Durian Days and Tasty Ways
The Good, the Bad and the Durian
IN PAMPANGA, a small Philippine town, I was traveling to Olongapo City from Manila. I was hungry and had walked into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the kind that has a counter for about three and seats for two. The proprietor spoke no English, but I spoke enough Tagalog to say something like, “Give me your best.” He brought me a steaming bowl of something that looked like river bottom mud, the kind that gooshes up between your toes when you walk barefoot in it. Now I had heard that people who live along the Nile and the Amazon sometimes eat strange and taboo things like the silt from their river bottoms in time of famine. It is said to have a lot of nutrients. I had no problem with that, per se, but I happened to know that the only river for miles around was an open sewer. I asked the man what the dish was, and he said, Dinuguan, but it meant nothing to me. “If it’s river silt,” I thought, “I hope it’s well cooked. Very well cooked.”
I took a bite, and it was delicious. Even though it had the look and texture of mud, it was delicious. It tasted somewhat like a rich beef stew cooked with a lot of red Bordeaux wine. In the mush, there were also what seemed like little dumplings or big gravy lumps that stuck to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter, but were even more tasty than the surrounding goosh. I had two bowls of it, some rice and a San Miguel beer, and called that a good meal, whatever it was.
A week later I described the strange, delicious dish to Ricardo Paglinawan, a Filipino friend, and asked him if he knew what it was.
“Oh sure” he said, “That’s blood.”
“Sure. They make it from duck’s blood, or pig’s blood. It’s like a blood soup. So you liked it, eh?”
“Blood? You mean they flavor the soup with blood?”
“No, they just cook some blood. Maybe they put some salt in it, but mainly, it’s just blood.”
“But…but… what about the little…the little lumps? What were the lumps?”
“Oh, sometimes they cook it too fast and it clots. So you liked it?”
Well, yes, I did like it. I will confess I liked it more when I didn’t know what it was, but I did like it, and still do, damn it!
No matter what part of the world you come from, if you travel widely, you are going to encounter food that is unusual, strange, maybe even immoral or just plain weird. Of course “strange” depends upon your point of view. To the Eskimo (Inuit) a vegetarian diet is strange. He needs his raw meat and blubber. A native of the Himalayas would recoil at the site of lobster or crab. The Chinese turn up their noses at cheese, thinking it barbarous food for barbarous people. The Australians eat vegemite, a cultured yeast product.
Long ago I adopted a rule for strange encounters, and it has become my motto: wherever I go, whatever people I visit, I bow to their kings, respect their gods and eat their viands no matter what. There is nothing I will not eat or drink at least once. And if I don’t eat it a second time, it will only be because I don’t like the taste; aesthetics be damned. I am a culinary Pagan, and I worship at every altar.
“Real men don’t eat quiche,” they say. Bah! Real men eat what they damn please! A food is nutritious and wholesome or it isn’t; it’s tasty or it isn’t; and that’s all I worry about. Through taste and smell I partake of Humanity’s and Nature’s infinite variety. A willing palate and an open mind will open a world of discovery to you. Of course some things will take a bit of getting used to, but the efforts are small and the rewards are great: fun, adventure, good eating and warm memories, and the useful wisdom that there are no gross foods, only gross feeders.
That said, we also do well to be aware of local taboos and religious proscriptions. Even as a friendly gesture, the offer of a pork chop to a Muslim will not score you any points. There are people in the world who will feast on dog meat stew but are revolted by a rare beefsteak. And there are still parts of the world where the dearly departed must not be spoken of in a culinary context. Be wise, be informed, be respectful and discreet. But above all, be bold!
TIP: In Thailand deep fried giant locusts are a popular snack. They are high in protein, low in cholesterol, and cheap. And remember, John the Baptist lived on them.
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: When sampling crispy Mexican grasshoppers, I choose the smallest size. That way I can focus on how they taste instead of how they look.
—Margo True, staff editor Gourmet magazine, New York, NY
TIP: The Chinese believe that shark fin soup is a potent aphrodisiac, and serve it at wedding feasts and to the tired and timid. If you order this in the presence of your Chinese hosts, and remark authoritatively on the soup’s special powers, it would be the equivalent of a Chinese peasant capably holding forth on the relative merits of this year’s Beaujolais.
TIP: Sam Seh is a Chinese white wine with a whole snake in the bottle, (Remember the worm in a bottle of Mescal?) usually a pit viper and highly poisonous in its live state. Soused, as it is in the bottle, it is rendered benign. Like so many other things the Chinese eat and drink, it is said to revive the lagging libido. Drink a toast with this stuff to establish your bona fides. (And yes, you can eat the worm in the bottle of Mexican Mescal.)
