Maybe you spent the post-holidays eating the same ol’ leftovers. Possibly, you check out cuisine-oriented food or reality shows, wondering what the exotic items taste like. Or you’ve realized that being open to offal – organ meats – is a more sustainable way of raising livestock for the farmer and less wasteful for chefs. Adventurous eating is not restricted to carnivores; even vegans can introduce their palates to more exciting fare.
But it can be scary not knowing what to expect flavor, texture and price-wise or even how to cook unusual foods for the first time. I never had much luck asking what a given meat tastes like at restaurants – I always end up with the vegetarian server! It’s understandable not wanting to risk hating your dinner entrée or clearing out the bank account for a meal gone wrong.
Pinky toe into the adventurous eating waters: Are you like a little kid at the dinner table, covering your eyes when a more unusual food is presented, but then peeking out between your fingers? Start with stronger, slightly gamier versions of what you already eat. Whether you know it or not, Caesar salad dressing is made with anchovies. Put a few whole anchovies on your salad right out of the tin. Prices vary from $1.29 at Trinacria’s, to high-end grocery stores hawking fancy white anchovies that are nearly $20. They have a stronger fish-salt hit with a teeny bit of fuzziness on the darker ones.
Lots of people love Delaware’s Rapa Scrapple. Sure, it has random pig parts, but they’re pretty mild. Take it a step further with farm-made scrapple at the grocery store or Amish market, where they’re using more offal in the mix. Fry like usual; it’s likely to be quite a bit gamier and may have a less cereal-like texture, more meat-like.
Miss Shirley’s has had a menu item, “Duck, Duck, Tot” with duck eggs ($17.99). Duck has a richer yolk flavor, but if nobody told you, you might not realize it isn’t chicken. The first time I ate duck eggs was at an upscale Baltimore bistro; they apparently had gone bad. I refused to eat them again for years, but fortunately, gave them another try.
Two dollars and some change can get you a can of quail eggs from Catonsville’s H Mart. They’re very mild and innocuous, but canned eggs have a bit of a spongy, rubbery texture. Try them chilled and sliced into your next Cobb salad or mash with spicy mayo for a different kind of egg salad. I’ve also purchased pickled quail eggs on road trips to the South; they’ve got that hangover-ending ability seen in the movie The Verdict.
Any Vietnamese restaurant in the city or county that serves pho will have a “special combo” including beef tripe. If you love the fatty part from a slice of prime rib, you’ll like tripe, too. It’s soft, nearly jelly-like in texture and quite mild in flavor.
Peruvian restaurants, including Baltimore’s Chicken Rico, serve anticuchos: grilled calves’ hearts. They’ve got an extra beefy flavor with the texture of the well-done end on a beef roast.
Take the plunge: Bring it on, you say! Owings Mills’ Euro Deli has bear salami. It has a very gamy and black pepper flavor in a salami format. I’ve served it to dedicated hunters who adamantly shook their head “no” at the offer of seconds.
Both Maryland First Lady Helen Avalynne Tawes and Baltimore native the Duchess of Windsor, wrote extensively on impressing dignitaries with Diamondback terrapin dishes. Turtle isn’t overwhelmingly weird. Different parts of it lean towards their own flavors, ranging from veal-like to more fishy. The biggest commitment is ordering it. An old sign at Faidley’s in Lexington Market says they have it, but you will be assured of getting it at LACrawfish.com. Then, be prepared to spend a good, long while deboning it. I’ve made the Duchess’ recipe for Terrapin a la Maryland. It’s basically a stew-like creation enriched with heavy cream and sherry, served on toast points: tasty!
For a buck and change at an Asian grocery store, get a can of silkworm pupa. Bugs! I lightly fried them in a wok with seasoning salt. Flavor and texture-wise, they’re like boiled peanut skins.
Funky food without faces: Vegans, freak out your friends by chomping into rambutan. This Southeast Asian fruit is available at Asian grocery stores like Catonsville’s H Mart. If you can, get them fresh and peel them: they look just like brown eyeballs! Canned, they’re only a couple of dollars, but they’re seedless. Those look like eyes without pupils. They taste like lychees crossed with canned green grapes.
Asian supermarkets also have the infamous durian fruit. They’re like giant footballs that you carve into for their mildly sweet, custardy flesh. They smell like outrageously stinky cheese.
There you have it! You can explore the culinary world’s farthest corners at all price points and palette levels.