The World On A Plate

   

Florence, Italy, Ribollita

December27

Ribollita is one of those hearty rib-sticking type of soup/stews which you eat on cold days with big hunks of chewy bread. It’s a Tuscan specialty, it being chilly in those parts during the winter months, and like a good Bolognese everyone has their own special recipe.

This means that ribollita’s can look surprisingly different depending on where you eat them. The classic ingredients are bread, beans, potato and plenty of olive oil, so depending on the ratio you can have it made with whole beans, or a blended soup – but it’s always chunky and filling. Don’t make the mistake of ordering it as a starter unless you’re in for the long haul – this is a super filling soup. But delicious, and one of those brilliant Italian conduits for flavoursome olive oil and fresh bread.

I tried ribollita in loads of places, but you’ll want to eat in a trattoria for authenticity. I can recommend Trattoria Marios (see previous post for details) and Trattoria Coco Lezzone.

Trattoria Coco Lezzone, Via Parioncino 26r Santa Maria Novella

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Florence, Italy, Roast Pigeon

December12

Tasty meat, bit greasy though

Bit on the greasy side and disturbingly full of gunshot, but really tasty rich meat. I wouldn’t want to eat it every day, but all in all a good choice. And less fiddly to eat than that sparrow we tried in Cambodia.

I ate this in one of those restaurants which manages to straddle the divide between hidden gem and major tourist spot. Marios is a tiny little restaurant opposite the Mercato Centrale which is very well known but simultaneously manages to avoid the usual tourist perils of overcharging and international décor with picture menus. I think the technical term for this is ‘institution’, and it’s hidden away enough that you can feel passably smug for having sought it out.

Menu is posted on the wall daily

It’s a traditional trattoria, so the daily menu is written up on the wall with the idea that you order the first plate if you’re after a light lunch, the first and second if you’re looking for something more substantial, and the full three courses if you’re making an afternoon of it.

My advice – unless you’re really hungry just go one course, but make it really clear you’re skipping the ‘first plate’ which is a substantial stew/soup with equivocal hunk of bread.

Marios, via Rosina 2/R (nr Piazza Mercato Centrale)

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Florence, Italy, Cow Stomach Sandwich

November28

I know what you’re thinking – all that beautiful Italian food, how did she manage to unearth something which sounds so unappetising? I was pretty pleased with myself I must say, since I would otherwise have been relugated to posting pretty pictures of gelato etc. which would have been boring to say the least.

Picture from www.breadetbutter.wordpress.com who have done much better justice to this tasty sandwich than I did.

In any case, I’ve never liked tripe, having had it in various forms – soups, stews, poached in milk – but I had every faith in Florenzians to come up with a decent version. Nor was I disappointed. Tripe sandwich is the only acceptable way of eating tripe I’ve come across, and it is generally a pretty tasty eat. This has much to do with the fresh bread roll and delicious tart parsley sauce with grassy shot of olive oil (no matter how many bottles I bring home they never taste the same as in situ…). They’d also done something to the tripe to remove it’s usual blandness and make it taste more like beef. Which is a good sandwich filling.

Little vans selling tripe sandwiches are scattered around the city, though the best are found in the Mercato Lorenzo.

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Eating Duck Embryo in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

November3

Duck Embryo Cambodian Style

Psychologically this was probably one of the most challenging things to tackle, not least because it was around Easter time that I was faced with eating The Egg. In Cambodia duck embryo (or fetus) is a popular snack found at lots of street vendors. At least that’s the general word. When you’re actually trying to find one it’s a different story, and I cycled through several non-fetal eggs before asking the people at my hotel if they could give me firm directions. In true Cambodian style they not only found me an egg they had it collected, cooked and served up on a little plate in an egg cup, which made the whole experience a great deal more appetising.

Cutting into the egg itself reveals a disconcertingly brown streaked innard, and when you open the shell proper you get a glimpse of the little birdy’s forming neck and beck, picked out in dark grey-blue against the wider backdrop. This is a little upsetting.

