During the 2007 cicada infestation, some friends and I prepared cicada-based foods at the request of news crews from Japan, Germany and Chicago’s WTTW. Cicadas, when harvested young and then fried, become just another crunchy element in a maki roll. We also made hors d’oeuvres of cicadas nestled into chevre, perched on an endive leaf.
Friends, of course, were grossed out by this bug eating, and I get that, but so many food aversions are due to a lack of familiarity with the foods in question. In many parts of the world, including Mexico and Asia, bugs are a recognized part of the diet, easy to harvest, inexpensive, a low-fat source of protein, and, with the right seasoning, genuinely, and I kid you not, tasty. We found chapulines (grasshoppers) in Oaxaca—seasoned with chilies, onions and garlic—to be so tasty that I started nibbling them thoughtlessly, as though they were potato chips.
My feeling is that, if a food seems strange but is widely eaten in a culture other than my own, I’m going to try it. If I don’t like it, I’ll say so; if I do like it, well hey, I just found another food I like. But even foods that we may not find particularly appetizing can tell us about the cultures where those foods are popular.
Of course, another reason people eat certain foods is due to weird machismo or masochism: they’re trying to prove something or win some nitwit competition (looking at you, “Fear Factor,” askance). Prime example: cooked tarantulas for sale in Mercado Sonora in Mexico City; very, very few people would look at this arachnid charcuterie board and think, “Lunch!” This nightmarish nosh is “I dare you” food, appealing mostly to tourists and specifically bros who’ve had one too many bowls of loudmouth soup.
Aside from grotesque gimmicks, there are many foods of the world that simply may not appeal to a person who grew up in the United States. Still, my preference is to consider potentially fearsome foods to be simply an expression of a culinary tradition that’s different from my own but that has been feeding millions for millennia. Over the years, I’ve eaten a variety of fear-inducing foods… some of which I liked quite a lot.
Taiwan has incredible street food, many things I’d never seen before, so when I spotted a sign advertising “Chicken Butt,” I gulped hard and got in line. Turns out, “chicken butts” are the little tail portions of the bird, blasphemously referred to as “the pope’s nose.” This tiny, triangular tail is basically a pillow of delicious fat under crispy skin with a sliver of meat inside. They were damn good; I had four or five, and this is a prime example of a food that was initially fearsome but turned out to be quite tasty; now, whenever we have roast chicken, I go for the butt which used to be tossed, with the rest of the bones and carcass, into the stockpot. In many parts of the world, head-to-tail cooking is fundamental kitchen practice, though it seems this practice is finally working its way into mainstream restaurant food.
As soon as I got off the airport bus in Reykjavik, I headed to a Sunday market where I was told I could get a container of hákarl, or cheese shark. They call it “cheese shark” because it has the pungent, funky smell reminiscent of a bleu cheese, and it gets this powerful ammonia aroma after being fermented and hung up to dry. (Traditionally, it would have been buried underground for months.) The flavor was just about as intense as the smell, but it paired decently with Brennivin, the caraway-forward Icelandic spirit introduced in 1935, and it’s served each January as part of Iceland’s midwinter Thorrablot feast. Anthony Bourdain pronounced it “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible-tasting thing,” but that’s maybe because he probably had not, at that point in his career at least, eaten an eyeball.
Maxwell Street Market has long been an excellent source for regional Mexican food: the Oaxacan tamale there is one of my top three foods in the world. At another stand, where they sold goat and beef meat, the cook at the griddle would chop up an eyeball (goat or beef, one was never sure) and serve it on a tortilla. A friend went ahead and bought me an eyeball taco as I was feverishly trying to come up with a reason why I couldn’t eat one. It was horrific; the eyeball (or perhaps the cornea) crunched a little when I bit into it, the texture was like mud and it smelled bad. As he munched on his taco, my friend actually pulled a long optic nerve out of his mouth. To this day, the eyeball taco is the only fearsome food that I will do my best never to eat again, which should not be difficult as the Maxwell Street Market doesn’t seem to offer eyeball tacos any more, and I’ve never seen such a thing for sale in Mexico.
