Weird and Unusual Things I’ve Eaten and Drunk: A Post In Memory of Anthony Bourdain
This post was born out of my vague but unrelenting depression over the suicide of Anthony Bourdain (and the predictable Trumpist reaction to it, which I am not going to link to). I wanted to lighten the mood, so I started making a list of some “out there” foods and drinks that I’ve enjoyed (not always literally) over the course of my life.
And you know, a strange and wonderful thing happened.
Those who read my blog know I don’t have a particularly sunny disposition. I tend towards gloom and pessimism, and I absolutely abhor mental exercises meant to be inspirational and uplifting. So it came as a surprise when it occurred to me after making this list: my life has been AWESOME. I’ve been so focused on tragedy, danger, melancholy, anxiety, that I forgot, for a long time, to stop and look back and marvel at what an amazing adventure it’s been so far. I am at once overjoyed, and not a little creeped out by the fact that this unexpected ray of sunshine came into my life from such horror and sadness.
Naturally, when it comes to defining “weird” and “unusual”, your mileage may vary. I quickly decided to exclude stinky cheeses (because boring), and some of the foods won’t raise eyebrows everywhere. So basically, this post is aimed at American eaters, and specifically the subcategory that thinks sausage shouldn’t be made of scraps.
So here is what I’ve eaten:
I thought I’d start with something I had at Anthony Bourdain’s old restaurant, Les Halles. I am not talking about your regular black pudding, which is mostly flour. The thing I’m referring to is sausage made entirely from congealed porcine blood mixed with pork fat to create a paste, which is then stuffed into casings and pan fried in butter.
This type of sausage is completely black when cooked and has the consistency of tofu and a flavor that’s astonishingly rich. It is a bit too rich, in fact, combined with its butter-like texture. I would treat myself to this dish about once a year when Les Halles was still in operation, and I could never eat more than half a link, about 1/6 of the portion.
There is a whole ritual involved in eating Russian dried fish. First of all, it’s dried to be point of being rock-hard. A well-made vobla can double as a mallet. Second, it’s served whole, unprepped. That is, the fish is gutted before drying, but is otherwise served with scales and skin on, and bones still inside it. It is a long and arduous process — peeling the leathery skin, pulling strips of amber flesh off the bone, pulling out smaller bones — accompanied by friendly conversation and abundant beer. Using a Russian newspaper as a tablecloth is absolutely mandatory.
There is, however, one internal organ that the Russian drying process leaves behind — and that’s the swim bladder, a two-chamber gas-filled organ that helps fish regulate their buoyancy.
Without going too deeply into piscine anatomy, you have to completely deconstruct your fish in order to reach the bladder. Consuming it is the final stage in the ritual. And you can’t just hork it down. You have to light a match (or a lighter, if you are a philistine) and scorch the bladder. It sizzles and shrinks to the size of a pea.
It looks like a booger, but when you eat it, it’s an explosion of umami.
Milt is fish semen. Surprisingly, various cultures treat it as a delicacy, and there is a variety of ways to prepare it (including sushi, apparently). I had it as a little girl (“It’s like caviar, but from boy fish” was how my mother explained it to me); it was heavily seasoned and pan-fried.
Okay, so what’s it like? Pan-seared milt has the consistency and bland flavor of soft tofu — mostly, it’s a vehicle for seasonings — but with a distinct metallic aftertaste and just a touch of grossness.
Another time, I tried pickled herring milt. Best I can describe that experience is that the horror defies description. Pickled milt was one of the worst things I’ve ever put in my mouth.
My husband and I were on a short trip to Scotland, and ordered haggis out of pure curiosity — because outside of Caledonia, haggis is considered joke food. Haggis looks and sounds disgusting, and tastes absolutely delicious. Criminally delicious. For weeks afterwards, I was nostalgic for haggis. Nothing tasted as good as haggis.
Where I live, you can’t find authentic haggis, because offering sheep’s offal for sale is illegal here (and yes, I know that because I’ve looked into how I can get me some haggis at home). So from that vantage point, I can confidently say that haggis alone is worth the airfare to Scotland. If you’ve never had real haggis, put it on your bucket list. It’s that good.
