Tuesday, 1 July 2014

STRANGE FOODS


“Eat to live; not live to eat.” - Socrates

The rituals of eating and our carefully orchestrated mealtime productions are a characteristically human behaviour that separates us from our animal cousins. Over the millennia, as we evolved, what was something that we resorted to purely to survive, has become also a highly ritualised social behaviour, (sometimes reaching ridiculous proportions). Whenever I go into a bookshop I am amazed by the space that is devoted to cookery books, lifestyle books (in which the meal ritual plays an important role), cooking ingredient books, cookery/travelling books, ethnic cookbooks, etc, versus, say, classic literature. The number of cookery magazines, and space devoted to cooking in other magazines, is also quite astounding. Add to that the TV programmes that centre on cooking, the web pages that are cookery-oriented and the number of cooking schools around, and it seems that we are living in the midst of a food conspiracy. And here I am contributing to this deluge in this blog, as well!

Eating is certainly a popular activity and the preparation of food is something that can take up considerable time. A great degree of skill and experience is also important because if someone lacks those, even when the best ingredients and appropriate recipe is around, the result can be quite disgusting. Sometimes this is evidenced by the preparation of the simplest of meals. I fondly (now, not then) remember the graphic illustration of the “he-can’t-boil-an-egg” situation when a roommate at University tried boiling some eggs and after forgetting the pan on the stove for an hour or so, came back to a black pan and carbonised egg remnants. The smell was disgusting and persisted for several weeks.

The excesses of the ancient Romans where food is concerned have not perhaps been surpassed, which is easy to understand when one looks at some of their recipes that have survived in the literature. Who for example, would be tempted by a menu that had “virgin sow’s uterus stuffed with nightingale tongues and served with a honey and fish sauce”? Not all their recipes are as revolting as this, as examination of surviving ancient Roman cookbooks proves. One famous one is “De Re Coquinaria” by Marcus Gaius Apicius. For example, if you would like to eat hamburgers, Roman style, you can get this and several Apicius recipes here.

What people around the world eat is absolutely mind-boggling! It is truly a case of “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”. Amongst all the animals that seem to be the most under-represented on our menus is the group of insects – unwisely so, nutritionists tell us as many insects would be extremely nutritious and good value as far energy and food efficiency value are concerned. The Australian aborigines have long eaten witchetty grubs, which are the larvae of moths and beetles which bore into and eat the wood and sap of trees and shrubs, and are considered to be a delicacy. Honey ants are another such delicacy.  Other aficionados of entomophagy (insect eating!) point out that there are 1,462 of recorded species of edible insects. That’s not including the thousands that haven’t been tasted yet. Grasshoppers, beetles, scorpions, crickets, etc all feature prominently on the menu. Native Americans have a long tradition of entomophagy. For recipes to make your next dinner party unforgettable, and more information, see here.

Snails, guinea pigs, frog-legs, horse, octopus, snakes, crocodiles, jellyfish, lizards, monkeys, cats, dogs, sea slugs are also some of the more unusual foods that would be quite ordinary fare to many people around the world. If you wish to discover more, it’s worth visiting the weird food site.  Who but the French would rack their brains to come up with exciting recipes for rhinoceros and elephant, giraffe and other zoo animals? When Paris was under siege by Prussian army in 1870, at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, after about 60,000 dogs and cats were eaten (not to mention countless rats), all the animals in the Paris zoo were also eaten, including Castor and Pollux the elephants, which were until then darlings of zoo visitors.

Another controversial food item is offal: Liver, milt (spleen), tripe (stomach), kidneys, chitterlings (intestines), brain, sweetbreads (thymus or pancreas), testicles, lights (lung), gizzard (birds’ crop), andouilles (pigs’ large intestine), heart, all make an appearance on the table. Everyone has heard of the famous Scottish dish haggis (but only the brave have tasted it), which consists of sheep stomach stuffed with a boiled mix of liver, heart, lungs, rolled oats and other ingredients.

And if you would like to play Russian roulette while sitting at table, why not try some Japanese fugu? This is a kind of pufferfish, which contains a deadly poison in the organs. Despite the risk, fugu dishes remain as a special delicacy in Japan. Even the milt is considered as a great delicacy. The kanji (Chinese characters) used to write fugu translate as “river pig”. It’s reported that about 40 kinds of pufferfish are caught and cultured in Japan and that 10,000 tons of fugu are consumed each year.  The fish contains lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin in the internal organs, especially the liver and the ovaries, but also in the skin and the testes. Only specially licensed chefs can prepare and sell fugu to the public, and consumption of the liver and ovaries is forbidden. Since small amounts of the poison in the fugu eaten give a special desired sensation on the tongue, the poisonous parts are considered to be the most delicious by some gourmets. Every year a number of people die because the amount of poison in the consumed fish parts has been underestimated. The poison paralyses muscles while the victim stays conscious, and eventually dies from asphyxiation. There is currently no antidote, and the standard medical approach is to try to support the respiratory and circulatory system until the effect of the poison wears off.

At the other extreme are people who choose to eat very frugally, their food largely or exclusively of vegetable origin. Healthy vegetarianism is a viable option and many strict vegetarians enjoy a varied, nutritious and delicious diet. However, because of religious, misguided health, conscientious or other reasons, the diet of other people may consist of foods that are bland, without variety and in some cases devoid of essential nutrients. Food faddism has been recognised as a medical problem in many instances and can lead to serious disease or even death. As is the case with any other part of our life, our diet should adhere to Cleobulus’ wise saying: “The mean is best in all things”.

4 comments:

  1. You are so right.... what people eat around the world is mind boggling! I normally cook Russian food, Australian salads and fruits, Israeli breakfasts and Turkish coffee. But that hasn't prepared us for the bizarre and often delicious meals we have seen overseas.

    The best thing about travelling abroad is eating in other nations' homes and restaurants. The best thing about coming back to Australia is trying new recipes at home.

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  2. Sometimes the most unsettling dishes are not because the food is controversial (eg spleen) but because the combination seems very unusual. In Canada I saw people eat breakfast with: pancakes piled on top of each other, fried eggs and fried bacon piled on top, then maple syrup poured over the top. Apart from causing the eaters an instant heart attack, I wondered about the sweet and savoury combination.

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    1. Very true, Hels. I don't like mixing sweet and savoury in the same dish.

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  3. Oh no! Some of those foods sound revolting!

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