Culture Guides

World Cuisine – Bugs, sheep’s head soup

Beetles, grubs, worms, or worse. The things you will share to eat with the peoples of the world

The pitcher of beer arrived and our Korean host filled our glasses before attending to his own. The waiter slid a few plates of snacks onto the table and I instinctively reached for the dish containing roasted nuts of some description. Fortunately the aroma reached me before I could scoop up a handful. For a moment I had the sensation that I could not breathe. Then I thought of chestnuts. But on closer inspection the ‘nuts’ all appeared to have some kind of shell or thorax.

“They’re bugs?” My American friend, Mike, asked. The director of our English school nodded as he crunched a few between his teeth.

“Silkworm pupae – very nutritious!” we were told. Mike and I looked at one another doubtfully. This was our first evening in Korea and we wanted to impress our employer with our ability to adapt and appreciate foreign cultures and world cuisine. I reached for the chopsticks and plucked out one of the little brown cocoons. Time seemed to slow down in the time it took to reach my lips. With my glass of beer at my side, ready to wash it down I began to chew.

Appearances can be so deceptive and if all my traveling has taught me anything it’s that there’s nothing worse than prejudice. Nonetheless, to my surprise, the roasted bug tasted rather like…a roasted bug. Mike shot me a questioning glance and like a true friend I smiled in approval. As he took his initiation into Korean tastes I poured half a litre of lager down my throat.

“Aw, Christ!” Mike groaned, wincing as he crushed up his mouthful into chunks small enough to swallow, “No one will ever kiss me again!”

It was not the first time in my journeys that I’d been called upon to demonstrate my traveller savvy in stomaching strange local cuisine but I hope to God it’s the last. I mean, in general I’ll play ball with regional tastes and diet – eating raw fish with the Japanese, sickly sweet milk chai with the Indians and liver-wrenching bitter, sugarless black coffee with the Bedouin. Hell, I even gave up being vegetarian so that I wouldn’t offend the hospitality of the Turkish.

But although I’d retuned my palette to a fare of chicken, mutton and beef, I was still unprepared for the surprise confrontations with weird meals that would be slapped down in front of me on the way. Okay, it’s all relative of course and if there’s one thing we can’t account for it’s taste.

But really – sheep’s head soup for a 7am breakfast?

I had just spent the night sleeping out in the main square of “Isfahan”;, one of Iran’s most beautiful cities and had woken to the call of prayer that comes just before the dawn. One of the treats of my stone bed was seeing the first rays of sun that caught the minaret towers of the Blue Mosque in a noose of light each morning. The turquoise tiles had just begun to shimmer with light when the manager of a local carpet shop came down to greet me.

“It is your first day in my city!” He declared, “And so it is my honour to take you to breakfast!”

It was such a beautiful gesture that I accepted at once. Only when I saw the carcasses of sheep piled up outside the café did a murky sense of dread descend upon me. Using all the hypnotic influence of the early morning hours I tried to forget what I was eating and just make a good dent in my plate.

But after a few mouthfuls of mucousy brain matter my stomach just vetoed the whole affair. And cultural sensibilities be damned. My friend was very good about it though and just couldn’t understand why I was turning down such exquisite cuisine. When he finished licking clean his bowl he polished off mine too.

People are fairly tolerant of your foreign lack of taste on most occasions. Provided that you don’t turn up your nose at whatever’s offered and perhaps at least make an attempt to enjoy it, almost no one will take offense if you end up declining. On the other hand if you can relish the local fare then you can save a lot of face and even gain prestige. The directors of my English school made a big deal out of their new English teacher’s ability to eat raw oysters with chopsticks.

But there are situations when all kinds of other obligations and allegiances force their way onto the dining table. When a friend of mine clashed with the law in Oman, I found myself flying out there to try and strike a deal with a local lawyer.

It was in the month of Ramadan – not an especially recommended time to visit orthodox Muslim countries as you can’t find so much as a glass of water on the street in daylight hours. Luckily I managed to find a hotel run by some Indian Christians and their 24 hour room service kept me in food and drink.

To cement our working relationship the lawyer invited me to break fast wit him after sunset at his home. He sent a driver to pick me up and when I arrived I discovered that his ‘home’ was something of a small-scale palace. High wall kept the desert out of the spacious gardens and the lawyer was waiting for me on the long veranda. The gaudy façade of the house looked like it had featured in about 100 Egyptian movies.

Lawyers are rarely among the under-privileged classes in any society in the world and Mr Khan was no exception. He managed to support three wives and was planning on taking a fourth.

Whether any of his current wives cooked the meal now served to me I never found out as I was not given the chance to meet them. Mr Khan’s nephew saved their modesty by carrying through the plates and plates of paprikas, dates, rice stewed with fish and cutlets of meat.

Things were going well enough and I’d made a big show of a hearty appetite. I ate with my right hand in local style and grunted appreciatively as I chewed, throwing out compliments as often as I could. Kissing ass. But then, just as I had reached the point where I could take no more, the nephew brought through a clay jug with exaggerated ceremony. Both he and the lawyer gathered at my side and presented me with a spoon. They explained that they’d gone to great trouble to prepare the local delicacy of the area.

I sighed with relief when I saw that the thick, pasty contents appeared to be halvah, a rich sweet made from tahini and sugar. One of my favourite Middle Eastern dishes. But when the first spoonful hit my tongue my entire mouth closed down in protest. While I struggled to extract the spoon from my mouth I had the awful urge to just dribble like an infant.

It turned out to be some kind of flour (probably ground down from sheep bones) mixed with sticky camel fat. The mixture pasted itself to either side of my mouth and, had I not thrown three quick glasses of water down my throat, it would probably be there still.

“Mr Tom, you are like?”

I thought of my friend in jail with not even a newspaper for entertainment. I forced a smile.

“Delicious, Mr Khan, just delicious. My only regret is that I’m just too full to eat any more.”

I then launched into a five minute monologue in praise of Islam and Ramadan. Just long enough for his nephew to clear the plates.

‘You are what you eat’ is a phrase true only for cannibals and that’s one dish at least that I hope to be spared in this lifetime. But no matter how cautious and canny the traveler may be, there’s just no escaping fate. They make pancakes from flies in parts of Africa. In China they pickle jellyfish. And I know that someday, just waiting for me when I pass through Thailand, someone is going to expect me to eat deep-fried cockroach.