TIP: Chinese cooks revere the thousand year egg. A chicken or duck egg is wrapped in lime clay for about eight weeks. The lime leaches through the eggshell and into the white and yolk, turning them blue and green respectively, and hardening them to barely hard boiled. The taste is somewhat fishy with buttery overtones. If you enjoy it, or seem to, your Chinese friends will approve.
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: If you’re prone to nausea when swallowing slimy slugs or crunching beetles, pack your own plastic bag. If your host looks aghast, explain that it was so good you’re taking some home in a doggie bag for later, it’s an old American custom.
—Brenda Love, author of The Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices
TIP: Filipinos enjoy a special egg dish called bulut. A duck egg is allowed to incubate just until the embryo is neither egg nor meat, then is baked in a moist heat. Broken open the perfect balut reveals a yolk with numerous blood vessels, and the mere suggestion of bones and feathers which will disintegrate at a touch. It’s especially good with a cold San Miguel beer.
TIP: In Laos don’t pass up the chance to eat fire ant soup. Formic acid coating the bodies of the ants gives the soup a wonderful tangy flavor. Try it at the Sukvemarn restaurant in Vientiane.
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: We finally had the ant eggs at Cien Anos restaurant in Tijuana, and they were divine. Came on top of a steak, which was a waste of good ant eggs, so we ordered an entire plate and just stuffed them in our mouths with our fingers. Like eating very crunchy garlic air. Yum!
—Paula McDonald, writer, San Diego, CA
TIP: Throughout tropical Asia you can find restaurants that cater to tourists whose menus offer “steak.” Be advised that unless the “steak’s” origin is cited, it’s likely to be water buffalo. But it’s not all that bad.
TIP: In Egypt it is very easy and convenient to hire a camel and go trekking across the desert. It is equally easy to go to the butcher’s and get a few pounds of camel for dinner. It’s highly prized, and justly so.
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: And the camels…eat thereof and feed the beggar and the suppliant.
TIP: Sweets in India are shockingly, shudderingly, make-your-teeth-hurt sweet.
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: I’ve always eaten avocados as guacamole, or in a salad with salt and pepper the usual seasoning. I thought that was the only way. Imagine my surprise in Brazil when I saw people enjoying them as a shake with milk and sugar!
—Rosa Carmelita, engineer, San Francisco, CA
TIP: In Latin America, as in Latin Europe, no part of a cow goes unused. In addition to sweetbreads, organ meats, and entrails (chitterlings, or chitt’lins), expect to encounter grilled cow’s udder, fried bull’s testicles, sautéed veal brains, stewed spinal cord, and blood sausage. I’ve had them all and they’ve all been artfully prepared and very tasty.
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: If I’ve never seen the food before, I’ll try it.
—M. Midori, professional domina and fetish diva, San Francisco, CA
TIP: In Poland, as in the Philippines, people enjoy a soup made of duck’s or pig’s blood. It contains nearly all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients a person requires. It’s the nearest thing to the perfect food. In East Africa, the lion hunting Maasai tribe live almost exclusively on cow’s blood and milk. Fearless as they are, they don’t even cook the blood. They either drink it straight, or mix it with milk. If you’re ever offered a gourd full of this stuff, you don’t have to actually drink it. But you must at least show your appreciation by touching it to your lips. Cheers. (Psst. It really isn’t bad.)
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: Haggis, a sheep’s stomach filled with oatmeal, entrails and a splash of whiskey, then steamed or boiled, is Scotland’s most traditional dish. Immortalized by the celebrated poet Robert Burns, the Haggis was presented, with the accompaniment of a piper, to the head of the household. The recipient would thrust a dirk (traditional Scottish knife) into the Haggis and serve it along with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). I recommend Chivas Brothers The Century of Malts, the very spirit and essence Scotland, as a suitable partner to the enduring Haggis. It will make a believer of you.
—Jim Cryle, whiskey lover, Aberdeen, Scotland
TIP: If you actually have the opportunity to see sausage being made, don’t.
TIP: The bold (or crazy) Japanese gourmand really does eat “Fugu,” the toxic liver of the puffer fish. Specially trained and government-certified chefs prepare it in such a way that only a trace of the tetradotoxin remains to cause the mouth to tingle and the diner to know the thrill of dancing with Death. But sometimes Death decides to lead. The Japanese press reports about 300 such Tangos per year. Cross this one off your dance card.
TIP: If you still think sushi is weird, where in Hell have you been?!
TIP: The most astonishing tropical fruit anywhere is the durian. A melon-like fruit with a yellow, pudding-textured flesh. Durian odor is best described as pig shit, turpentine and onions garnished with a dirty gym sock. Durian can be smelled from many yards away. Despite its great local popularity, it is forbidden to eat durian on the subway in Singapore.
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: The durian fruit does not smell. The odor comes from the rind. Try and tell that to the airline stewardess who wants you to parachute out with your purchase.
