Why does it seem that unusual foods belong to someone else, to another country, nation, race or history? Though the stomach cannot distinguish between beef and hedgehog protein, the palate does. Sometimes, “strange” delicacies are part of the culinary repertoire of a society or region.
Hedgehogs delight the palates of “British gypsies” (or should I call them Roma) while the eyes of a roasted lamb’s head are considered to be delicacies offered to honoured guests in Saudi Arabia.
Lamb’s or calf’s brains are commonly sold by butchers, and sought after by many a housewife in practically all Middle eastern countries. Arabs and western Chinese have eaten extremely tough and sour-tasting camel humps, feat and meat for centuries. The hump is first marinated and then roasted. Feet are boiled with herbs and served with a vinaigrette dressing.
Cock’s combs (crette de coq) are often used by French and Italian chefs to garnish various poultry dishes. Gourmets claim cock’s combs to be very tasty albeit chewy.
In Central and South America iguana meat is sautéed, then casseroled, a dish considered to be a gastronomic delight.
Australian aboriginals consider sugar ants and chopped marinated kangaroo tail ragout to be delicious.
Koreans and Chinese breed dogs for food. Some beat dogs to death to obtain tender meat, others hang the animal to die in an agonizing way. Both methods are inhumane and North American animal rights associations are fighting to ban such practice.
Rooke pie, an old English pub specialty once famous is almost never served these days.
For centuries, both bear paw and steak have been highly prized in China, Russia and eastern European countries. Today it is almost impossible to buy bear meat commercially, but hunters still can find recipes in old eastern European cook books.
Shark fins and birds’ nests, especially those from southern Java, Indonesia, are considered to be delicacies by Chinese, especially Hong Kong, gourmets. Both are available dried in Hong Kong, Singapore and North America, and used for flavourful soups.
Fried grasshoppers are popular in Africa, and chocolate dipped ants in Japan.
Fried caterpillars and silkworms are crunchy and ethereal in texture. Both are available in North American gourmet shops. Elephant meat is tough, but its trunk and feet are not. In Asia and Africa, locusts are said to taste like shrimps and traditionally eaten with ”wild” honey.
In Indonesia, Malaysia and Hong Kong, occasionally specially bred small monkeys are eaten while the animal is still alive. This most inhumane and cruel habit seems to be disappearing, albeit slowly.
Live snake meat is readily available in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Sauteed snake meat and snake soup are said to ward off common colds, and generally healthy.
Tibetans stew yak meat, which tends to be tough, as animals are slaughtered when very old. European gourmets like sea turtle soup. In the Caribbean and South America, turtle meat is stewed. Alligator meat (fresh or frozen) can be found in Florida, and Louisiana and on restaurant menus. Alligator meat, especially those “farm” raised, tastes like very tough chicken.
Eskimos consider seal blubber and whale fat superbly tasty. Cod tongues and seal flipper pie are Newfoundland specialties, commonly consumed in restaurants.
Snails (escargots) were the favourite food of wealthy Romans. They liked them so much that specially designed farms were set up for breeding.
When Caesar invaded Gaul, his legionnaires munched on escargots, introducing this gastropod to the French, where it became a culinary sensation. Snails were nourishment for sailors labouring on boats traveling the Mediterranean Sea from one end to the other. Napoleon has been known to issue emergency rations of escargots to his troops.
Snail aficionados consider them to be the land-based cousins of clams and oysters. Snail, a remarkable gastropod, carries his home on its back – a whorled shell. Travelling endlessly, “racing” at a speed of 7cm. Per minute, escargots feed on vine leaves and young grass. Burgundy and Champagne vineyards snails are world famous for their superior taste and plump texture. They retreat for five months (November to April) to hibernate. Come spring, they awaken and embark upon a very active sex life.
They are two basic snail species – helix and achatine. The helix, the European specie, is distinguished by its spiral and circular shell. Burgundy, lucurum and petit gris belong to the helix family. Achatine snails originated in Asia and thrive in swamps sporting a large pedicule.
Helix snails, particularly petit gris are favourites of gourmets and enjoyed in November when they are plump. The best snails are said to be those 3 – 4 year old and subjected to a two-week fast to clear their digestive system prior to processing.
In North America, snails are available canned either from France or Taiwan. Shells are sold separately. Escargots are available in various sizes; very large, extra large and giant.
French packed snails may originate in France, but processors import considerable amounts of live snails from Turkey.
There are numerous snail recipes in French, Spanish and Italian cookbooks.
Horsemeat has a beef-like flavour, but finer texture. It is lean and requires stewing. Europeans (French, Italians, Swiss, Austrians, Germans and the Dutch) are fond of horsemeat. Canada exports horsemeat and live animals to France.
Donkey meat is used mostly for sausages.
Goat meat is popular wherever topography forces humans to husband this versatile and rugged animal. Its milk is delicious, if sparse, and yields flavourful cheeses. “wild” goat tends to be tough and requires stewing. Farm-raise goat is popular in North America wherever Caribbeans concentrate. In big cities, curried goat can be easily found in specialized restaurants. In rural areas few would consider eating goat.
In both Spain and Mexico, testicles of steers killed in bullfights are considered to be delicacies, and served grilled with butter and olive oil based sauces.
Lamb fries, kidneys, brains, liver are served on occasion in fine restaurants. Tripe and beef stomach are considered poor man’s protein and available in butcher shops catering to a low income population.
In Paris Corcelle, Fochon, Hediard, and Petrossian, in London Harrod’s and Fortnum and Mason are well-known for their selection of rare foodstuffs including all those mentioned above and more.
Many stores in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver carry some of the foods mentioned above. Stringent North American health regulations prohibit the importation of some items.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu
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