You know you’re obsessed with food when your taste buds start making your travel plans for you. I once flew from New York to Hoi An to eat cau lau, a porky noodle dish that — due to local ingredients and the fact that one family has a monopoly on making the mysterious noodle in the dish — can only be made in this coastal central Vietnamese town. I chose to go to Tokyo solely so I could eat just-pulled-from-the-sea sushi at the Tsukiji Market. I went to Bologna to eat everything (as one does).
Unfortunately, food can’t always dictate where one roams on the planet. As a food and travel writer, every once in a while the “travel” side of my job description takes me to a land that taste forgot. Which is part of the beauty of travel: you know you’re far away from home when you’re eating a different part of the pig – or meat from a beast you never realized was part of a culture’s dinner. As a result, I’ve eaten some pretty unusual things. Here are a few examples.
Boar-ed in Belarus
When I told friends I was heading to Minsk, I’d often get a blank stare. One friend mistook the Belorussian capital for some kind of small beast, asking if I was going to eat it. But you don’t eat in Minsk as much as you consume things to sustain a night of vodka imbibing. I ate hearty meat-and-potato fare in restaurants that wasn’t offensive to my palate but it wasn’t particularly memorable, either.
And then, after randomly meeting a party of people at a bar, I ended up at someone’s apartment. We sat around the kitchen until the wee hours of the morning doing vodka shots. And that’s when someone broke out the salo. Imagine super fatty guanciale, striped in white fat and rosy-colored meat. Now imagine that pork jowl without any of the redness and you’ve got salo: a pig-head-sized white block of cured pork fat. It was passed around and strips were shaved off and deposited directly into the mouth. Salo, it turns out, is silky and smooth and by far the best thing I ate in Belarus.
Yo, llama! It’s No Joke in Bolivia
The co-founder of Noma, the august Copenhagen restaurant, opened up Gustu last year in La Paz, Bolivia — stating that Bolivian food was going to be the next big thing in the culinary world. Either he was exaggerating or I was eating at the wrong restaurants when I had to go to the beautiful Andean country a few years ago. My meals often consisted of a pile of boiled potatoes intermingled with onions, peppers, hot dog slices and a boiled egg (there was always a boiled egg).
But then I found llama meat. It arrived grilled and was soft, tender and slightly gamey. It became my
de facto meal every night and I loved it. I started looking for it on restaurant menus and sampled llama meat sautéed, as carpaccio and breaded alla Milanese style. I’m not yet convinced Bolivian cuisine is going to take the food world by storm, but seeing llama meat on menus in my home city of New York would be a welcome treat.
I Smell a (Vietnamese) Rat
Sometimes, though, you go to a country for the food and end up eating something unexpected. About five years ago, I accompanied Vietnamese-born erstwhile New York chef (he’s since moved back to his home country) Michael "Bao" Huynh to Ho Chi Minh City. The mission? To write an article about what it’s like to follow the erratic chef around as we ate our way through the buzzing Vietnamese metropolis.
He took me to the famous banh xeo place (Banh Xeo 46a) for seafood-filled crepes. We went to the restaurant featured in Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, where servers toss rice-patty–loaded clay pots across the room at each other, breaking the pot, and serving the rice to waiting diners (Com Nieu Sai Gon). And then, one night, he took me to Lang Nuong Nam Bo, a Mekong Delta-style barbecue spot. We ordered raw meat and cooked it at a tableside barbecue grill. We munched on grilled beef and chicken and chugged bia da (beer with ice).
And then came the rat. And by that I mean, the splayed, already-barbecued-to-hell rat that, under the orders of Mr. Huynh, the server put in front me. Did I have to eat it? Mr. Huynh explained that it was a Mekong Delta delicacy and that if I wanted to be a good visitor to Vietnam, I should eat it. I picked up a fork and knife and commenced cutting. I don’t remember much of the experience — I think I blocked it out – but I remember the meat being smokey and charred and not particularly good. I’ll stick to pho.
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