I was driving to work Friday morning with my dog, Beau, sitting at the back. Yes, I get to bring him to work on Fridays!
I really did not want to hear anymore the nauseating intimate details of Putin’s Hitler-esque justifications over Crimea. Nor did I want to listen to the frustratingly scant developments in the Malaysian airliner’s disappearance.
I clicked on to a talk/music station. The hosts were asking their listeners to call in what’s the “gnarliest most god-awful food anyone in their office has ever brought to work. I thought that was amusing.
One caller chimed in about an office mate who brought chitlin stew. Admittedly, I had to look that up. They’re hog intestines, also called chitterlings, cleaned thoroughly and cooked the Southern way. They have a prominent pungency to them.
Another caller swore by the stench of week-old squid tentacle stew a co-worker brought to their office. And instead of heating it for 3 minutes, the co-worker accidentally programmed it for 30 minutes, and took a call. It was ash by the time she rescued the dish. The offices from the other floors were ready to call the HazMat team to the building, where none of the windows opened.
I found the conversation quite amusing. I could not help but wonder how these people would react to many Asian delicacies such as fermented fish, shrimp or squid paste (bagoong in Filipino, belachan in Singapore but other Asian countries have their versions), sun-dried salted flat danggit, or the infamous Chinese stinky tofu. Or how about the classic dinuguan, a blood stew made with pork snout, ears, cheeks, jaw simmered in vinegar, garlic, and other spices? Eating things made with blood is not limited to Filipinos, however. Europeans have their French boudin noir, the English black pudding, or the Polish Czarnina, to name a few.
As for the fermented foods, well, apart from their prominent pungence, most are quite delectable and tasty actually! I know. Much of how food tastes is preempted by the olfactory senses. I suppose it is a remnant of our evolutionary development. If something smelled bad, a.k.a. it smells rotten or decaying, it must be bad for us. So it’s best to avoid it. But over the centuries, food was fermented for many reasons: to preserve it for long winters or droughts, for variety of application (e.g. yak meat, yak milk, yak cheese, yak sausage, etc. you get the picture), even for creativity’s sake. Much of the bio-cultures in fermented foods can be beneficial especially to a Western diet that is so sterile even the Western gut can’t digest foods properly anymore!
Here in the United States, people are becoming more and more exposed to foods from other parts of the world. I see this as just one consequence of increased opportunities to travel and explore, the globalization of markets, and the migration of people. It is now not unusual to see almost any cuisine represented in a big city like San Francisco and the Bay Area.
But, there are still those who limit themselves to the narrow confines of what their parents fed them. I suppose, back in the days, the less favored cuts from a recently slaughtered animal were either discarded or sold for a song. People who could not afford prime cuts made the most of the protein that the discarded cuts could provide. This gave rise to such creative concoctions that raised their palatability and in some, extended their uses. Dishes got handed down many generations and became part of family gatherings, further etching them into people’s’ DNA, elevating them to prized delicacies! (Did you know that chitlins have their own festivals in South Carolina and Georgia? It’s called Chitlin Strut!)
My daughter mentioned to me a few years ago that there has been a growing movement here that it is most respectful to an animal that is slaughtered for food to ensure that all its parts are used wisely and usefully. Then, it would be a worthwhile death.
I thought about this after she mentioned it. America is quite behind when it comes to respect for its animals. In Asia and in Europe, this has been the common practice for centuries. I remember the first time we offered bopis at dinner to friends from Bulgaria. He and his wife looked at each other and smiled at us. He told us that they too are a culture that utilizes all parts of an animal. Then, they gleefully helped themselves to the dish!
So, “weird” is relative. In my family, these are relegated to a small minority of foods.
P.S. I would recommend the following interesting reads if you’re so inclined to be an adventurous foodie:
- Anything That Moves by Dana Goodyear; Hilarious and quite the eye opener for the food prude (Is that a “frude?”)
- Gulp by Mary Roach; She starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. She might just convince you there’s more to fermented foods than meets the nose. It may just be good for you! You also get to find out how Elvis really died!