table and split it between everyone who was willing to taste it (and only the yellow-orange inside was edible). It was chewy and smooth, mildly seafood-like in the way that squid in sushi is, and beyond that I can't really describe it. I had some kind of wonderful fish as an entree and a really, truly amazing chocolate cake with a white sauce of some sort for dessert--if I ever find myself in Sète again (unlikely), I would go back to this place, and I'd give violet another try.

Well that's my list of strange foods I've eaten. What I need to try are bugs. I've never eaten a bug on purpose (I know I've eaten at least ants by accident, and probably several other types of bugs). As long as I know it won't hurt me, and it's not still crawling, and I'm convinced that it's a legitimate food that people really do eat on purpose, I'm usually willing to try it. Here's hoping to many more food adventures in my future.

Anyone else have any stories to tell about weird foods they've eaten?


Girls Are Geeks said...

Fun! I love interesting foods. I try to always pick a sushi I haven't tried before when I can, although I'm running out in most places. I also love squid, steamed, sushied, or dried and spiced, love it. I try to increase the number of land meat's I eat often, I've done elk and buffalo, the elk steaks were great. I've done alligator and crayfish as well as snails, shark, and others. I don't like the chewy things though, so I stay away from most snails and raw bivalves (yeah, I'm a scientist).

Girls Are Geeks

Eleni said...

Ooh, elk! I've never had any type of venison before. I need to find the right opportunity.

And alligator sounds particularly interesting. What was it like? I can't actually think of any reptile I've eaten. I know some people eat turtles, but I haven't done that either.

Vanessa said...

You're brave, I confess I wouldn't have the guts to eat some of those... Very interesting post

Eleni said...

If it's a legitimate food and I know the worst that could happen is it tastes bad, I can mostly make myself try it when put under enough pressure to do so. Not sure if that's a strength or a weakness when I put it that way...

Anonymous said...

I remember, as a child in Marseille, that it was always fun to observe someone eating a sea violet for the first time. Violets are known to have a strong, almost bitter flavor, which I was told was due to a high concentration of iodine.

The initial reaction was predictable: shock, bordering on revulsion. The fun part came shortly after that, when the person would ask: "May I try another"? It never failed.

Eleni said...

Haha, I think my problem was I only got a small piece because we were splitting it. I hardly remember the taste, more the chewy texture.