The matter of exotics

Happy Year of the Dragon, everybody!  Today, there are dragons in every Chinatown and every Chinese storefront.  There are even dragons in every Chinese restaurant, in the form of xiao long bao ("little dragon buns" or Shanghai soup dumplings.  Actually pork.)  or maybe "Dragon Meets Phoenix" (Actually shrimp and chicken).  I think this betrays a certain fascination with exotica, or at least the idea of exotica.  At times that fascination has gone so far as to endanger whole species (think of shark fins, and birds' nests).  Be that as it may, such fascination isn't exclusive to faraway cultures.

When I was in school, I had a good friend who went on to spend some years working in the bush.  From his campsites he'd send me letters which never failed to highlight his distance from civilization, particularly the one that included a recipe for stewed iguana.  A part of me has always regretted not testing that recipe, and a part of me has always been relieved I never had to.  I think a great many of us--adventurous eaters but practical cooks--feel that ambiguity.

These days, I tend to review cookbooks in an Everyman sort of way.  I keep it inexpensive and fairly accessible, which is helpful to my readers but also to me.  That means I test chicken a lot and veal not so much.  Yes to shellfish, no to sushi-grade tuna.  The most exotic thing I've cooked in the last few months was the Christmas goose, which hardly counts (well, yesterday we had "thousand year old" preserved duck eggs, but those come pre-cooked.  And they're actually only 90 days old).

In the EYB database you can find alligator, pigeon, grouse, armadillo (in the Joy of Cooking, no less!)  There's squirrel, and there's kangaroo; there's bear and possum.  What a magnificently diverse table this represents!  at least for the unrepentant carnivore.

I suppose such wistful thoughts about game are a way of expanding my imaginary culinary horizons, even knowing that I'm not heading into the back 40 with a rifle and hauling back a brace of hares for supper.  But surely my EYB friends have more adventurous larders!  What's the latest oddest thing you've cooked?  Did you love it?  or was it just for the sake of the thrill?


  • Jane  on  1/23/2012 at 9:01 PM

    I think I've definitely eaten more strange foods than I've cooked. Fish lips, chicken feet, jellyfish, lambs' testicles, and of course all the innards. At a restaurant called Carnivore in Nairobi I've eaten lots of different game meat - zebra, antelope, etc. But as a cook, I'm limited by the laziness of not wanting to spend hours finding ingredients.

  • Leslie  on  1/30/2012 at 12:24 PM

    OK, now don't tell my kids, but I've baked bread using flour that I knew had creepy crawlies in it. We affectionately called it "high protein bread". But when I travel, I'm definitely adventuresome when ordering at restaurants (jellyfish!).

  • Susie  on  1/31/2012 at 11:02 AM

    Ha! I've baked a few pantry moths in my time too. Wow Jane--zebra and antelope? I think you win.

  • Vanessa  on  2/10/2012 at 7:15 AM

    Exotic is always defined by context, of course. I remember my dad making eel once (for Christmas?) when I was young; that was very much a strange food in our household. And while I love eel today, at least as part of sushi, I don't think I'll ever need to cook it (I vividly remember him nailing the heads down and skinning them ...) I cooked skate once, but I think that it was unfortunately old and bad when I bought it (very ammonia-flavored, not a success at all). I bought a Buddha's hand the first time I ever saw one, and candied it. (Pretty cool, but I wouldn't bother doing it again.) My first CSA was a great source of unusual veggies that I'd not seen before - purple carrots, watermelon radishes, tat soi. (So sad that farmer left town after that year; no CSA has measured up since.) Turning to the insect kingdom, I too have cooked lots of pantry bugs. (The "bug guys" on the radio have assured us that is actually a traditional source of protein, so now I don't feel too bad about it!). There are lots more "exotics" to try in the vegetable kingdom - though they can be hard to source. That's where my interests lie now - rather than searching out odd meats or seafood, I'm looking for different beans, grains, and veg.

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