Having lived on three continents and visited the other two, during my travels I have come across some strange chow upon my plate. This is not going to have recipes but rather a recollection of some of what is now known as “extreme food” I’ve eaten, some knowingly and some not, like the time one of my uncles – a none too bright human specimen – as he came back from China, called for a family reunion around his pool garden and served us barbecued sausages. I can’t resist sausages particularly when barbecued over citrus wood. I must have eaten a dozen of the little buggers when the oaf casually announced to all and sundry that we ate dog sausages! I remember my stepfather, a surly but well meaning man, pushing my stupid uncle into the pool in anger. Not one to lose an opportunity to create a diversion I pretended to trip over the wheeled barbecue cart and down tumbled the whole damn thing, gas tank and all, duly following the daft uncle into the drink.
My earliest memory as one of the major blot on my festal landscape was a meal I had been privy to when I was around thirteen. At that age the only thing that matters to most boys is food, not the opposite sex or other contretemps as commonly thought. Good, plentiful, robust food that makes you giddy – the equivalent of liquor to a drunk – is the winning ticket that brings one closer to ventral rapture, our widely favored state of contentment. Only then a few sated lads might think of some erectile female tissue or suchlike but I bet the vast majority would tend to lust for another full belly, ad infinitum. That fateful day I had been invited to a Sunday lunch by one of my classmate, Max, a shy, skinny kid whose father’s idea of a Christmas present to his one and only beloved son and heir was a royal visit at the dentist (if I remember well the Easter treat was the doctor’s turn). “The feast” had started badly. A bowl of grayish olives had crawled its way onto the table accompanied by a few decrepit celery sticks and some sort of blackened country bread that would have killed a crow at ten paces with proper aim. What followed on offer was preceded by such a stench that it would have made a llama talk.
It was announced with great fanfare that my plate had been filled with a ragout of sheep’s testicles, an unsurpassed delicacy from certain hills of sunny Calabria. I remember looking for an oxygen mask. And then I fainted. Max’s father, I was told later, had blown a gasket at my lack of gratitude and, I presumed, at the absence of thunderous applause and floral tributes. I had promised myself that from then on I’d kick sheep in the nuts whenever I come in close contact with the dumb fucks, and I vowed to never, never visit Calabria even if those stupid hills were teeming with naked virgins yearning to be ravished. Ok, if you must know, I’m not that violent and I have never kicked a sheep in the nuts. Not yet.
Another uncle took me to Senegal when I was around thirteen during the summer break. He was setting some kind of business in Dakar and I was left alone during the day to wander about and explore. I took a bus to a small coastal village and headed for the beach. There, a large party of youths were bustling around a makeshift barbecue pit, laughing and dancing. A really thick, gigantic slice of meat was being burnt to a cinder. I asked the man who was prodding it with a stick what sort of meat it was, and flashing this incredible smile he said it was the famous elephant steak! I had no idea if he was pulling my leg or told the truth. Then he said he was going to give me some to try. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to but they all looked so happy I didn’t want to spoil their fun and behave like a chicken. I got a chunk with some bread and I can report that it tasted good, a cross between veal and snake, a little flaky, and a bit gamy. I was invited to come back the next day for a taste of snakes and a game of football. To my surprise I did go back and ate barbecued snake, what type, I can’t remember but it tasted like chicken. Years later I ate a snake casserole in Morocco, with great relish.
The strangest food I had was definitively in Australia, and to a lesser extent, in the Indonesian archipelago. I spent nearly twenty years in OZ and found myself in some of the remotest parts of that continent and tried the local produce as much as I could stomach it: the Kimberley Range (famous for its witchetty grubs which are the small, white larvae of the ghost moth, which is native to Australia. They are dug out of the trunks and roots of gum trees during the summertime, and although the very though of eating grubs may be frowned upon by us, witchetty grubs have been an essential part of the Aboriginal diet for centuries.) If you want to know, they taste like a cross between chicken and prawn, with a liquid center. Naturally, it’s preferable to eat them live but I ate mine on a stick, like satay, with loads of spicy peanut sauce.
In the Kakadu forest, I sampled crocodile ribs which is like eating a kangaroo crossed with tuna, an odd combination, but who’s complaining when that particular night I stayed there with two friends and a guide, there was nothing else on offer: we were camping near the South Alligator River, in the middle of nowhere and the nearest restaurant was probably one or two hundred miles away.
Anyone for camel burgers? They are served in Broome, a spectacular beach community on the north west coast, famous for its Japanese pearl divers, oysters and camel races on the extraordinary Cable Beach. They do barbecues there too and one of the local specialty is the camel burger. I had two. I can’t really tell you how it tasted because I was blotto with countless oyster cocktails (oysters, brandy, gin, chili sauce and God knows what else) and was in such a state that if I had been given a fried sandal, I would have gladly eaten it.
One of the best nights I’ve had in my life was some years later in Coolgardie. We were there for three months shooting a film and made lots of friends. Towards the end of the shoot, the local Aborigine elder had invited cast and crew to a special dinner. We were to sample the local delights. And we did: fried goannas, roasted bugs (possibly crickets), lizard shashliks (or brochettes/kebabs), a salad made with roots & berries, baked yams (I passed on the fried ants!) and the plat de resistance: turtle satay sticks served with a paste made out of some kind of leaves, it tasted rather good, and to this day, I still can’t understand how they managed to get a turtle 400 miles from the nearest sea.
For brevity sake I’ll round up some of the dishes I had in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand: goat’s head soup (not the Stones LP cover), a half head swimming in a biggish enamel basin, whose broth tasted delicious even though my fellow diner ate the eyes with relish; deep fried sheep lungs (a bit like fried cardboard) though if one uses the available condiments then anything tastes ok, sort of; stinky tofu (lived up to its name, also known by its Chinese name, Chou Dofu); sea cucumber, chewy and rather bland, like eating a bit of old plastic; dried jelly fish salad (ugh!) though the interspersed seaweed bits were tasty; deep-fried duck eggs that were over a hundred years old (and tasted like it); barbecued bat (not much different than pigeon, a little tougher) and perhaps the worst of all, boiled Cambodian duck embryo, something I will not repeat (I had to eat it, long story, but I managed to do it with my eyes closed), to this day I have no recollection of its taste, and it’s just as well. As Futurama notes in its first episode, you gotta do what you gotta do!