Over the years, I’ve managed to save several travel journals EF used to provide for students. They all include interesting writing prompts to encourage students to reflect about their travel experiences. In one travel journal, I found this question: “What’s the strangest food you’ve tried on tour? The best? The worst?” Since eating is one of the joys of international travel for me, I rarely forget the different foods I have eaten on tours. I don’t know who said this, but I certainly agree with this statement: “To know a country is to eat the food of that country.” I have had many interesting, delicious, and strange adventures while eating my way through several Asian countries.
There are very few things I will not eat in Japan, where I was born. However, when I was dining at a seafood restaurant in Sapporo, I ate something that sounded an alarm for my palate not so much for the taste but for the texture. I remember asking one of my Japanese hosts, “What did I just eat?” Her reply was simply, “fish guts,” or sakana no cho. Marinated fish intestines will not be something I will ever request in a restaurant. When I was wandering through a seafood market in Otaru, a small port city in Hokkaido, with my home-stay family, one of the vendors cut open a sea urchin and gave me a sample of this delicacy, called uni, fresh from the ocean. What I actually ate was the sea urchin’s gonads, which are bright orange and a bit spongy, and it wasn’t my first time, either. I love to eat uni. Intestines, no, but gonads, yes.
I was in a culinary heaven when I spent two weeks in South Korea. One of my favorite Korean foods is kimchee, defined by The Free Dictionary as “a Korean dish made of vegetables, such as cabbage or radishes, that are salted, seasoned, and stored in sealed containers to undergo lactic acid fermentation.” It’s that fermentation that puts off many people. Before I left on my tour of South Korea, I ran into one of the local Korean War veterans at the grocery store. He told me that he will never forget the cold he experienced in Korea or the aroma of kimchee. For me, kimchee falls under the category of food that asks the question, “How can something that smells so bad taste so good?”
Some of the best kimchee I ate in South Korea was when I went to the Noryangin Fish Market in Seoul early one morning for the purpose of eating live baby octopus. I grew up eating lots of octopus, but I never ate anything described as “live” or “baby” before. What was I thinking? After a couple of shots of soju to fortify my nerves and to perhaps dull my taste buds, I watched in horror as the plate full of tentacles moved around in a dance and then I took the plunge with my chopsticks. The tentacles were holding on for dear life at the end of my chopsticks! As I chewed on the tentacles, they were still moving around in my mouth and I felt as if some of the suction cups were grabbing the inside of my cheeks. The taste was fine, but I just can’t handle my food moving around in my mouth. The kimchee, by the way, was fabulous. I keep a jar in my refrigerator at home all the time.
There is a fruit in Southeast Asia that you cannot eat in any public place such as hotels, buses, subways, and shopping centers. Don’t even think about bringing it on an airplane! The outside of this fruit is thick and thorny, and the inside has a fleshy, creamy pulp. Known as the “king of fruits,” the durian is famous for its odor often described with adjectives like “rotting,” “stinky,” and “gross.” You either love durian or you hate it. When I was in Thailand, I would walk by the fruit stands on the streets and wonder about its taste. I made the mistake of getting too close to a freshly cut durian one evening and I must admit, I was almost knocked off of my feet by the smell. One evening at a restaurant in Chiang Rai, I ordered durian ice cream for dessert and it was delicious. It had a nice custard flavor and I hardly noticed the smell. If I get a chance to return to Thailand, I may give fresh durian a try. I still need to convince myself that durian falls under the same category as kimchee for me.
I will often regale my students with stories about the “strange” foods I have eaten while traveling. I teach an elective course on African American history and one of my units is about the history of soul food. One example of soul food is macaroni and cheese. My students are incredulous when I tell them that I would rather eat anything than eat this popular food in the South. They just cannot believe I won’t eat macaroni and cheese. I make it from time to time for Sunday dinners with my family, but I won’t touch it. One of my parents this year, a former student, asked me at a conference if I still avoided macaroni and cheese like the plague. That’s the only thing she remembered from my class. Some Japanese people are lactose intolerant and my Japanese mother must be one of them. An excellent cook in the cuisines of many countries, she just did not make too many dishes with cheese in them when I was growing up. Even though I have learned over the years to eat certain mild cheeses, I’m still not a fan of macaroni and cheese.
Foods are only “strange” to tourists. I guess we should all learn to become familiar with the traditional foods of the countries we visit and be polite guests when we are served these foods. I have become quite adept at chewing and swallowing my food without tasting it if the occasion merits it. No need to give offense to your hosts. I just don’t ask for seconds.
Readers, what’s the strangest food you’ve tried on tour? The best? The worst?”