The First Time
Jay Rayner describes his first experiences eating some "exotic" foods.
Marcus made a very good point in last night’s show: that the odd is only odd the first time you eat it. After that it just becomes dinner. How right he is. A similar point could be made about the use of the word "exotic" when attached to certain food stuffs. What may be exotic to us, is part of the staple diet to others. For example, both Jody and Tony cooked with goat, which happens to be the most commonly consumed red meat in the world. It’s just not the U.S. and Europe that’s doing all the consuming. Goats are sturdy animals which can survive in arid conditions and that’s why they are so popular in Africa and the Middle East. Jody might not have much call for it in her corner of New England, but that doesn’t make it particularly outré. The same is true of black chickens, monkfish livers, and the rest.
All that said, it doesn’t stop certain ingredients still being challenging, though it’s a challenge which people who eat for a living can’t resist. Were it not for the fact that there are lots of women in the food writing business who are prone to the syndrome, I would describe it as a kind of machismo; an attempt to prove that you are harder, more fearless, more open to the world than anybody else. No matter that the thing you are proud of eating is just another ingredient in the local store cupboard and eaten regularly by millions.
Even so, it’s very easy to come a cropper. Just before flying to Tokyo to research the Japanese chapter of my most recent book, about my search for the perfect meal, I was telephoned by my mother who told me that in no circumstances was I allowed to eat fugu, the fish whose organs release a deadly toxin if not properly prepared. I promised her I wouldn’t. Sometimes, though, promises, even the ones you make to your mother, are not that easy to keep. I found myself in a high-end Japanese restaurant, the sort gaijin – westerners – are not usually allowed access to. And I was faced by a menu of Japanese delicacies which thoroughly challenged the western palate: it was a whole bunch of squidgy, tentacled, slippery things. At one point, proving I’d wasted too much time watching Star Trek as a kid, I heard myself thinking "This is Klingon food." And then immediately I hated myself for thinking something so banal, crass, and culturally introverted.
Even so it still wasn’t a great eating experience. Among the low points were some lightly-grilled sacks of fugu milt – fugu sperm – which were just too heavy, too rich, too much. It was an awful lot of sperm for a straight guy. And yet, regardless of what my mother had said, I felt duty bound to eat it. As I did the very lowest point of the meal: the salt-fermented sea cucumber. It tasted like fishy snot. It tasted as I imagine the slime on a week old fish would taste. It stuck in my throat. It made me retch. But somehow I swallowed.
And so I must confess that when I learned that Susan Feniger had cooked a dish involving sea cucumber I was not a happy man. We all have our dream foods, the ones we could eat till the cows come home. Sea cucumber is my nightmare food. I wanted to shout "Call my agent" or, more likely "Mommyyyyyy!!!!"
And yet... and yet... what she did with it was remarkable. She didn’t just make it edible. She made it pleasurable. Her deep-fried sea cucumber was frankly a revelation and for that alone I will always give thanks. I couldn’t resist eating it. Though Susur won and by a country mile – his stuffed chicken leg and tourchon of monks fish liver were truly delicious – if I’m honest I think he had it easiest. Those two ingredients were pretty easy to play with, especially for a Chinese guy who had met them before.
What Susan did with her ingredients was impressive in a very different way. And thank god for that.
Jay Rayner is the author of The Man Who Ate The World, published by Henry Holt. Follow him on twitter @jayrayner1