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Walking the Line of Exotic Cuisine

For many, exotic cuisine isn’t just a passion; it’s a lifestyle.  Here are some dishes from around the world that excite some and send others running for McDonald’s.  Either way, it’s best to know what you’re eating.

10) Lutefisk.  How can you go wrong with a combination of an early renaissance instrument and former Sox great, Carlton Fisk?  Actually, Lutefisk is cod hung out to dry for several weeks until it grows quite pugent.  The Nordic dish is then brought in to soak for several days so that it gains the consistency of a fishy gelatin.

9) Escamoles.  Sounds like a mix between escarole and a blind, burrowing animal—exotic, right?  You have no idea.  Escamoles are actually Mexican ant larvae harvested from the roots of the agave (tequila) or maguey (mescal) plant.  It’s considered a delicacy, sometimes referred to as “insect caviar.” Experts at Cornell College have described the consistency as cottage cheese-like with a buttery, yet slightly nutty taste.

8) Pacha.  Pacha is the name of an international clubbing franchise that stems from Ibiza and owns over 25 venues worldwide; but the dish is actually an entire sheep’s head, boiled.  Aside from the initial “horse’s head in the bed” shock, as you eat, more and more bone is revealed until you’ve unmasked the entire skull.  This Iraqi dish can also include stomach, feet, and other parts in its broth.

7) Kæstur Hákarl. This Icelandic dish actually means “rotten” or “fermented shark.”  The shark, too poisonous to eat fresh, is beheaded and buried in the sand for 6-12 weeks, then hung to dry for several months.  This dish is certainly an acquired taste and it’s often taken with a shot of the local spirit, Brennivín, meaning, “burnwine,” to make it taste better.

6) Scrapple.  The good ‘ol U.S. of A. has something to contribute to the unusual food market.  Perhaps if your native language doesn’t happen to be English, you might not pick up on the root “scrap,” and instead associate this dish with a board game or an iced tea.  In a somewhat “Native American fashion,” this dish uses the less-traveled pig parts (lips, snout, organs) mashed together and fried.

5) Black Pudding.  This English dish, sometimes affectionately referred to as blood pudding, is sausage cooked in blood with a filler (low-grade fiber content) until it becomes thick enough to congeal when cooled.  WWBCS?  (What would Bill Cosby say?)

4) Durian/ Morn Tong.  Literally meaning “golden pillow,” this football-like food is covered in a tough spiky skin.  Inside, the pulp is pale yellow with a thick consistency and an unusual scent.  Known in Asia as “the king of fruit,” Durian is a bit stinky, but delicious.

3) Balut.  A Philippines dish in which duck eggs, incubated until the fetus grows feathery and beaky, are then boiled.  The process gives this snack a crunchy texture.  So popular and often sold by street vendors—it’s the equivalent of the Icelandic hotdog or Istanbul kebab.

2) Haplopelma albostriatim.  It’s a mouthful, literally.  But, it’s one of the most famous and adventurous dishes in the world.  This delicacy in Cambodia, particularly in Skuon, is most commonly known as the Thai Zebra tarantula.  Fried in garlic and butter, these crunchy critters may look intimidating, but travelers trek across the world for these tasty little guys.

1) Casu Marzu.  A Sardinian dish of sheep’s milk cheese deliberately infested with Piophila casei, the “cheese fly.”  The translucent larvae are capable of leaping 6 inches into the air, which means this exotic cheese is the only in the world requiring eye protection.  But without exploration comes nothing, right?

In the end, it probably pays to know the local language, so you can specify either, “that sounds delicious” or “I’ll stick with the pizza, thanks.”

Rosetta Stone French

Luc and The Riviera

Summer in Provence is a lavender dream.  Huge sunflower stalks rise along the winding roads that chase the sea and the air smells of fresh salt.  I was with my girlfriend, a bit older than I was, blonde and certainly not French.  Between us we spoke maybe twenty words that we’d picked up in previous Parisian travels. Our little green Volkswagen rental and its stern-voiced but unreliable navigation system had taken us from Marseilles to St. Remy, then Avignon, the “city of Popes,” St. Tropez, Cannes, and finally, we were on our way toward Nice to visit her best friend who’d married a Frenchman and was living in countryside for the summer.

It was warm when we met them, so we sat and chatted over some fresh Provencal Rosé and the girls caught up.  The husband, Luc, was a thick man, taller than I was and spoke with a heavy accent, though not distinctly French.  I asked him about cheese and cinema and he responded with short answers as to limit any mistakes.  We sat under a grove of trees in his parents’ chateau overlooking acres of farmland.  They also kept a rock garden and seemed quite proud of it.

“We like our cheese here,” he said and took a sip of wine.

Once we finished the bottle, we headed to a perfumery where some of the worlds most famous and sultry scents are spawned and bottled.  We learned how important and rare the “sniffers” are and how they taste and smell twice as much as we do.  I wondered what it would be like for him in New York on garbage day.

After a day of wine and sniffing, everyone was hungry.  We drove to a sleepy town built up along the rocks, overlooking the water, protection from pirates and pillagers centuries ago.  Luc picked the restaurant.  Ivy hung down from its brick façade and beyond the initial seating courtyard, candles lined the dusty windows of the old eatery.

“A little pricey,” he said, “but the carpaccio—”

As he and the girls discussed the carpaccio, I decided to talk to the maitre d’ about seats.  “There’s four of us,” I said holding up my fingers.  “For dinner, please.”

He looked at me and grimaced.  “I’m sorry.  We have nothing right now.”

I peeked behind him into the garden where a few couples were eating, but at least three tables remained open.  Inside, I saw a few more empty seats.  “What about those?”

He turned just enough to feign interest.  “Reserved, sir.  Another time perhaps.”

I walked back to the group and told them we’d have to find another place.  Luc seemed confused.  “Hold on,” he said.

We walked with him to the maitre d’ and he simply asked in French, “Rien?  You have nothing?”

The man’s eyes widened.  “Désolé!” he said.  “Yes, this way.  I didn’t realize.”

As everyone followed him to a table, I considered not entering the restaurant.  I considered pouting and refusing to follow this misguided maitre d’.  I was angry at him and I frustrated that I wasn’t able to speak the language.  I felt like a real tourist in that moment, as if I’d ridden up to him on a donkey with a Tommy Bahama shirt and a green visor.  Then, I thought about the carpaccio and how hungry I was and took my seat next to Luc.

Dinner was fantastic in that tiny chateau where centuries had passed unnoticed and in the end I was glad I’d had Luc there to help.  Before the waiter came, I had him teach me the correct way to pronounce what I wanted and how to ask for the bathroom, so the waiter actually listened when I ordered for my girlfriend and me.  I even picked the wine.

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