—Harry Rolnik, editor, Budapest
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: You want to know what the durian smells like? It smells like pig shit, onions and turpentine whirled in a blender and garnished with a dirty gym sock. Really. It does.
—Richard Sterling, author
TIP: Anywhere in the South Pacific, refrain from talking of cannibalism. The popular term for human flesh is long pig, for its taste being similar to pork. If anyone should ever call you a long pig, get the Hell outta Dodge.
TIP: The Muslim dietary code is fairly simple. Pork is strictly forbidden, as is animal blood. Alcohol is advised against, but most Muslim countries do not outlaw it. Food conforming to Muslim law is called Khalal. In countries with large Muslim populations food stalls often use two colors of plates: green for serving Khalal; orange for all else.
TIP: The Jewish dietary code is elaborate. Its chief features are: proscription against pork, blood, invertebrates, scavengers and carnivores; meat and dairy cannot be present on the same plate.
TIP: The word Kosher means “fit.” If something is called Kosher, it fits in with the law of Kashrut, which governs numerous aspects of Jewish life, including what is fit to eat.
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: Certain members of the Agudat Yisrael party in the Israeli parliament tried to ram a law down the throats of Israelis that would forbid the sale of pork to anyone but Christians. Some more secular Jews countered with a gastronomic demonstration: a free lunch of ham sandwiches. As one supporter at the unkosher repast said, “I’ve never touched pork, but once you let these Agudat characters into your sandwiches, they’ll want to climb into bed with your wife as well.”
—Sam Bigdikian, 52, restaurateur, New York, NY
TIP: Hindus are not strictly prohibited from eating beef, but the vast majority elect not to as cow worship is central to their religion and killing a cow is an offense in much of India.
TIP: In India, don’t go into a Jain temple if you have just eaten garlic, onion, potato, or any other thing that grows underground. These things, along with all animal products, are forbidden to the Jains.
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: My vote for the Australian “national dish” goes to the Pie Floater. This is a heated meat pie, served in a bowl of pea soup. A pie-cart operator told me that his pie floaters were the cheapest dinner anywhere in town. This was probably just as well for his ‘pitch’ was right outside the Adelaide Casino.
—Keith Kellett, writer, UK
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: So far in West Africa I’d eaten bush rat, dik dik, monkey, and goat, but I couldn’t figure the animal that was in this stew. It was thick skinned, and the woman who dished it out watched as I chewed, and chewed, and chewed, and laughed when I finally spit it out. “What is it?” I mimed, because she spoke only Woloof. It really was delicious, but there were these hunks of skin, really, an inch thick and like tire rubber. “What is it?” I asked the woman, again. She brightened, and mimed pin pricks poking her arm. Great. Now I can add porcupine to my litany of exotic dishes in Africa.
—Carla King, writer, San Francisco, CA
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: The Fafaru Effect: “Sometimes it helps to close your eyes,” was Kate Browne’s anthropological advice to me as we contemplated the concoction of fish fermenting in a gourd of sea water. Indeed, the culinary specialties of remote places, such as this miasmic delicacy of the Austral Islands, often assail rather than seduce the senses. But closing the eyes immediately reduces sensory intake by twenty percent, can be mistaken for ecstasy, and may easily serve as the prelude for a swoon.
-Jane Albritton, editor, Texas
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: In Taiwan, when you buy a movie ticket, if you have hunger pangs, you may not want to enter the theater empty handed–the older theaters have no concession stands. But, somewhere near the ticket window there should be a little stand selling the traditional Taiwanese idea of savory movie treats. These will include pickled duck tongues–these are good; small rice cakes made with chicken blood–not a lot of flavor actually; ribbons of seaweed; tofu; and 1000 year eggs, pungent opaque greenish-black on the inside–lots of flavor, maybe to much for some. The vendor will also sell canned teas, sodas and Taiwan Beer–most notable for its incredibly drab can.
—Mark Cannon, TV writer, Los Angeles, CA
TIP: In England you won’t find much in the way of strange fare. But you will find strange names for their favorite dishes. Spotted Dick, Toad in the Hole, Bubble and Squeek, Starry Gazy Pie, to name a few. See what else you can find. And do they look and taste like their names?
TIP: In West Africa, monkey is highly regarded and available in many restaurants. But you generally have to order it special. It tastes a lot like pork. Order it barbequed on a stick. That way you won’t have to look him in the face.
TIP: In the Philippines there are restaurants that specialize in dog flesh. You won’t see them advertised as such, and you’ll have to coax your Filipino friends into taking you to one since they know that we don’t eat the canine here in the West. But go ahead and break the taboo, over there. The Filipinos claim that it prevents tuberculosis. And I confess I’ve never seen a Philippine dog with TB.