This is one I hesitated putting on the list. Tripe is really common. Ordinary garden-variety chain supermarkets carry it. And yet, everyone I know thinks tripe is weird and gross. Tripe by itself is bland virtually to the point of being tasteless — but in soups, it will contribute a peculiar aroma that some find unpleasant. Soups like mondongo and flaki have that distinct whiff of offal (though I do love flaki). The legendary French medieval dish tripes à la mode de Caen also has that slightly odoriferous quality. Strong-flavored ingredients — tomatoes, chilis — overpower this aroma in stews such as menudo and trippa alla romana, and pack the tripe full of flavor. Mostly, tripe is all about texture. It is chewy and slightly gelatinous, and that’s the quality that seems to divide people. For me it all depends on how it’s prepared. I’ve had tripe dishes that were fantastic and some that were so-so.
Escamoles are larvae and pupae of certain species of ants. Yeah, ant eggs. It’s a delicacy in Mexico City and surrounding areas. Escamoles reminded me of milt. A smidgen less disgusting, but still very similar in flavor, texture and that low-key but perceptible aversive quality. There is a wealth of wonderful recipes for escamoles out there, but to be frank, they are wonderful mostly because of all the other ingredients: garlic, cilantro, lime, mojo de ajo. I had them just once, and I ate a respectable quantity under the curious eye of the waiter, but I realized in the midst of my meal that I was dumping an awful lot of garnishes on my escamoles — because I wanted to hide and overpower them. I guess it wasn’t terrible, but I wouldn’t order it again.
Whale tastes like a cross between lean beef and beef liver. I had mine as a steak smothered in bordelaise, and it arrived at the table full of smoky aromas. But — whale meat also has a certain fishy finish, and as is generally true of the flesh of game that subsists exclusively on smaller marine life, that fishy flavor accumulates in your mouth. It starts out barely perceptable, and over approximately half a dozen bites, becomes really bothersome. Another couple of bites, and I was done.
I love watermelon. I am a big fan of pickling! But watermelon and pickling, together, is like two rights making a wrong. Hell, it’s like two rights had a bastard child. Pickled watermelon has no right to exist. Its soggy texture, in combination with a kind of sweet-and-salty (not sweet-and-sour) flavor that’s just … wrong. To me, it just reeks of urine.
Pickled watermelon is popular among Russian people, and a staple of the Russian delicatessen, so quite a few people enjoy it. My husband loves it. But to show you that I’m not alone in my hatred of this abomination, he once ordered it in a fancy Brighton Beach restaurant when we were having dinner with a non-Russian friend who had never tried Russian food before. She took a bite of the pickled watermelon and immediately began retching. Not only did she spit it out, she rubbed her tongue and the inside of her mouth with her napkin, like a maniac. So yeah, I’d say this is definitely an acquired taste.
Perhaps the strangest of edible mushrooms, huitlacoche is corn smut. It is a parasite that turns corn into this:
This fucked up corn, however, is a delicacy in Mexican cuisine. The bluish fungus is cooked over low heat until it turns into a tender black paste almost free of starch. Huitlacoche tastes earthy and mushroomy. It is frequently likened to truffles, although I must say you would never confuse the two. It is delicious. If you can get past the fact that it’s a parasitic fungus, you will enjoy it.
PANI CA MEUSA
You have to go to Palermo for this one.
Pani ca meusa is a sandwich made with veal spleen that has been boiled, sliced into strips and fried in lard. It is very yummy (the meat is tender and deeply flavorful), but the knowledge that you consuming approximately a month’s worth of calories somewhat detracts from the experience.
Kvass is an ancient Russian drink, mentioned in medieval sources, along with medovukha (honey-wine) and sbiten’ (herbal and berry tea). Kvass made from mashed and fermented black sourdough rye, sometimes additionally flavored with honey and berries.
This is not to be confused with soft-drink kvass sold out of barrels on the street in the former Soviet Union, or in Russian grocery stores.
The latter is a fairly conventional caramel-and-citrus flavored soft drink, very similar to cola, but slightly less sweet, more acidic, and more “yeasty”. It is not, to my knowledge, actually made from fermented rye. (By the way, definitely try it; don’t be turned off by the “yeasty” part. Also, except for the pointed lack of zero-calorie or low-sugar versions, Russian soft drinks ROCK. So if you ever sin against health by treating yourself to a sugary soda, try a Russian one. Non-alcoholic kvass is the king of them all, a godsend in hot summer weather, but there is also Tarhun, which I loved as a child (green and tarragon-flavored), Duchesse (peach-flavored) and whatever that rosewater-flavored thing is.)
