One of the interesting opportunities that travelling provides is the varying cuisines of the world to which you are exposed. Some are wonderful and lead you to wonder why they are not popular around the world, and with others, it is quite obvious as to why some food types are considered to be an acquired taste.
East Africa is a great place to try various types of meat, and there are all sorts of restaurants that provide a menu with the meat of varied animals. The most famous is probably the Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi, and one which I have visited many times. Various meats are carried around on Maasai spears, and the waiter will bring it over to the diners and offer some giraffe, crocodile, wildebeest, ostrich, zebra or various antelopes. You describe how well done you want your piece, and they find an appropriately well-cooked piece of the meat and cut you a few slices of it. I particularly liked some of the antelope, some of which were quite sweet as meat goes. However, I am not a huge fan of meat that has a strong game taste.
Another interesting area for culinary options is South West Nigeria, and frequent visits to Port Harcourt did present some remarkably interesting options. All across Nigeria, I have tried some lovely food, like jollof rice, iyan, puff puff or various pepper soups like Cow Leg Pepper Soup. However, the Igbo region does have, in my opinion, particularly interesting food. Snails, as food, in most people’s minds will conjure up the image of French escargot. Get that image out of your head. The snails in Nigeria are African Land Snails, and have shells about the size of a human fist, or sometimes larger. Imagine a snail so big that you can cut it in to steaks. Another local delicacy is the Grasscutter, or the Cane Rat. These are rodents about the size of a badger. I remember going to a shop that sold various meat products one day with a colleague, and looked at the various food options. I asked what sort of meat was in the meat pies. The shopkeeper answered “meat”. I had a meat pie. My colleague subsequently told me that the meat was most likely grasscutter. I have to say, it actually tasted fine. I never was sure that it was grasscutter, but I’m not sure that I want to know one way or another.
I did once see an in-flight meal on a domestic flight that had the breakfast option of a fish sandwich. The fish still had the head and tail attached, and was a whole fish between two pieces of bread. I was not hungry.
A couple of Ramadans ago, I spent some time living with a tribe of Bedouin in the Syrian desert. Even getting there was a fantastic experience, riding nearly two hours through a sandstorm on camels from the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra. In the evening, we would wait for Maghrib, or the sunset, and then have Iftar, or the evening meal to break the fast. One of the odd things in this – or at least odd for us – was someone going out of the tent to slaughter one of the chickens to turn into that evening’s dinner. We would start with some dates, then move on to a chicken a rice dish. It was inevitably delicious, but still felt odd eating something that I had seen run around only an hour or two before.
Chicken is one of those staple dishes that when you are in doubt of what to eat, it normally seems like a good option. My wife would normally fall back on chicken when we were in countries where she was less sure of some of the other meats. That was until she ordered chicken in a little shack restaurant in Indonesia, and the chicken was certainly more heavily skewed towards bone than meat. We saw some of the chickens running around the yard afterwards, and they were the skinniest, scrawniest chickens that could form food.
Of course, Asia has some interesting food delicacies. Walking around Beijing and looking at some of the fast food options, including scorpions, seahorses, and the likes definitely looked like a series of acquired tastes. Similarly, I remember being at a conference in Thailand where we convinced some of the other participants to try some of the various deep fried insects. I should add that this was after a beer or two that helped to encourage taking part in some of the local culinary options.
For those travelling through Cambodia, the town of Skuon is an interesting stop. Skuon is a small town in the Kampong Cham province of the country, and is a stop for cars and buses passing through. There is a small series of shops and cafés, a little like motorway services. However, not everyone choses to eat in the cafes, and some prefer the option of eating from the market outside, where the local delicacy called “aping”, or tarantula. The spiders are deep fried, and a popular choice. Alongside the baskets of spiders are baskets of other options like beetles and silkworms. I was told a story that during the days of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, meat of any variety was almost unheard of for most people, and the larger spiders seemed a good source of meat, and have become a delicacy ever since. Whatever the reason is that people eat them, it seemed odd to me that they would be so popular given how many other fantastic food options there were in Cambodia. They seemed even less attractive when a little girl showed me her pet tarantula at the market. Food never seems so attractive when you are looking at it’s living relatives.
The world is full of all sorts of diverse and wonderful cultures, and diverse and wonderful foods. I am certainly not averse to trying new cuisines, but I do have to admit that trying some of them does help me understand why it is beef and chicken that are common across the world, and not snail or spider.