In the aughts, I did several on-air interviews with a WGN jock. One day I brought in a surprise food to share: bull’s testicles (criadillas). I bought them at a now-shuttered Mexican restaurant on the North Side. Of all the fearsome foods I’ve eaten, testicles posed one of the greatest conceptual hurdles. They appeared to have been boiled and then cut into salami-like circles, unlike Rocky Mountain Oysters, which are usually fried. The criadillas had a sausage-like appearance and texture, and tasted somewhat like very mild beef sausage. Not a terrible taste at all, but eating balls is kind of icky. But note that if you’ve ever had a Chicago hot dog, you’ve eaten bull’s testicles which, like the rest of the bull, can be thrown into the meat slurry that’s encased to become hot dogs. According to the Vienna Beef website, their wieners are crafted from “rich red bull meat” and brisket. Though the exact cuts are not specified, you can bet they use every edible piece of the animal. And we like it, right!
In the seventies, we went to Café Bernard on Halsted, and I ordered veal brains. I’d never had brains before, but I knew they were eaten in France and many other places in the world, so I went for a plate of them. The custardy brain tissue was off-putting, though salty capers offset the creaminess a little. The crisply fried sections of cerebral tissue were not unpleasant, and although I wasn’t a fan, I did order them at least one more time, in 2002, at Shan, a preferred restaurant for Middle Eastern taxi drivers, on north Sheridan… but never again. With the possibility of encountering bovine encephalitis in neural tissue, I decided brains were not delicious enough to risk my health. There are some foods that, however rich they may be in cultural traditions, are potentially dangerous or hazardous to your health—and a food would have to be damn delicious before I risk my health for a bite.
I bought fertilized duck eggs at one of the Southeast Asian markets in Uptown; a Filipino friend boiled them for me and the other partygoers and then we ate them. Here’s the drill: crack open the top of the egg, drink the now-cooked amniotic fluid in the egg (had kind of a shrimp-like flavor, not bad) then eat the baby bird, bones and all, crunch-crunch. I was guided through my first (and only) balut by a Filipino gentleman who told me that balut is what guys eat after a night of drinking. A boozy night is perhaps a common requirement for performing macho stunts like this; one fertilized duck egg was enough for me. The best pairing for balut is probably a fifth of Jack Daniel’s, no ice, no glass. Unappealing as it was, balut is a traditional food, unlike fried tarantulas.
In China, they enjoy stinky tofu, which is the soy cake fermented in a vat of meat and vegetable juices. Fermentation can be an odoriferous process, and when that fermentation is taking place in rotting juices, it can yield a very intense flavor. I learned how to say “stinky tofu” in Chinese just so I could order it should I see it at a night market, and when I did, it was clear why it’s earned the name. With all due respect to tradition, this was, to my palate, one rank bite. But it is beloved by those who grew up in the culture that gave birth to this food, and I’m guessing when protein sources are rare, and you have a lot of tofu, you vary the taste of this central protein as much as possible, just for the sake of variety. I am not a fan of stinky, but I don’t disdain it; no doubt, many native Chinese would be repelled by my desire for stinky French cheese because, in part, they didn’t grow up with it, and I did.
In Peru, they eat cuy, or guinea pig; in Chicago, I had it at a now-closed restaurant called Salamara. Though the cuy was described by a friend as tasting like “bacon fish,” I didn’t find the taste too jarring; it had the somewhat muscular meat of rabbit, and was a bit greasy, like raccoon meat. The main challenge of eating cuy was the big, rodent-like eyeteeth of the creature, which was served head-on; it was not comfortable to eat. However, if I were in an area of the world where food was scarce, I would not hesitate to hunker down on a guinea pig or even a hamster. Extreme hunger acquaints one with all kinds of unpredictable foods, and in a mountainous country like Peru, it’s understandable why it might be easier to get your daily protein from a guinea pig than a cow.
