[words and video © Mark Eveleigh]
You are what you eat. Or so they say. With a diet that has, in the recent past, included frogs legs, chicken heart and sheep brain…well, I can only hope that they’re wrong. One of the attractions of a trip to unknown countries, and among mysterious cultures, is the added excitement of a simultaneous culinary odyssey. I’m a great believer in sampling local delicacies but it’s clear that even the most intrepid culinary adventurers should have their limits. In Mauritania I turned down dolphin and in Sumba I refused sea turtle. Kuna hunters I hired as guides in Darien Gap needed some restraining to stop them trying to bag a jaguar for meat and I once arrived in a jungle camp in deepest, darkest Borneo and was horrified to hear that the hunters had just eaten an orangutan. The following is a list of some of the strangest things I have eaten during almost two decades as a culinary adventurer.
I still regret my part in the death of one of these rare and fascinating creatures (often known as scaly anteaters). My guide had struck with his machete, however, even before I saw what he was aiming at, and we were 10 days travel by dugout canoe up a remote river in central Borneo and we were in dire need of meat. Before roasting it over the fire my Dayak guides emptied the stomach (full of ants) looking for “bezoar stones” that are valuable in Chinese medicine. The meat was rich and gamey, like dark beef…and the protein was greatly appreciated.
2/ Cobra au vin
I’d bought a bottle of Vietnamese white wine in Saigon. It was fortified by a “pickled” cobra and a scorpion. Bizarrely they’d been bottled somehow with the scorpion’s tail in the cobra’s mouth. The wine was barely drinkable but just potent enough to convince me that the cobra would be tasty barbecued. I’d eaten a road-killed cobra during a trip to Botswana once and it was good. This time however the musty taste of the wine had done nothing whatsoever to improve the taste of the snake. It was entirely inedible.
Best described as a giant jungle rat, pacas (as they’re most commonly known) are one of the biggest members of the rodent family. They’re eaten pretty much right through Central America: we ate one for Christmas dinner during an expedition in southern Panama and I’ve had their tasty, chicken-like meat many times in Guatemala. In indigenous villages that are removed from the tourist trail you often find tepescuintle being cooked. In tourist towns, however, the menu would only offer chicken and restaurants would cleverly disguise the rat feet and buck teeth from their western clients.
4/ Sheep brain
It took me three visits to Marrakech before I finally psyched myself up to have Berber-style sheep brain. I’d eaten fried brain before but here it was simply scooped out of the skull and dropped in boiling water for a few minutes. A touch of salt was all that was added when the still-intact brain (now with a consistence like porridge) was scooped into a bowl. The old man who served me was delighted to see a foreigner sampling his fare: a few had tried he said, but none had ever finished an entire brain. He made such a scene that a crowd gathered and I couldn’t retreat with digity. It took me 20 minutes to clear the plate.
5/ Fried scorpion
Bangkok’s Khao San Road might be home to the best banana pancakes in the world, but you can also snack on greasy giant locusts, waterbugs (with a bitter taste that stays in your mouth for hours) and crunchy fried scorpions. I’d eaten bugs of different types before: from mopane worms in Botswana to giant fried ants in Colombia to raw termite heads in Brazil. Thai fried scorpions were an irresistible challenge though. In taste and texture they were like beef flavoured peanuts but they were pleasant enough washed down with plenty of Chang beer.
6/ Barbecued mouse-deer foetus
We were in a village deep in the interior of Borneo and were about to head off into completely uncharted rainforest. A feast had been arranged and we’d drunk several jugs of ceremonial tuak (palm spirit). Some meat had been sizzling quietly on a lackadaisical fire in the back of the hut and when it was brought into the centre of our – by now fairly tipsy – circle, I realized with a shock that it looked surprisingly like a skinned Chihuahua. Our guides explained that it was a local speciality and that we had to eat it to bring luck on the journey. A female mouse-deer had been shot and this almost fully-formed foetus in its belly was considered a propitious sign. I ate very little but the sticky, jellylike “meat” is something I can still recall vividly 16 years later.
But the prize for the worst thing I have ever eaten still – after 30 years – goes to the Brussels sprouts that I had to swallow through every Sunday roast of my childhood. I have since read one worthwhile recipe for sprouts: 1) boil in water for eight hours with a brick 2) Strain. 3) Eat the brick.