Culinary Adventures Abroad
When a Meal Stares Back at You
A soup cooked by hospitable hosts in Kazakhstan on an outdoor fire.
“Are there any vegetables?” I ask my husband as we eye the huge spread of food that stretches over three tables. “Don't be silly,” he whispers back. We have just been invited to share in a celebration dinner for a new English school opening in one of Kazakhstan's provincial capitals and the hosts have pulled out all the stops. This means meat and lots of it. There are painfully few garden greens on the table so there will be no debating between spinach and broccoli for us. We have other choices to ponder.
Balancing Respect and Dread in Kazakhstan
Will it be the horse tonight? Or perhaps a boiled sheep's head? There it is in the middle of the table, skinned and staring at us with blank eyes and a full set of teeth stuck in their final grin. Chicken and sausage are laid out too but these are ordinary things, we are informed. Such food is not fit for special guests so the decision is made for us. We will definitely try the horse or the sheep. Probably both. And to wash all this food down with? Beer and vodka are always on offer but we hunt for something lighter. The national drink kymyz will be just perfect, we are assured. It is fermented horse's milk, fizzy, acidic, and slightly alcoholic. It arrives with a small hair from the mare herself still floating on top.
Our meal begins with the horse meat and through it all the host is watching us carefully from across the table, her broad smile accented with the gold teeth that are common throughout the region. “More. More,” she says every time we manage to put a dent in the pile on our plates, shoving food eagerly towards us. This is no time to feel queasy, but we do. The omnipresent sheep's head does not help.
We push on despite our unsettled stomachs, keen to make a good impression. Even worse than the thought of eating that sheep's head is the potential to insult our hosts, so we take measured portions of the exotic dishes and plenty of the more familiar such as homemade sheets of flat pasta cooked in broth. We hope that no one will notice.
We are pulling it off successfully until someone announces that it is time for the sheep. “This,” they say. “Is the moment we have all been waiting for.” We silently beg to differ. They go on, fixing their eyes on our side of the table, where we sit with another traveler from France. They explain in detail how each piece of the head is symbolic. The ears go to someone who needs to listen more. The eyes go to someone who needs to be more watchful. Of course, the first taste goes to the guests of honor.
Our hearts sink, certain in the knowledge that the sheep is coming our way. And then we watch in amazement as it sails right past the two of us and lands in front of our French friend. As he carves it up to the flash of a dozen cameras — and even seems to enjoy tasting the cheek — we realize we have just learned an important tip for ducking out of overly exotic foods in foreign countries: never be the oldest guest of honor at a table. Grey hairs put you in pole position to try everything. By the time Michel finishes sampling, the rest of the diners are reaching for the sheep's head with great enthusiasm, so when it finally reaches us there is nothing left. The locals wipe their mouths with great satisfaction and apologize. We are not offended but rather glad that those who enjoy it most got to do just that.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home,” wrote the American author James Michener, and later we feel slightly guilty for having come so far without trying the top dish at the Kazakh table.
A Culinary Feast and a Lesson in Syria
Perhaps our desire to sample the unusual was tempered by an experience a few months earlier in Syria, when we launched ourselves headlong into a stunning buffet. As is so often the case in the Middle East, the banquet was laid out not on a table but on a plastic cloth set on the floor of the family home, the diners seated around the edge on lavish cushions. This time none of the food is returning our gaze and we can hardly resist trying all the delicious things on offer. There is chicken cooked with lemons, creamy hummus drizzled with olive oil, potatoes roasted to perfection, and a green, sautéed vegetable that resembles a more robust, fibrous version of spinach. We adore the exotic spinach and consume serving after serving. Coffee and candies follow. Well past midnight we go to bed rubbing our tummies in delight. Terrible cramps awaken us a few hours later and the rest of the night is spent running to the toilet in agony as we jot down another rule of foreign food indulgence: all things in moderation, no matter how good they taste.
Culinary Surprises in Morocco
Our next lesson comes from the desert of Morocco, where we are warming ourselves by a blazing fire in the coolness of an evening in the Sahara desert. The head of the nomadic family we are visiting is anxious to impress us with a traditional meal. That means roasting a goat from his herd. A few hours after the slaughter, the women bring out the first of many dishes. By this time it Is dark and we cannot see exactly what is on the plate so we grab a bit, pop it in our mouths and hope for the best. We taste something like bacon — crispy and seasoned with salt and pepper — wrapped around a softer meat. It is good and we happily take more from the communal dish each time it does the rounds. “What is this?” we finally get the chance to ask our guide a few minutes later. “It's kind of like sausage,” he replies before reeling off the ingredients: fresh intestines stuffed with lung, heart and liver, seasoned, and grilled. We nod with approval and make another note in our diary of food tastings. Sometimes what sounds bad to our Western ears is not so in reality — so try a bit. You might enjoy it.
Culinary Adventures in Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia
As the road under our bicycle tires grows longer, so does our list of bizarre foods. Laos brings us duck beaks with the tongue still attached and grilled eggs on a stick. The small hole in the shell is just enough to see the fully developed embryo inside with feathers, bones and all. Cambodia boasts roasted spiders and congealed blood soup, the perfect thing for breakfast if we are to judge by the many bowls being served up in markets. In Malaysia, the ethnic Chinese men we meet in a restaurant assure us that the eyes of the fish are the best part — far tastier than any of the fillets we prefer. They dig a few out with their fingers and pop the eyes in their mouths, smacking their lips as they go as if to prove the point.
Travel Develops a New Perspective on Food
We must be honest. Sometimes we try these things, sometimes we do not. But even when we are not quite brave enough to tuck into the local cuisine we develop a whole new appreciation for it. Strange though it might be to our Western eyes, how boring our travels would be if all markets and restaurants looked the same as they do back home. Peering into the bowls of other diners and the shopping bags of the housewives turns out to be a great way to start a conversation with the locals. And it certainly makes for a good story the next time you are sitting round the dinner table, dreaming of trips past. “This looks good,” you might say while serving up the Thanksgiving turkey. “But not half as good as that sheep's head I tried in Kazakhstan. Maybe we'll have that next year...”