Real, traditional kvass is, different and, to my knowledge, not made for mass production. It is slightly alcoholic (about 5% by volume), brownish, cloudy and tastes strongly of yeast. I like it, but it’s not for everyone.
In a particularly bizarre twist, the traditional summer soup “okroshka” is made by pouring chilled kvass over a medley of chopped sausages, cucumbers, hardboiled eggs and radishes.
So imagine a soup that consists of cold beer with sausages and eggs swimming in it. Actually, a lot of people will probably think that’s awesome.
Yes! Pure unrendered pork fat!
Salo is extremely popular in Russia and Eastern Europe. It is made by heavily salting and curing slabs of raw fatback in temperatures that hover around freezing. Apart from the salt, the curing ingredients vary. There is the “Hungarian-style” salo, caked in hot paprika ground to such fine powder that it forms a paste around the slab. My favorite, though, involves studding the salted fatback with slivers of garlic and rolling it in coarsely ground black pepper.
In the old days, before refrigeration, pigs were typically slaughtered in late fall. Fatback would be salted and seasoned, wrapped in muslin cloth impregnated with wax and cured in a barn or a larder. Salo would be ready for consumption by early to mid-December, and provide valuable additional calories during the severe Russian winter. These days, salo is cured in a refrigerator, wrapped in wax paper. It is ridiculously easy to make; my parents often made their own salo from raw fatback when we lived in Russia.
Properly cured salo is gleaming-white, with a bit of pink in the middle. It can keep indefinitely in the freezer, because it doesn’t get frostbite. Good salo does not taste greasy. It has a firm, non-chewy texture and a flavor similar to but more delicate than that of bacon. There are many ways to eat it, but my favorite is an open sandwich made from black rye and curled, paper-thin shavings of frozen salo, with perhaps some additional fresh garlic. And for godssakes don’t put any dressings or condiments on it.
Cooking it is a long, complicated process, but beef tongue dishes are fantastic. The muscle fibers of beef tongue are tough, but at the same time, it is very well marbled, so it’s a cut that manages to strike the perfect balance between tender and chewy. It also absorbs flavors remarkably well. Pretty much every beef tongue dish I’ve had — smoked tongue with truffle oil, boiled tongue with sautéed cabbage, stewed tongue with plum sauce, Russian head cheese — has been amazing.
Delicious, but too much work.
Medovukha is a slightly alcoholic drink made from honey fermented with yeast. I was 10 when my father and I went to visit Sergeyev Posad — basically, the Russian Orthodox Vatican. On our way out of the citadel that afternoon, we came upon a couple of matushkas ( i.e. presbyterae), swaddled in black from head to toe, selling homemade medovukha from a makeshift stand. My father bought himself a mug, but when I asked for mine he said I couldn’t have any because it was alcohol.
“It’s only 5%. You can buy her one,” said one of the matushkas.
“Five percent, are you sure?” asked my dad, eyeing the amber-colored liquid in his mug with suspicion.
“Maybe six,” conceded the matushka.
“No more than seven,” said matushka #2.
“We give it to our kids all the time,” added matushka #1.
Now my dad had been backed into a corner for it is unthinkable to doubt the word of a matushka or to impugn her parenting, however obliquely. So he bought me a mugful.
The medovukha was very sweet and fizzy, and immediately made me want to sit down. I waddled over to our bus, climbed into my seat and immediately passed out. My father could barely get me to wake when the bus got back to Moscow.
From the bus station, he dragged me home like a semi-tranquilized mule, cursing about “hooch” the whole way. I slid into sweet, pleasant somnolence in the metro, on the train, on the local bus. Meanwhile, my father was working on a cover story.
“Don’t tell her I gave you anything to drink,” he said several times during our journey. “Tell her you’re just tired.”
“Okay,” I would say before dozing off.
“You didn’t drink anything.”
I climbed the stairs to our apartment on viscous legs, savoring the thought that I would be in bed in a few minutes.
“Don’t tell her I gave you anything to drink.”
“Just say you’re tired if she asks.”
When my mom opened the door, I immediately announced:
“Hi, mom. Dad didn’t give me anything to drink. I’m just tired.”
“What …?” she started.
“I didn’t drink any hooch,” I assured her before sinking onto a chair, where I immediately fell asleep.