You Are What You Eat

by Dr. Jessie Voigts / Mar 24, 2015 /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

An essential part of the discovery and adventure (and sometimes the delight) of travel comes from sampling the unusual foods the locals eat, foods they’ve been eating for hundreds of years without noticeable harm. Dining on the indigenous fare helped me better understand the local culture and economy.

In the course of my travels I’ve eaten: armadillo (in the hills of Grenada); zebra (Kenya); fish lips, fish eyes, fungus soup, duck’s feet (all in China); kangaroo, ostrich, emu, and Moreton Bay Bugs (Australia); fugu sushi (carefully prepared in Japan from poisonous puffer fish); guinea pig (Peru, Bolivia); snake (all over); Spotted Dick and blue-teat pie (England); horse (Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, and CAR); possum pie, callaloo, dasheen, sappodillas, paw paws, and cushcush (various Caribbean islands); gnu, antelope, eland, gazelle, springbok, steenbok, klipspringer, kudu, nyala, and oryx (sub-Saharan Africa); pigeon (France and Morocco); iguana (Central America); blood sausage (Colombia and Germany); smashed chicken infused with sugar and covered with ice cream (Turkey); crocodile (Africa and Australia); and just about every fruit and vegetable under the sun.

 

Al Podell, eating around the world. From Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth

Author Albert Podell

 

Among the more memorable culinary experiments was an anteater my traveling companion and I found run over on a road in Panama. Not wanting to waste a good source of protein, we chopped it up, added salt and pepper, wished we had a box of Roadkill Helper, roasted it over a campfire, and it tasted… awful, like a burger marinated in formic acid.

 

Anteater - eat them, or no?

Anteater. Wikimedia Commons: Anagoria

Rats are, in contrast – and after you overcome any squeamish cultural bias - rather tasty, especially the big boys eaten in Africa, where they’re called "grass cutters," an appealing appellation doubtless bestowed by the branding consultant who renamed the Patagonian toothfish as "Chilean sea bass" and the slimefish as “orange roughy.” The locals skin the rodents, split them down the middle, spread them out flat, and roast or grill them. Each tastes exactly like what it ate. If it lived in a cane field, it tastes like sugar; if it lived in a pineapple patch, just Dole it out.

In some situations you have no choice but to eat whatever is put in front of you, as when you’re someone’s guest in a land where refusal to partake is considered rude, and causes your host to lose face. In one instance, several Hong Kong dignitaries took me to a gourmet restaurant in the colony’s Wanchai district. Because of my strong convictions favoring conservation, I had much difficulty ingesting several of the courses, particularly a bird’s-nest soup and a jelly made of shark’s fins, but I had no way to decline without giving great offense.

At other times I’ve not been able to obtain a local delicacy. This happened on my first visit to rural Scotland, where I searched for some haggis, but was told it was served only on Bobby Burns’ Eve. It also occurred in Dominica, where I'd been looking forward to the national dish of stewed "mountain chicken" but had to forgo it because an unknown disease had been ravaging the forest-frog population.

During my travels I’ve consumed a variety of mystery meats, grilled, fried, or stewed, where the species was unascertainable. I’m sure I’ve chewed and swallowed countless meatish morsels which, when home, I’d never want to think about, much less eat. But on the road, I dutifully suck it all up, so far without obvious harm.

Since I don’t cook, and since I can munch only so many cans of sardines, bags of nuts, or bunches of bananas, I usually seek a hot meal for dinner, generally at roadside stalls and street vendors rather than restaurants, counter-intuitive as that may seem. Since sanitary conditions are a serious concern in poor countries, I don’t want to take a chance where I can’t see what’s going on in the kitchen. At the street-side stands all is in the open, and I can watch everything from the food prep through the dishwashing, if any. I usually carry chopsticks and plastic spoons and ask the vendors to put the food on a paper plate or a fresh banana leaf, obviating the need to worry whether someone with a deadly disease dined from the dish before. This approach has worked for me, and I have suffered: not a single incidence of tourist trots, Tut’s Tummy, Burma Belly, or Montezuma’s Revenge in my last 30 years abroad.

I regularly travel with a supply of cayenne pepper or chili power, for both its taste and potential medical benefits. The active ingredient is capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonen amide), which releases such intense heat in the body that some physicians believe it’s the reason why dwellers in pepper-popular regions get far fewer colds and infectious diseases than expected.

 

Cayenne pepper - helps the immune system!

Cayenne pepper (fresh). Wikimedia Commons: André Karwath aka Aka

 

When I do eat at a restaurant in the undeveloped world, I avoid the fancy ones catering to tourists, and head to the inexpensive little ones on the side streets, where the indigenes eat. Just don’t let the names put you off. You can get a fine meal at The Bung Hole and Dirty Dicks and excellent ramen at the Phat Phuc Noodle Bar.

If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll be well-served in most of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and even, if you dig around, Australia. The tough spots are the lands of the dedicated carnivores, mainly: Argentina, where their favorite platter is rodizio, a mixed grill that uses every part of the cow; Chile, where I drove around Santiago for more than two hours one night unsuccessfully trying to find my companion a veggie meal; and meat-mad Mongolia, where, when I asked a guide what vegetarians do, she replied, “They starve.”

 

From Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth by Albert Podell. Article and photo copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.