When we lived in a large commune in Hyde Park, we had a cook come in once a day to make dinner for our coterie of ragged hippies. One day, we asked her to prepare some foods from her hometown in Mississippi. She made raccoon and chitterlings. These are foods that would have been eaten in rural America, perhaps when there was little else to put in the pot. The raccoon was not bad: though oily, as you might expect, it could be mistaken for beef. I was so comfortable with raccoon that for a few years running I attended the annual Tom McNulty Memorial Coon Feed held at a VFW hall in Delafield, Wisconsin. This event regularly sells out.
During my tenure as a Hyde Park communard, I came home to the commune from class one day, took one whiff, and thought, “Damn, the toilets overflowed again.” As it turned out, there was no plumbing problem, but there were chitterlings—or chitlins, as they’re usually called—boiling on the stove (they were a side for the raccoon). Chitterlings are pig intestines. Around the turn of the century, I bought a bucket of them—triple-washed, and I would have preferred quadruple-washed, if such a version were offered—at Moo & Oink. I mixed in onion, garlic and pepper, and slow-cooked the pale, calamari-looking intestine segments for about eight hours in my garage. (My wife wouldn’t allow me to cook them in the house, so powerful is the aroma.) If you’ve had them, you know the flavor is the funkiest ever, with a slight fecal tang and other barnyard notes. I eat them once every ten years just to see if I’ve grown to like them any more than the last time I had them; they are growing on me, although my aging, weakened taste buds may blunt the flavor. Chitterlings were once the offal given to the enslaved, and they remain popular in some parts of the American South. My lack of preference for them is not meant to be any sign of disrespect; if you grow up with a food, like dough burgers in Tupelo or 5-Way chili in Cincinnati, you may very well grow to love it, and to hell what outsiders think.
Tripe—cow stomach—has been served, usually in homes rather than restaurants, for many centuries. One can still find tripe in Mexican restaurants in a spicy soup called menudo. I experienced menudo in the eighties at El Tapatio on Ashland. I believe its reputation as a hangover cure is based on a belief in homeopathic magic: to cure the thing, eat something like the thing you want to cure; if you have heart trouble, eat heart; if you have a bad stomach, eat stomach. I’m so glad I wasn’t hung over when I ate the bowl of menudo, which consisted of large gray chunks of spongy stomach tissue in a piquant tomato broth. Again, though, if it’s part of your heritage, you would be accustomed to the organ meat, and I’ve enjoyed the very delicious taco of thinly sliced tripas at La Chapparita (the salsa verde helps a lot).
Cow foot soup
In Morocco’s Ourika Valley, we came to a market that sold clothing, trinkets and food items, raw and prepared, including cow foot soup. The foot is not a hugely meaty appendage, but there are bones in there, and bones give flavor to broth. In the darkened interior of a ramshackle one-room building, we slurped flavorful cow foot soup, sopping up the mildly piquant broth with small pieces of bread. Soup is a good vehicle for foot, as a spicy broth brings a lot of flavors. I had a large, fried cow foot for lunch at Isla Filipino around 2008, and it was okay, but I prefer the soup I had in Morocco. Incidentally, the “pata” no longer seems to be on the menu at Isla Filipino; perhaps as the food of the Philippines becomes more mainstream, restaurants have felt the need to eighty-six more challenging menu items like foot.
We were at the Tehuantepec Market in Oaxaca, Mexico, when we ran into a young woman who was selling tamales filled with iguana meat. At that point, I had not eaten many reptiles besides alligator, a rather common meat in Florida; we’ve even had a basket of fried gator tenders at Disney World. I figured I should give iguana a go. The vendor said her father killed the iguana “up in the mountains,” and that was encouraging (eat local!), but I cannot say the salty, slightly fishy flavor of the reptile is calling me back, and the texture was limp and slimy. Or perhaps I just got a bad iguana.