The good news, however, is that the smell is quite appealing – like meaty egg yolk, and the taste is very much like it smells. Especially the brown exterior part. Digging into the neck/head/beak area was a slightly slimier texture, coupled with a crunch which could have been either bone or errant egg shell. If I was starving there would be plenty worse things than this to eat, and the flavour really was quite nice, but it is hard to get over the whole baby bird issue.

Duck embryos are found all over Phnom Penh, but you’re best off having a local direct you (draw a picture if necessary) to avoid the various other forms of egg. Special thanks to the Blue Lime Hotel in Phnom Penh for finding the egg for me.

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Satay Chicken, Food Street, Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

October21

I know in many ways this can be considered a boring entry. But these little skewers were so delicious and the context so cool that I just had to put them in.

Jalan Alor is the main ‘streetfood street’ in Kuala Lumpur. And yes it’s fairly well known, yes many people who eat here are tourists. But there are a lot of local families too, the food is great and the hussle manageable. Plus the stalls serve great authentic dishes for around $3 which is not a bad price at all for the capital.

My favourite little dish, however, the nation’s signature, chicken satay. On food street they have a number of turning spits run by fan beaters who have a pretty horrible job, fanning meat by a hot fire. The result of their efforts, however, are delectably spit-roast little morsels of chicken served up in a fresh peanut sauce with a squeeze of lime. For about $2 a plate of satay, served with a cold beer, there are few better meals in Malaysia.

Not-so-happy fan beater (she smiled when I wasn't trying to take her pic...)

Jalan Alor aka ‘Streetfood Street’ Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Satay skewers around $2 a big plateful

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Fried “Mouse”/Rat, Battambang, Cambodia

September30

I’ve eaten a lot of bugs now, and in Cambodia in particular got quite used to seeing plates piled high with them. So it was a novel sight to come across big plates of fried mouse in Battambang, Cambodia. I say ‘mouse’ but in fact I suspect it was rat.

I asked the nice lady behind the big plate of fried rodents what she was selling, and she wrinkled her nose as if in disgust at her own produce and said ‘that mouse’. I think she had been previously been visited by reams of vegan Lonely Planet toting backpackers and was pre-empting my disgust and toning down ‘rat’ to a rodent with a better reputation. I am myself, it should be added, whilst not vegan, highly guilty of travelling only with a well thumbed Lonely Planet wedged under my arm, and the kind of baggy trousers which my friends refer to as ‘asylum pants’.

The second reason I think it was rat was that Lonely Planet said it was, and The Bible tends to be right on these things.

Mouse or rat?

So I bought a single specimim of the confused lady, for the bargain price of 20p (14 cents) and headed off to find a spot where I could decently photograph it before eating. This done I had a few little nibbles. Tasted like beef jerky. Quite nice, though I admit I didn’t finish it.

Stalls opposite the main post office in Battambang, Cambodia, sell ‘mouse’ (rat) for 14c each.

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Lotus stem stir fry, Siam Reap to Battambang, Cambodia

September9

Water lotus stem - looks like chicken. Isn't.

Enjoyed this as a culmination of an amazing trip from Siam Reap (or thereabouts) to Battambang via waterways populated by boat people. This is an incredible place to visit – like another world really, with kids who swim more than they walk, and take boats rather than cars (OK, its Cambodia, mopeds).

The whole river is built up with huts on stilts, but they’re right out into the water (river a mile wide in places) rather than on the coast-line. The result is loads of boat people, but also brilliantly entrepreneurial shop-boats – like house boats stuffed with everything from noodles to washing up powder – which motor about selling things to the general populace.

I was crammed in with a mixture of backpackers and locals, plus one idiot with a giant camera who had a go at me for spending a ten minute portion of the four hour journey reading a book (Fear and Loathing in Las Vega – brilliant. It later came in handy as a backrest against the chicken wire during the hideous two hour truck ride over mud ruts in which we all had to get out at one point and right our toppled vehicle).

