As someone who once saw a group of chefs fighting, almost literally, over who’d get to eat a cod’s stomach (!), I think it’s fair to say that there’s a lot of macho bravado around food.
At its most bizarre, food becomes a real-life, competitive, bushtucker trial. Eating, for instance, lambs’ brains or balut (fertilised duck egg embryo, a popular novelty with backpackers exploring East Asia), can easily become a question, not of pleasure or nourishment, but whether you’re man enough to force X down your gullet?
Or to put it another way, who has the biggest prairie oysters (calves’ testicles)? Such braggadocio can make those too squeamish to try chickens’ feet or that infamously stinky intestine sausage, andouillette, feel like second-class citizens of the food world.
Me? I have an ambivalent view of this shock-eating. I’ll try anything once, but out of curiosity, not bravery. And, while it turns out that bone marrow, gose (a salty, ancient German beer style), ox heart and 199-day aged steaks, are all incredibly tasty, I don’t actively seek out such obscurities.
Philosophically, I may be all in favour of adventurous eating and nose-to-tail cooking, but, generally, there’s a good reason why foods fall out of fashion. From frogs’ legs to Spam fritters, it’s usually because they’re bloody awful.
The key is to be honest. In the food media, there’s a lot of top-down pressure that implies, if you don’t like something it’s because your palate isn’t refined enough.
We’re patronised, if not bullied, by supposed gourmets who suck down prawns’ heads, feast on pigs’ ears or revere cockscomb (trust me, you’re missing nothing), who suggest that, in time, as our tastes mature, we’ll appreciate these delicacies. Utter rubbish. There is no objective right or wrong in food. It is, literally, a matter of personal taste. If you hate something – or simply can’t stomach the idea of it – there’s no shame in saying so.
In this spirit of openness, here are 10 of the worst things I’ve ever put in my mouth. Some are exotic, some are mundane, but one thing is certain. No matter how severe the peer pressure, I’ll never eat them again…
Never trust a food that you first have to purge of numerous toxins. That’s nature giving you a clear warning that there’s nothing to see here. Move along. Buy a steak. Because even in the hands of Michelin-star chefs, snails taste exactly as you imagine. They taste of soil and shrubbery, and they have the texture of grimy old pencil rubbers.
Butter-laced coffee might give you the energy of 10 men, but you can keep it. Naturally, it leaves your mouth coated in layers of grease, like a washing-up bowl after a big dinner party.
I’m evangelical about the sensitively spiced complexity of south Indian food, but bemused by idli. These steamed, ground rice cakes, dull lumps of bland carbs, have ruined many a sensational sambar. Tip: nothing good ever came of the conjunction, ‘rice’ and ‘cake’.
I recently taste-tested several alcohol-free beers for The Guardian and am still processing this traumatic event in counselling. Cobra Zero has possibly scarred me for life. Sweet, malty and yeasty without any real hop definition, it scored – I think generously – 0/10.
Standing outside a bar in San Sebastián last year, hacking at a flat disc of bone (it was so clearly a hoof I didn’t know whether to shoe it or eat it), I decided that, going forwards, any ‘food’ that was at least 93% gelatinous cartilage was not worth the 7% meat yield. If, indeed, that 7% I was eating was meat. It was difficult to tell. See also, pigs’ trotters.
I may be unusually sensitive to chilli heat (a rogue padrón pepper can leave me drenched in sweat… and tears), but the current trend for super-hot chillies leaves me cold. Yes, I know those badass chilli sauces with their off-the-scale Scoville units induce an endorphin high, but so does running five miles. Which is considerably less painful than eating naga chillies. Rule number one: food should not hurt.
Raw, toasted, ground rice that’s used as a topping to add textural variation to Thai foods. Brilliant if the textural variation you are looking for is ‘shattered bathroom tiles’ or ‘broken teeth’.
Of course, you can bread and fry tripe. You can bread and fry anything and make it edible. But this traditional preparation for cow’s stomach is like eating a salad of Styrofoam and elastic bands doused in Sarson’s vinegar. Spongy, squidgy, rubbery and acidic, every never-ending mouthful seems to scream: this is wrong.
The cruellest gruel in the carb larder. In a world in which rice, couscous, potatoes, pasta and bread exist (to name but five better alternatives), polenta should only be eaten in an emergency. Even then, this mealy slop must be made with nine-parts butter and parmesan, set, sliced and pan-fried in more butter. Otherwise, you may lapse into a coma after the first two mouthfuls.
Certain traditional ciders
‘Can you taste that ripe cheesiness?’ asked the cider expert, his eyes gleaming enthusiastically. ‘I certainly can,’ I replied, supressing the gag reflex, which is why I will never drink cider again. Just to be safe.
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