Uncooked Fermented Pork
I was with three other family members when I ordered uncooked, fermented pork at Tong Tem Toh, an upscale restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand. To up the forbiddenness factor of the dish (if perhaps increasing my odds of acquiring listeria), the raw pork was served with a raw egg on top. Other family members decided, sight unseen and based on the menu description alone, that they were having none of this traditional dish, though Carolyn tried it and said, “I didn’t like the way it looked. I didn’t like the way it tasted. I didn’t like the way it felt in my mouth.” I ended up eating about half of an ice-cream-scooper-sized portion of the uncooked, fermented pork, and the taste was not strong. It was, however, a dish that seemed to sneer, “I dare you.” I took that dare because I felt obligated to eat what I’d ordered, but I’ll tell you, it was somewhat unnerving (and I avoided the raw egg; I know what that tastes like).
We encountered worm tacos at a Kendall College event. This was simply a taco with a thick salsa and tiny, thin fried worms. These worms looked just like the gusanos you might encounter in a bottle of mezcal, but they were crunchy, relatively flavorless and mostly contributed texture to the taco. I’ve seen this food sold as “Larvets,” a snack for kids, in novelty stores, like Pumpkin Moon in Oak Park. Overall, meh.
Lion and Bear Meat
Czimer’s Game and Seafood in Homer Glen is now closed, but the memory of the exotic meats we bought there remains strong. The lion did not taste bad, but it felt wrong to be eating cat (just, I’m sure, as it would feel wrong to eat dog, but really, why the hell not?). The bear was red meat, tough and chewy, and not bad-tasting but not something you would seek out. I had the uneasy feeling that I was consuming former circus animals. I felt a little shame and a little fear.
Of all the foods mentioned in this piece, haggis is one that most readers have heard of. Mention haggis, and people will go “ew, yuck,” but I can say with close to one-hundred-percent certainty that those who recoil when haggis is mentioned have never tasted the dish. Haggis is usually a sheep’s “pluck” (heart, liver and lungs) along with onions and mild spices, bound together with oatmeal and cooked in the sheep’s stomach. Your mileage may vary, but I found haggis to be mild, though the flavor could be—and I’m certain has been many times in the past —amped up with more organ meat. Overall, tasty (though repeated fillings of my Scotch glass probably helped), and I’m always happy to tuck into a plate of haggis on Bobby Burns Day. Not long ago, I suggested that the butchers at Carnivore in Oak Park make up a batch of haggis that turned out very well.
Okay, I admit, this is a little strange, perhaps even cannibalistic, but it’s nothing new; human beings and other members of the animal kingdom have been eating afterbirth for millennia. Visiting Oakland, California, I was surprised to find that my daughter Abigail, who had recently given birth to my second grandchild, was offered by her doula the child’s placenta dried and in capsules, in a tincture, and in a broth, some of which was frozen to preserve it. She also received a “picture” of the placenta created when the doula placed the bloody thing on thick drawing paper. My son-in-law was eating the broth—he said it was theorized that it would help him bond with his babies—so I tried a spoonful. The broth was mild, without any discernible aroma; the taste had a slight tea-like note, likely due to ginger and other warming herbs added to the placenta when making the broth. I was expecting a deeply organ-like funk of liver/kidney/tripe, but, no, none of that. It was a little anticlimactic, and it’s very unlikely I will ever sample placental products—or most of the foods mentioned here—ever again.
Nonetheless, I feel fortunate to have encountered and eaten these foods, not because they were always delicious—though they sometimes were—but because they provide some insight into cultural foodways. Moreover, it’s fascinating to sample food that’s not your own or just a little off-center. Many of these foods may turn people off; I get that, and just one taste of many of these foods is all I needed to know, though some—like chicken butt and haggis—were genuinely tasty and I would jump at the chance to eat them again.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org