Conversation went something like this:

Camera idiot: I’d have thought you would want to spend every second looking at the scenery.

Me: Yes but I have more time to appreciate than you because I’m not judging how much other people are enjoying it.

Camera idiot: Maybe you just don’t understand what you’re seeing.

Also, don’t get me started on people who spend their whole time in beautiful settings snap snap snap. It feels to me like an acquisitive thing. I can’t just enjoy it now. I have to isolate it from its context and run back to my western nest with it to make it mine mine mine! But then, as you can see I’m no photographer, so I’m probably missing something.

Floating shop - you can't see the water underneath, but it's there...

But I digress. We moored up at a slightly larger floating shack which turned out to be the river’s answer to a street food stall. The best thing was that rather than cook up chicken, the stir fry dish of choice was made with lotus stems, presumably pulled from the nearby waterways. Lotus actually have quite a meaty/mushroomy flavour, as well as having a kind of salty crunch all of their own. They were so tasty I tried to find them in other places, but alas I found no landlubbers to serve them.

Boat connection between Siam Reap and Battambang (boat only runs in high tide season). Lotus stem stir fry approx $1.50

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Biting the Heart from a Live Snake, Hanoi, Vietnam

August18

Holding the snake ready

I was aware that the eating of snake’s heart was a Vietnamese tradition. So I duly went along to the nearest ‘snake village’ to Hanoi, where the creatures are farmed for meat. It was only on arrival that we (there was a group of us) were told that we would actually be biting the still beating heart out of the live snake. This was horribly unexpected. Some of the group could also volunteer to slice the snake open first.

To be fair the snakes had been frozen first (I think – they didn’t move around much, all things considered). But the whole experience was really quite upsetting. Seeing those little beady eyes and flickering tongue up close.

Snake bones

They were only little snakes, so when my time came to bite out the beating heart I was quite relieved to see a heart about the size of a peanut. My concern at this stage was to get things over with as soon as possible for the poor snake, so I declined the option to rest my tongue against the live heart to feel it’s pulse.

Snake skin plus snake fat (yellow stuff to the left)

The heart itself was salty, bloody in taste and cold. You don’t expect this as a warm-blooded species.

After The Eating Of The Heart we were then given a five course parade of various snake bits cooked in different ways. There was snake skin, stir-fried, crunchy and… well, it was OK. Snake bones – more of the same and actually pretty nice. Snake fat, mixed into a rice dish, which probably would have been delicious if you hadn’t of known what it was, and then finally snake fillet meat. Disturbingly grey, but nice – like a meaty kind of fish.

Snake blood and bile in rice wine

Oh, and snake bile. I’d forgotten about the bile. Also blood. Washed down with rice wine. It didn’t taste any worse than the rice wine, which I suppose is something. Luckily there were beers on hand to negate the taste of both.

Snake Village outside Hanoi, tours can be arranged from Hanoi Backpackers

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Girl Eats Dog – Hanoi

April21

 

Boiled Dog with Dog Liver

I didn’t think it would be possible to beat the psychological horror of eating duck embryo in Cambodia, but in Vietnam I found a viable contender. So far, out of anything I have eaten, this is the single most disgusting thing.

Arriving to the corrugated iron shack just north of Hanoi was atmospheric for all the wrong reasons, and why we were mercifully spared the barking of dogs in the background there was a distinctive smell as we crossed the threshold. As my friend Al was to later observe, it was the only meat which smelled and tasted like the shit of the actual animal.

I should add at this juncture that I do have some very small justification for the crime of eating man’s best friend. I like dogs a lot. But my friend Laura was badly mauled in Cambodia by a rabid dog, and for her, this was a vengeance trip. As a good friend I was duty bound to keep her company.

We ordered dog in every variety, which was boiled, roasted and stewed, and when the first plate of sliced boiled dog came, it included dog liver.

