I have a confession to make: I love haggis. Its contents are not a school yard myth – it is made of precisely what you think it is – but it’s tasty, closest in flavour (of anything I’ve tasted) to a meat pie, and that can’t be bad. I always found that leftover haggis went deliciously well on sandwiches – probably not really the done thing, but surely wasting haggis makes mockery of its raison d’ětre, ie. to avoid wasting any part of the animal. The takeaway shops of Edinburgh also sell it battered and deep fried, like a saveloy or a spring roll. Yummers. It’s no Vegemite, to be sure, but it’s about as Scottish as a kilt or bagpipes, and way better than its ingredients might suggest.
I wouldn’t say I’m any kind of gourmand. Whilst some people are game to try any local delicacy, I am more choosy, and I draw the line at the likes of chicken’s feet and (shudder) dog meat. And I’m flexible: in between scrumptious helpings of Sarajevo’s heavenly čevapi and burek, a visit to McDonald’s for some fries never struck me as taboo. And while the likes of haggis, or moussaka in Athens, or paella in Spain are world-renowned, other delicacies are less so. Amsterdam thrives not only on cheese and Heineken but fries lathered with mayonnaise. New Orleans offers exquisite Cajun offerings like gumbo and jambalaya, whilst also making fried chicken and a variety of crusty sandwiches (Po’ boys) with a taste all of their own. On the streets of China, the rancid aroma of stinky tofu (a direct translation from Mandarin) assaults the senses from blocks away; it reeks of old socks and fermented cheese, yet tastes way more delicious than it has any right to.
You can, of course, scarcely go wrong in China. Options are vast; the Western term ‘Chinese food’ is far too broad, given the immense variety in-country. There’s a big emphasis on hotpot; you get beautiful central Asian-inspired cuisine (bread, soup, lamb/beef) in Xinjiang in the far north-west; and rice, while abundant, is invariably steamed, not fried. Eating in China is always a shared experience where a variety of plates are ordered for the delectation of all present. For better or for worse – I’m still not sure which – it’s also a place where virtually everything is on the menu. Wandering one of Beijing’s brilliant (if highly touristy) night markets, stallholders animatedly offer not just dumplings and pork ribs, but scorpion, silkworm, and crickets, all fried to perfection – whatever that is. Also on their menu is penis, of unspecified origin, and an ideal example of a question perhaps best not asked. The streets of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh are likewise replete with sellers of masses of insects… all are offered to tourists with a smile, with justifiably little expectation that you will be interested. I’ve heard scorpion tastes like prawns, and I’ll take the collective word for it.
Akin to some foreigners being surprised that kangaroo (not to my taste, but among the healthier meats) is on Australian menus, I felt the need to try neither smoked puffin nor whale pepper steak in Iceland. Boiled cabbage and bacon in Ireland was just wrong; herring, flavoured variously, in Sweden was a tasty revelation. In Portugal’s Porto, the francesinha is ubiquitous and inviting. This local heart-attack-waiting-to-happen fries a ham sandwich with cheese and a beer-based sauce, and serves it with fries and an egg. Not an everyday kind of thing, it was nevertheless well worth it. Perhaps less well-advised in Porto was tripas – baked in a pie with beans and potatoes, but still tripe. Yak in Tibet takes many forms (dumplings, steaks, soups), all excellent. Virtually everything in Istanbul is fabulous, and it would be scandalous not to try both the tea, in many flavours, and the coffee. Ordering one of each amuses the locals, and that’s pretty much fine by me.
There is always a new perspective to be had. Whilst I have yet to find a palatable mushroom of any shape, size, texture or flavour; I can say:
• Guinness, foul in most parts of the world, is mother’s milk in Ireland and Scotland
• Turkish delight has never tickled me, except in Istanbul and Sarajevo, where it’s magic
• The best onion soup of my humble existence was to be found in the unlikely location of Cuzco, Peru
Indeed, the newest, bravest perspective of all was to be found in Peru’s neighbour, Ecuador, where cuy – we call it guinea pig – is on the menu. It’s not quite the guinea pig some of us had as pets when we were young; it’s significantly bigger, comfortably meatier, and on a rotisserie rather than in a cage. Most noticeably, the animal is cooked and served in full, head still attached, ferret-like teeth protruding in apparent admonition of the eater for his or her very daring. This cuy was served with potatoes and salad, which is at the same time good (to dilute the taste) and indifferent (once cuy taste is on the tongue, it dominates other flavours). The meat, taken mainly from the thighs and hip area, is perhaps an acquired taste. I was, in fact, warned off cuy by the landlady of my guesthouse, but I put it into the you-only-live-once category; now I can cross ‘eat rodent’ off my bucket list, and move forward with my life.
Poor, cute, fluffy, harmless guinea pig? Perhaps. Not all animals see it that way, though. These happy chappies in a market in Siem Reap, Cambodia seem blissfully disembodied:
So eat, drink, and be merry. If all else fails, there’s always Vegemite.