Cambodia. A coach with locals and three tourists on board is parked on a car ferry. A little boy walks around the old vehicle. He shouts something I cannot understand and tries to get the attention of those inside. In his outstretched right hand is a hanger with a couple of eggs separately packed in plastic bags.
It is afternoon, the best time for a little snack. We haven’t had a food break for hours. Some of my fellow travelers jump from their seats and hurry to the front door where the boy appears a moment later to buy some of his eggs. I wouldn’t mind a snack myself. But I fear that what the boy sells doesn’t comply with my idea of delicate.
I will be proven right. A woman throws light on everything when she explains to me that what the boy sells is balut. When she sees my reaction, she laughs out loud.
Which is because: I have heard about balut. It’s a Cambodian and Chinese specialty. A half bred chicken embryo putrefied in its own shell. An old man assures me that the consumption of these eggs does raise virility. Gosh, eww!
Minke Whale Carpaccio, Durian, Rice Grits and Hákarl
I like to try foreign foods. I love exotic dishes. I have tried kangaroo, hot rice grits, a collection of roots and durian fruit and that one time I was in Iceland I even had a plate of minke whale carpaccio. Minke whale counts as a delicacy in Iceland but whaling is a sensitive issue and the consumption of whale meat by locals is decreasing. My conscience was sharing that meal with me. I couldn’t finish the plate. Although it didn’t taste bad, I couldn’t swallow that whale. Just as I couldn’t swallow Hákarl – festered shark meat.
I have a colleague who travels about as much as I do. When on the road he tries literally every snack he can get his hands on. When he is back at work he loves to talk about his culinary adventures – including dishes of maggots, locusts or roasted scorpions – and he preferably does so during lunchtime. No wonder he frequently earns disgusted glances of his audience.
Let’s Leave Our Culinary Comfort Zone
But my colleague is right: When it comes to foreign food we should be ready to leave our culinary comfort zone much more often. Experimenting with strange tastes is awesome – even though insects might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
If as travelers and foreigners we stick to the dishes we know this has an effect on the local cuisine as well. Even today, a lot of exotic restaurants catering to tourists have a whole range of americanized dishes on their menu. How sad would it be if, one day, fries and pizza replace all local dishes?
If you truly want to get to know a region you shouldn’t miss out on trying traditional foods and getting to know the culinary diversity of a place anyway. Take that: Exotic food never tastes the same in Africa or Asia as in your favorite African or Asian restaurant back at home. Real spicy Thai Currys, traditionally prepared meat, hot pots or soups with green bananas and strange spices or sticky rice sticks for breakfast – I don’t know what your reaction is to reading the names of these dishes but my mouth waters.
If you like to experiment, you’ll definitely come across stuff you won’t like, but that’s totally worth it. For my part, I had to acknowledge that duck cartilage isn’t exactly my cup of tea, just as everything that comes with more than a bit of coriander. And, to be honest, balut probably raises virility – but then again, I don’t have to try everything.