They say you are what you eat. But the things that people ingest as part of their diet can be seriously strange. What's a delicacy to one can be completely devoid of taste to another. What's humdrum to some, can be horrific to another and incredibly exotic to a third.
Many communities in the world eat worms and even in India, silkworms are commonly consumed by the people of Meghalaya and some parts of Assam. And insects, already a part of many traditional tribal diets, have been lauded as the food of the future, providing protein in the most sustainable way.
When I travelled through the tribal areas in Chhattisgarh recently, I did ask about the red ant chutney it's famous for but sadly, no one had any at hand. It may not be live red ants with a hint of lemongrass like the menu at René Redzepi's Noma in Copenhagen once served, but it's said to be very tasty nevertheless.
The most adventurous thing I've ever tried was a bowl of crisp fried crickets at a South American restaurant in Toronto, Canada. Their resemblance to roaches made it hard to imagine eating them. And when I worked up the courage to pick one up and bring it close to my mouth, a spindly spiky leg fell off! It was almost too much to take. But I was keen to try this food adventure so I persevered. To be honest, the taste and texture was nothing insect-like. Tossed in a spicy sauce, they made for quite an addictive snack once I got over the initial fear and revulsion.
That didn't happen in the Philippines though. Balut, a popular street food that is considered a delicacy, comprises a fertilised duck egg that is boiled and eaten from the shell. Since I don't like eggs to start with, much less one with a developing embryo inside it, I just couldn't bolster the courage to sample this dish, which is apparently a hit in Vietnam and South China.
While my vegetarian friends have found lovely places to savour veg Chinese meals when they've travelled there, some journalists travelling with me weren't as fortunate. In a mainland restaurant where no one spoke English and none of us were proficient in Mandarin, we were served a hotpot that the host assured us was 'pure veg'. Only when we got to the bottom of the bowl, did we discover the tiny cubes of meat! They were obviously greatly disturbed by this and I sympathised, although I was having my own culinary crisis. In one of the many bowls that were placed on the table were some bright yellow things that I couldn't identify. There was no one to ask, no one to guide me, and no network to use Google Lens to figure out what it was! I tentatively took one on my plate, tried cutting it with knife and fork. It was too tough and just jumped around on the plate, the more I tried to saw through it. By now the others at my table had almost forgotten their woes, and were rather entertained by my antics!
I later found out that the dish at the centre of my embarrassing encounter were chicken claws. Now WHY would anyone want to eat those? But there's no limit to what we humans consume and enjoy. It just depends on the geography we're in.
Like in Nairobi, Kenya, I dined at a restaurant aptly called Carnivore. The staff brought skewer after skewer to our table, each one loaded with different meats. Crocodile kebabs, peppery ostrich meatballs, grilled ox testicles, and more. It was challenging, to say the least!
In another part of the world, the Scots relish Haggis, a savoury pudding containing minced sheep's heart, liver, and lungs, onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, salt, and stock. Traditionally a hunting dish, the offal and other ingredients are stuffed into the animal's stomach and cooked like a sausage. It sounds really unappetising to me, but I'm told that its nutty, savoury taste is something I must try once in my life. I may find offal awful, but for many it's a prized delicacy and a symbol of their rich history and culture.
Similarly, I lived in Sweden for a few months and loved their meatballs served with mashed potato and lingonberry preserve. But I hadn't worked up the courage to try their special treat —Surstömming, which is essentially fermented herring that is allowed to rot for a few months until it gets a particularly pungent flavour and foul smell. This 'sour herring' that's so popular in northern Sweden, has actually been banned in many housing societies and international airlines due to its offensive odour! I suppose there may come a time when even dried Bombay Duck (sukka bombil) will be similarly shunned!
Importing snails into India is banned, as a French chef found to his dismay. But I've tried escargot in a creamy sauce on a cruise liner and found them quite delicious.
It's not as though only meat, fish and poultry make for adventurous eating (and food bans!) though. It's prohibited to eat the smelly Durian fruit, the jackfruit's cousin in Singapore, in many public places. And although the Indonesian Kopi Luwak isn't exactly banned, people are more careful to opt for cruelty-free coffee that doesn't exploit the Palm Civets that were traditionally used to give the world's most expensive coffee its unique flavour by feeding them coffee cherries so that they ferment during their digestive process, and then sorting through their poop to produce some tasty coffee! I did try this one when a friend gifted me some but didn't see what the fuss was all about.
Food is such a subjective subject and eating such a basic instinct that we often confuse it with our identity. Thus what a person eats can often become a status symbol or a political statement. But food choices are so personal and so varied that no one should judge another for what they're eating, as odd or even odious it may seem to our sensibilities.
(The columnist is Associate Editor, TravelDine, and a bespoke Mumbai tour specialist. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @priyapathiyan and @thehungryhappyhippy on Facebook. She blogs on thehungryhappyhippy.com)