I was recently browsing the news feed on my Facebook page, Chronicles of a Travel Addict, when I came across a video posted by my friend and former collaborator, Cyle O’Donnell. In this video, he explains how to eat a cockroach. The concept is quite simple. Grab the huge, disgusting Southeast Asian beetle and chow down. And, as he says, make sure you have some water nearby.
This got me thinking. Now, as most of you know, I am a vegetarian. And, at times, I can be somewhat hypocritical. I am still behind animal rights and anti-cruelty 100%. However, when I travel, this curious beast comes out and urges me to not only see, smell, feel, and hear the world, but also to taste it. And this lands me in some interesting culinary situations.
Now, when I was in Argentina, I never tried the beef, even though it’s supposed to be some of the best in the world. I haven’t eaten cow since I was 11 years old, and I don’t plan on that changing. When I was in Bolivia, llama meat was commonly eaten. In Peru, guinea pigs were barbecued and served up for lunch. In China, I learned that dog was a delicacy- and quite an expensive one. I wanted no part of it. There’s something about mammals that won’t let me eat them. Even if they are grass-fed, free-range, and happy as hell.. I can’t do it.
But when it comes to amphibians, insects, reptiles, sea creatures, invertebrates, arachnids, and even fowl, something in my brain flashes a green light while on the road. I don’t understand it. I certainly don’t agree with it, but I suppose we aren’t meant to comprehend everything that goes through our brains.
So, as someone who had committed to a vegetarian diet, how did my culinary deviance begin? Well, I’ve always been the kind of person who is up for a dare and willing to challenge social norms. So, when I was in high school, my best friend saw a medium-sized spider crawling on the top of my Pontiac. She said I should eat it. Seconds later, I grabbed the spider and popped it in my mouth. I started chomping while it was still alive. From that moment, even though I’ve maintained a vegetarian diet for the most part, there come times when I step out of my box and eat some crazy shit.
While in Mexico City, or D.F., my Mexican friend was explaining some of the lesser-known delicacies available. Sure, delicious tacos, tortas, elote, and tamales were overabundant in this city, but that’s not what she was talking about. The conversation had more to do with cockroaches, grasshoppers, and worms, and I was disgusted. We came across an older Mexican lady carrying around a box of ready-to-eat cockroaches and grasshoppers for sale. After being persuaded by my friend, I decided on the lesser evil and bought a little plastic bag of fried chapulines, which are grasshoppers local to the area. The outcome? Crunchy, dry, and salty as hell. I wished I had a shot of tequila to wash it down (and maybe make me feel a little better about having eaten a grasshopper). Sadly, I don’t have a picture of me eating it, but this is what they look like:
In China, the opportunities to try unorthodox foods (at least from a Western point of view) were boundless. When I was strolling through the Dong Hua Men Market in Beijing, my jaw dropped. There were so many (supposedly) edible creatures up for sale, of all shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and origins. Some were cooked, some were raw, and some were still alive. Squid, octopi, centipedes, star fish, rattle snakes, snails, worms, and all kinds of unrecognizable sea creatures were laid out neatly on display, either beckoning or shocking passersby. I wanted to try the rattle snake, but neither of my travel partners wanted to be part of it. Since it was quite large, and I don’t like to waste food, I passed it up.
When we arrived in Shanghai, however, I did have the chance to try a local delicacy. My travel partners and I sat down at a restaurant after a long day of exploring the city and shopping for souvenirs. At this point, I had already been on the road in Asia for over a month. I was beginning to tire of the noodle and rice dishes I had been eating, and was feeling particularly adventurous that night. I opened up the plastic-covered menu, sifted through the Chinese characters and poorly written English subtitles, and found my dish. I ate frog legs for dinner that night. The consensus? As many say, they do taste a bit like chicken, but a little softer. And greasy.
After we had toured the city of Shanghai, my travel partners and I hopped onto a 26 hour train to Guangzhou, where we would later take another train to Hong Kong. It was the longest trip I had ever taken, and when I wasn’t sleeping on one of the three-tiered bunks, I took the opportunity to chat with the locals riding with us. (I don’t speak Mandarin, and couldn’t pronounce the words in my dictionary due to the language’s tonality, but I’ve mastered connecting with people with hand gestures, pointing, and not being afraid to make a fool out of myself.) First off, one of the Chinese men offered me a beer, with the clever brand name of “Reeb,” or “beer” spelled backwards. It definitely wasn’t Tsing Tao, but it helped pass the time.
Soon after, the bags of chicken feet started coming out. They were chewing on them like a United Statesean chows down on beef jerky. It was slightly disturbing, the way the spindly fingers reached out from the dismembered, golden-brown foot. Once again, one of the men offered me a chicken foot. I wasn’t quite sure about it, especially because I could see the individual nails, as well as the creases in the knuckles that were very human-like. But I ate it. There is very little skin and meat on the feet, so the snack is mainly bone and cartilage. Maybe I just don’t like gnawing on bones, but the whole experience, including the appeal of the chicken feet, was a bit strange.
From this point, my culinary adventures continue- and get even more shocking. To be continued in Part 2.