Nervous Noshing

A while back we had a house guest staying with us for a few days. A delightful person – but a vegan.

FYI, vegans eat no dairy products, no eggs and (often) no honey. A week preparing meals for a vegan can seem a long time. I found it helpful though to realise how easily I can ramp up flavour in meatless dishes by relying on cheese, yoghurt, sour cream and eggs. And how challenging without them!

It is widely believed that people who minutely watch their diets live longer, but I reckon it just feels that way! And, quickly, before I risk losing all the healthier readers of this site, I should disclose that for many years our whole family was vegetarian, and probably much the better for it.

Not all thought so, though. Many years ago our toddler son was hospitalised for croup, a fairly common early childhood ailment. I sneaked a peek at his chart, as you do, while staying with him in the ward. There the doc had written "family is vegetarian, but otherwise normal". I was at first insulted, then a little chuffed that at least once in my life, there it was in writing from a medico, that I was normal!

Even now, though those years are well behind me, I still often find myself ordering vegetarian options from a menu without noticing I am doing it. Those dishes just often seem to be the tastier and more attractive option.

Of course these days vegetarian food is so much more varied than in the seventies – especially when we were first trying to eat out. Then it was salad, perhaps with the embellishment of cheese if we were lucky, and omelettes. Pity help the non-lacto-ovo-vegetarians (aka vegans). They would have starved in that era. Tofu was virtually unknown, then. In Australia, at least. And forget fast food. Chips without the fish was the only choice. Very healthy!

Now having progressed a little, taking note of the latest health news, realising that a moderate amount of lean red meat and plenty of fish is perhaps even more beneficial to us than avoiding meats altogether, I can proudly say I'll eat anything – with one caveat.

I define myself simply as a "squeamish omnivoreæ.

To explain – I have never seen the Sardinian cheese meant to be consumed maggots and all, and I don't know how I would fare with that. But washed rind cheese is fine with me, and while we are onto smelly food, so is durian.

This love-it hate-it fruit of south east Asia is as every bit as ugly to look at as some people say it tastes. Those sharp thorny spikes just dare you to grab a tomahawk or a cleaver and chop the khaki-coloured fruit open to reveal flesh of such creamy, dreamy, sensuous texture you wonder why not everyone likes it.

Inhale – and ah, yes, it is a little olfactorily-challenged. As someone once said to me on a trip "How can you put something that smells so bad, so close to your face?" Easy, I told her. Think of washed rind cheese (Munster to be specific) some parmesans, even the whiff of good old cauliflower when it is cooking. Perhaps the worst-smelling dish I have ever encountered was in The Marquesas in French Polynesia. A favourite local delicacy is raw fish marinated in seawater – for a few days. The stench when the lid was lifted to show me the great treat inside was overpowering. Thank goodness they liked it so much (or me not enough) that they did not offer me any.

There are some things, though, that I'll be happy if I don't ever eat again. Witchetty grub comes right up there at the top of the list. Vic Cherikoff is an Australian bush food expert and he was at a food event many years ago, which I also attended. He was determined I should try witchetty grub. These are fat white grubs a few centimetres long, which live underground and are actually moth larvae. I grew up in Western Australia knowing them as Bardi grubs. Either way I had no desire to eat one, even though indigenous people regard them as a delicacy.

Vic was adamant I should taste a grilled grub and I gave in when Gordon, my generally honest husband, assured me he had already downed one. I have to say the taste was not so bad – think, buttery (some say they are like peanut butter) and not unpleasant – but it was the texture that got to me. Because it had been grilled, the skin was tough and rubbery and I could not chew it and had no option but to swallow it down pretty well whole. It was only after we left the event that Gordon admitted he had disposed of his witchetty grub in a convenient nearby potted palm!

Chicken's feet in China, or in any dim sum restaurant for that matter, need never be on my plate again either. Nor sea cucumber which I once ate (no I didn't – it was like chewing an eraser so I spat it out) at a Vietnamese wedding, water rat (in France – a whole 'nother story) or raw crab (Korea). Even my guide shuddered at the idea of eating that.

Some others foods I am simply ethically against. Shark fin soup, turtle, bear, tiger, monkey – anything that is rare (and here I don't mean barely cooked), endangered, or may have been treated badly in order for it to be considered fit for human consumption. Foie gras is borderline for me, because of the last point, although I have eaten it often, especially in France, and greatly enjoyed it.

I can tackle a plate of haggis, and black sausage or boudin noir depending on which country you are in. Andouillettes, too, without a quibble, although for some reason once I get as far south as Lyon they become so strongly flavoured and rank smelling that I swear off them until I reach Paris again on the next trip and discover I can't resist them, all over again.

In China I have been served pigeon (or some entire small bird, with its head hanging over the edge of the bowl) and camel, alligator, caribou, snails and frog's legs in other countries. I grew up eating offal, so brains, bone marrow, tongue, liver, even stuffed heart are no problem – which is lucky, as once in France Gordon ordered cervelles d'agneau. They arrived – perfectly cooked lamb's brains, as any Francophone would have known they would – and it was only a quick switch of plates that saved the day. Emu, kangaroo and possum I can stomach, and wallaby is delightful.

Then there is what I call shudder-territory.  I hope I am never in the position of being expected to eat any of these creatures – or parts of them: crickets, bugs, snakes, centipedes, dog, cock's combs, bull's "bits", lark's tongues, silk worms, duck webs, white veal (aka the unborn foetus), partially developed chickens still in the shell, puff balls, eyeballs, snake blood or fallopian tubes!

And, no, I did not make that last one up – I have a photo of it listed as an ingredient in a restaurant dish in Shanghai.

See? There's a lot to make you think twice in this omnivorous world. Can you wonder I am a little squeamish? You're probably feeling a bit that way now too. So, how about a nice drink to calm our nerves?

But not tequila, please. I hear there are worms in that!


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