Culinary explorations are intriguing and constitute an integral part of every trip. Occasionally, though, one encounters something that, depending on one’s cultural background, seems more exotic, weird, maybe even odious. It is the moment curiosity gets more excited than the taste buds, a photo is shot, and a remark is indelibly registered in the travelogue.
I have had my share of such outlandish discoveries. Some, I tasted on a dare or because of their medicinal qualities; others, I just observed but refused to proceed further. In all cases, these were sensational experiences, peregrine, pungent, and colourful.
- Scorpion souvlakis in Beijing, China
We were strolling in Beijing, not far from the Forbidden City, when we got entangled into the buzzing alleys of a street market. Stalls and more permanent shops were lined on either side of the narrow roads, filled with Chinese clothes and accessories; amongst them, there were numerous stands selling snacks and gaudy candy. The scorpion souvlakis were quite prominent, but, despite the fascinating sight, my curiosity did not prove to be stronger than my reasoning – or, maybe, it was just cowardice. I am not sure if they are supposed to be eaten barbecued or sundried or in any other way, and it is not clear to me whether the seahorses surrounding the souvlaki bouquets were merely decorative or just another seafood delight. I still believe I was wise to be cautious.
- Fried worms and worm pancakes in Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi kept a lot of surprises hidden in the streets of its open-air vegetable, fish, and meat market, where stalls are just baskets or plastic bowls placed on the pavement, vendors squat next to their merchandise or sit in the typical low Vietnamese stools, and some commodities might disappear quickly at the rumor of an approaching police officer. We were introduced to the delicacy of worms, kept alive next to the stall in shabby containers filled with water, and then cooked in various ways. I am still impressed with my courage to try them both fried and in pancakes (worms mixed with eggs and dill, cooked on the spot), not so much because of the ingredients – which are admittedly weird to me but, I understand, are full of protein – but because of taking this step in an Asian open-air market with indisputable hygiene challenges, risking a stomach reaction that would ruin the hike of the following days. Thankfully, nothing happened, and, queer feelings aside, the snacks were not so bad after all.
- Cordyceps, Bhutan
Cordyceps is a fungus found in the high altitudes of Asia, mostly in Nepal, Bhutan, and China. While hiking in Bhutan, we were introduced to its medicinal qualities and were told that the Bhutanese produce is the best compared to that of the other countries (which, of course, might be just a statement filled with nationalistic pride). Cordyceps has been known for centuries, and there are 15thc texts where it is recorded as an aphrodisiac. Today, this quality has not been scientifically confirmed; however, it is highly valued (literally and figuratively) for its ability to rejuvenate the body and help it fight against deadly diseases like cancer. Since the 80s, its price per kilo has risen dramatically, amounting today to several thousand US dollars (depending on the quantity collected in the highlands each year and the respective quality). A couple of small bags containing a few grams of cordyceps (pills and the dried fungus) found their way into our luggage as we were leaving Bhutan. We were advised to mix them gradually in a bottle of red wine and have a bit every evening – this is the Bhutanese way, it seems. We finally swallowed them down with plain water and left the analysis of the benefits of red wine consumption for another experimentation period.
- Coca leaves tea, Peru
All visitors landing in Cusco or any other high-altitude town in the Andes region, are welcomed in the lounge of every hotel with a cup of warm, coca leaves tea. A pot with constantly replenished hot water and a basket full of dried leaves are placed on a small table at a corner, and tourists or locals can help themselves to a cup or two. It is a mildly bitter green tea – of a rather indifferent taste for me – which contains enough alkaloids to act as a stimulant, assisting mainly in dealing with high altitude dizziness. Coca tea accompanied us during our trip in Peru – on our hike along the Inca trail, in the mountain villages, and at Lake Titicaca – while we also tasted various other coca-flavoured products, like chocolates and caramels. Although the coca leaves in their raw form are harmless and their effect resembles the stimulation one gets out of coffee or any other tea, it is also true that cocaine can be extracted from them. The fact that the consumption of just one cup of tea can generate positive results at a drug test for cocaine, and that we were advised not to consume more than three cups per day are indicative of the plant’s qualities. The Andes people (not only in Peru but Argentina, Bolivia, and Colombia as well) have been chewing coca leaves or drinking them as an infusion for centuries without any adverse effects. On the contrary, the herb is considered sacred and medicinal. However, the plant and all its related products have been banned from the Western world, unless they are decocainized (like the ingredient used in the Coca-Cola production). So, unfortunately, no tea leaves reached home to be shared with friends during the cold winter nights.
- Sherpa Butter tea, Nepal
I am an ardent tea lover – quite bizarre for a Greek since my fellow countrymen are typically coffee fans – and I am keen to try various kinds and varieties of tea everywhere I travel. So, while hiking in Nepal, I was unavoidably offered a Sherpa tea – a drink that is wide-spread in the broader Himalayan region, including Bhutan, China, and Tibet. For its preparation, the locals boil tea leaves of a particular kind in a pot till the water turns dark; then they strain the liquid and pour it into a special butter chunk where they add a generous quantity of yak butter, salt, and, occasionally milk. They stir the mixture well until the butter and the salt are well blended, and then they keep it in thermos or kettles, serving it on mountain lodges or along the trails. It is obviously a nutritious refreshment, helping the highlanders face the cold weather and the challenges of the mountains. As for myself, despite my tea passion, I never liked it. The butter and, especially, the salt were too uncomfortable for my taste, and they did not provide the beautiful feeling of relaxation a warm cup of tea usually offers.
- Babbouche, Casablanca, Morocco
Babbouche is a snail dish served widely in street-stalls in Morocco. Although snails are consumed in all Mediterranean countries, including Greece, they are usually treated as a special culinary delight and are rarely served in piles as a street food. In Morocco, though, medium-sized white snails are cooked slowly over low heat in a broth that contains 15 different spices and are served in small itinerant stalls: a portion in a bowl with plenty of broth and a toothpick to remove the flesh. Several people snack around the stall, chatting casually, leaving the empty shells in a pile next to the big pot that remains lid-covered till the next portion needs to be served. We stopped at one of these stalls in the old medina of Casablanca and some of our group snacked next to the locals. I confess I backed out of this one since I am not a snails’ lover; on second thought, though, I should have tried: it would have completed the Moroccan experience. I guess this is something to keep on the agenda of my next trip there.
- Baby sharks, Dubai, UAE
Shark fins are a known delicacy in Asia, and a massive ecological destruction has occurred just for a bowl of soup. However, I was not aware that baby sharks are also eaten, until I strolled in the Fish and Vegetable Market, in old Dubai, and saw heaps of them, the curve of the constantly sad mouth and their white bellies facing upwards. I was told that the Khaleeji people (the inhabitants of the Gulf) have developed a fondness for the fish which is tender when young, and they cook it in special occasions, like the Eid holidays. I never saw shark fish being served anywhere, though, and have never tasted it in all the years I lived in the Middle East. I would be ecologically against it, anyway. But, had I not seen the piles of baby sharks in the fish market, I would never have known.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou (except for the photos of cordyceps, Sherpa butter tea, and coca leaves; the credits for these photos are unknown)