 

Dog Restaurant

At this stage, the meat didn’t seem too bad. At a real push you could have mistaken the cold meat for beef, and the liver was not too bad at all. Unless, that is, you dwelled too long on where it had come from. Then came the roasted. Again, passable for roasted lamb. Tough, tough roasted lamb. With disconcerting chunks of hair. There was another deeper, darker taste lurking the background. But if you’d been served it in a kebab whilst drunk there is a slim chance you wouldn’t have known the difference. We were then served a highly unwelcome extra – dog sausage. Like black pudding. Only not.

 

Roast Dog

Finally came the dog stew. I was first to put a chunk in my mouth, and was unable to answer me fellow diners queries as to how it tasted as I was too busy trying not to openly retch. It took a full ten seconds to persuade my heaving stomach to relinquish the powerful urge to vomit and allow the blubbery foul tasting meat down. I gagged. My eyes watered. I drank a half bottle of beer but nothing would take the taste away.

 

Dog Stew

Lulled into a false sense of security by my silence the people with me also attempted the stew. Similar eye watering retching followed. It was absolutely the most abhorrent thing I have ever eaten by a log long margin. I’m not exaggerating when I say the entire experience honestly had me considering going vegetarian. It was such a foul thing to eat that it made me wonder very seriously if all meat wasn’t this psychologically upsetting, but society has somehow hypnotized us to enjoy it. After all, there were local people in the restaurant for whom the experience was clearly not new.

It took around four days afterwards not to retch at the smell of barbecue smoke, and the real problem came to getting rid of the stuff when we’d finished. We had it boxed up so as not to waste it, and very nearly left the boxes on the table because no-one wanted to touch it.

 

Dog Sausage

I was all for leaving it in the cab for the driver, but as friend Rob pointed out ‘it might spill dog stew all over the car.” Then he said, “that’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.”

We left the boxes on the back streets of Hanoi, and this at least gave rise to the observation there are precious few beggars (none we saw) in the communist capital. So the one slim silver lining on the whole dreadful experience was I have an interesting counter argument to people who say communism doesn’t work in practice…

There is an entire street dedicated to dog eating heading on the north road of De Song Hong out of Hanoi. Best way to find it is write down Vietnamese for dog ‘thit cho’ and point at it for a cab driver. Thit Cho Nhat Tan is one of the restaurant names. 

posted under Vietnam | 129 Comments »

Eating Sea Cucumber Guts in The Cook Islands

March20

Sadly I tried and failed at this one. In the Cook Islands you can eat sea cucumber, which are those weird black things which loll around on the sea floor. You simply pick them up from the bottom of the ocean, slice them open and pull out their soft yellow spaghetti like guts and munch away. Easy. Unfortunately, no-one told me quite how far out you needed to go to get hold of the ‘right’ sea cucumbers.

Sea Cucumber in the Cook Islands

On this particular mission me and fellow food explorer Katy Warburton set out to grab hold of one of what seemed to be many black soft sea cucumbers which lay all over the place. They’re strange things because the minute you pick them up they go kind of limp and mould themselves to the shape of your fingers. Then they squirt a jet of water at you with alarming accuracy. Having negotiated these perils we took our sea cucumber to a local lady who duly sliced it open with a big carving knife. There was blood and icky orange messy guts.

“This is not the right on” she tells us, wrinkling her nose in disgust. “It is too small.” And so we take back our butchered friend to drop back in the sea and trek out further to find bigger prey. It should be noted here that sea cucumbers honestly do recover from this treatment – really they do. You can slice them and gut them and drop them back and they heal up all ready to grow some new tasty guts. Unless you get the wrong one and then they just heal up wondering why you picked on them in the first place.

At around this point Katy got bitten by a trigger fish (karma), and we realised we weren’t going to be able to get far out enough without a boat. I’m all up for having another try, but on this occasion didn’t manage to get the sea creatures to spill their guts.

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