I love a lot of things aside from members of my family.
I love music, especially on the road. I love seeing art, especially made by up and coming starving artists. I love going to sporting events, especially when rivalry bragging rights are at stake. And I love food.
I've always loved food -- too bad my mom was such a bad cook! But since I started to travel, my appreciation for food has only been enhanced.
Like many travelers, I too watch Anthony Boudrain's No Reservations. (Although I have to admit that I have sadly not seen Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods.) Even my kids have started watching the food and chef shows.
Over the years of seeing and tasting the world, I have learned a thing or two about what to -- and what not -- to eat while traveling. Who needs a nasty case of Montezuma's Revenge, Sahara Stomach or Delhi Belly, right?
Far from being a picky eater, I will generally try anything once -- the good, the bad and the severely unrecognizable. I have eaten such culinary oddities as: blood soups, tongue, kidney, brain, eyes, testicle, penis; many reptiles, amphibians, rodents, worms, grubs and insects; and assorted bush and game meats and road kill specials of questionable species in some of the grandest Temples of Gastronomy and street stalls around the world. I have been in master chef kitchens that looked liked petting zoos. And yes, they will eat anything that is sautéed in China!
When traveling, for the most part, I try to employ a type of Don't ask, don't tell culinary policy. However, I readily admit to numerous memorable occasions when I knew better. When my eyes widening with a don't do it look! My mouth shut with a don't do it visceral reaction. Even my nose sniffed don't do it! And my brain screamed aloud just don't do it -- and that I actually did do it despite these blaring sensory alarm bells. Odds are, there was usually a 50/50 chance that I sincerely regretted the questionable gastronomical experience!
So, to aid my fellow travelers, here are 10 things I've learned about eating as I travel around the world. Call them culinary rules of thumb; better yet, employ them as deeply embedded survival instincts (I am still here after all!):
- Never order fish on a Monday -- it's leftover from Friday!
- Never eat at a restaurant with a dirty washroom -- you can judge a book by its cover!
- If you don't recognize what you're eating, wait until after you're finished to ask what it was!
- Always befriend a chef. He will offer advice and conjure up great dishes for you.
- If you can't see water -- or are land locked -- don't order the fish!
- Chicken feet are tasty morsels and become useful -- the toenails make great tooth picks!
- Eat where locals eat, not fellow tourists.
- Want to know what is on the menu that night? Visit a day produce market.
- Beware of specials -- they are trying to quickly get rid of out of date foods!
- Street food will not kill you -- just always eat at a busy place!
And from my global gross-me-out file, here are a handful of foods that if you ever come across are sure to be avoided. With my best advice being to simply say, "Oh, so sorry, but I have a severe allergy... Thank you very much!"
- cuy in Peru (roasted guinea pig that guarantees turista from all orifices)
- any oysters that aren't from the sea (aka 100% testicles... or maybe it is just a guy thing?)
- casu marzu on Sardinia (maggot cheese, nuff said)
- chicha in Ecuador (collectively chewed corn flour spit out and fermented)
- fermented red-ant salad in Cambodia (sour and spicy little suckers)
- vastedda in Sicily (mushy spleen burgers)
- whale sashimi in Iceland (salty, oily and too chewy)
- shark fin soup in China (it is just not that good)
- tripe soup in Turkey
- white bread vegemite sandwiches in Australia (we should all know better by now!)
- balut in the Philippines (mature intact chicken fetus)
- harkal in Iceland (fermented rotted shark meat)
- blood pudding in England (a fried scab of blood with filler)
- haggis in Scotland ( heart and liver cooked in sheep stomach entrails and whiskey)
- cruise ship buffets (Do I really need to explain it?)
- any airline food... ha!
I am sure there are scores of worse things to eat out there (What say you?), but remembering these dishes is always a tricky emotional challenge for me as I have repressed my memory of more than a few gruesome events.
Finally, I can tell you this; if you ever find yourself in Borneo, New Guinea, the Congo basin or the deepest darkest Amazon, and if some nice local offers you Long Pig -- I'd start running right now because cannibalism is on the menu tonight!
Follow William D. Chalmers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@wmchalmers