Adventures in Extreme Eating

Fairfield County Weekly
Copyright ©2002 New Mass. Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
By Philip Innes

Last year, a friend and I were seated at a Bay Area sushi bar located in a former IHOP. Knowing us to be adventurous diners, the chef had been showing off his most exotic creations. Live lobster, he informed us, was next.

Until then, I'd never been certain whether the point of live sushi was that the food is live up to the last moment and therefore uncompromisingly fresh, which most Americans would find defensible, or that the food is live even as you eat it, which most Americans would find ghoulish. Any sushi aficionado has encountered live clam or scallop, the muscle still twitching (reflexively, I hope) even as one devours the slippery treat.

But live lobster? True, both are shellfish, but the term "shellfish" refers to any aquatic creature with a shell, encompassing both simple mollusks (gastropods such as snails, bivalves like clams and cephalopods like octopi) as well as relatively complex crustaceans (like the Dungeness crabs and Maine lobsters whose neuroregenerative capabilities my Yale biologist father used to study). And the further one moves up the food chain, the less comfortable most Americans are with having intimate knowledge of their food.

Severing the lobster from the waist down with a single thwack of his cleaver, the sushi chef dispatched the hapless creature. Or so we thought. The act was graphic, even violent, but it seemed more merciful than throwing a lobster into a pot of boiling water and certainly better than heating the water after adding the lobster, as some thoughtless people do. The chef draped the lobster's torso with a white napkin, cloaking the barbaric exercise in civility, and left it atop the sushi display case while he carried off the tail to fix it.

While the chef was gone, we sipped our sake and imagined the treat in store. How would he prepare the tail? And then, to our dismay, the cloth napkin started to crawl around, threatening to tumble off the display case. Horrified, we kept poking the napkin back so it wouldn't fall, but we couldn't bear to raise the napkin and set eyes on half a lobster dragging itself around by its front claws.

Can one find live lobster in the Northeast? Yes, and I'm not saying where. If one searched hard enough, one might also find ikezukuri, in which the flesh is removed from a live, pinned-down fish, chopped and seasoned, then replaced on the fish. Obviously, this 2,000-year-old Japanese tradition goes beyond guaranteeing freshness. If freshness were the only concern, a chef could present a live lobster or fish to a patron, kill it humanely, then prepare it. The only point of serving live lobster or fish sashimi seems to be to make a lingering spectacle of the animal's suffering. If a creature's demise were swift, as in the silly '60s fad of downing live goldfish, eating live creatures might be less problematic.

I am by no means squeamish, but these traditions raise challenging questions. On the one hand, one hesitates to impose Western values on other cultures and one would like to be accepting of their norms. On the other hand, blind acceptance of other cultures' norms can lead to precarious results. Because one supports American Indian cultures, does it follow that one should allow the members of some tribes to collect feathers from endangered eagles for ceremonial purposes? Or allow the Makah Indian Tribe of northwest Washington to hunt threatened whales to fulfill their cultural and subsistence needs? These thorny questions have been resolved in the affirmative, but there are few easy answers when the opposing values of different cultures collide.

Most sushi treats involve no patently questionable practices. (I leave it to others to argue what cruelties may occur before products reach restaurants, a whole other topic.) The most eclectic sushi items are experienced by cultivating a relationship with a sushi chef, who then may go to great lengths to dazzle you. We have many ordinary sushi bars, and then we have dazzlers like East Japanese in Milford, Conn. One of my favorite dishes at East is its ankimo, or monkfish pâté, which is available in a sesame-miso sauce or the more commonplace ponzu sauce. The cooked side of East's menu scintillates as well, offering superior, American-raised, Kobe beef in which the cows are sung to, massaged and fed beer. It almost makes one want to step down one rung on the food chain.

Plum Tree in New Canaan, Conn., and Satsuma-Ya in Mamaroneck, N.Y., also do a fine job with ankimo. On occasion, Satsuma-Ya offers fluke-kimo and frequently has fluke fin. I once had fresh wasabe there, infinitely superior to the powdered variety. It glowed like Kryptonite. Haya's in New Haven, Conn., offers superior marinated mackerel, a flavorful, healthful fish readily available in this country that has never caught on for some reason. Hajime in Harrison, N.Y., Wasa-B in Simsbury, Conn., and Hama in Hamden, Conn., also have first-rate sushi chefs.

Sushi provides some of the most extreme eating, but other cuisines may seem extreme to Westerners as well. In the Philippines, my wife's native land, some people relish eating dog (it must be the right sort of dog, then it tastes like goat, my wife instructs), cat (one must know how to cook it right, then it tastes like chicken), and various other items not likely to surface on Western menus. Some Filipinos highly prize carabao, the water buffalo. After someone slaughters this prized beast, he will sell the delicacy house-to-house. But put beef in front of Filipinos and many will recoil, saying it smells and tastes funny. Taste, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

I can't help wonder if Filipinos who appreciate water buffalo but abhor beef would like American bison, which presumably falls somewhere in between. In addition to the obvious choice cuts, Long Hollow Bison Farm in Hadley, Mass., offers heart, tongue and liver. And if you're confused about what to do with them, Long Hollow sells a book, Buffalo Cooking, by Momfeather.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are vegetarian restaurants that lure people across the animal-vegetable divide with clever mock-meats. The most impressive such restaurant I've encountered is Green Symphony in Port Chester, N.Y., which reproduces convincing whole snapper in chili sauce. Common Ground in Brattleboro, VT., serves seitan steaks and grilled tempeh to a loyal following.

Generally, the poorer and more populous the nation, the more adventurous its food choices. It's easy for wealthy Westerners to focus on the choicest cuts of meats from the most docile animals. It's just as easy to select produce for its size and color--never mind that the flavor has been bred right out of it. The poor may be more apt to experiment with insects, worms, odd plants and sea creatures. Much of it is quite good--at least if you know the optimal way to prepare it and can approach it with an open mind. Naturally, when items become delicacies, they wind up priced out of reach of the impoverished.

For decades, Americans haven't been especially adventurous eaters. It may not be an East-West division so much as America versus the rest of the world. The first time I had pigeon or rabbit, it was in an Italian restaurant. I've had tripe in Latin American, Italian, Spanish and Turkish restaurants. But most Americans perceive it as being about as appealing as haggis, which I managed to avoid while living in Scotland for a year.

Spain features a distinct and wonderful cuisine. Costa Del Sol in Hartford offers grilled razor clams in a Champagne vinaigrette. Meson Galicia in Norwalk (soon to become Meigas) and Pika Tapas in New Haven (soon to become Ibiza), cutting-edge restaurants owned by Ignacio Blanco, serve traditional favorites such as squid in its own ink, grilled sardines and marinated fresh anchovies. But for a truly eclectic (and expensive) treat, call Blanco and have him fly in from Spain some gooseneck barnacles and baby eels. The eels look and taste like al dente linguine in garlic sauce unless closely examined--then the black dots of their eyes betray them.

Peruvians relish guinea pig, but I haven't managed to find a Peruvian restaurant that will admit to serving it (although I've been told it's available in Yonkers, N.Y.). But by all means try anticuchos, the grilled beef hearts that Peruvians so adore. Duck tongues (strangely cartilaginous) and other odd Chinese treats can be found at Szechuan Tokyo in West Hartford. Shad served with its own roe is offered at Union League Cafe in New Haven, and we are currently in the midst of its brief season.

I cheerfully consume kangaroo, ostrich, emu, eel, jellyfish, sea cucumber, frog's legs, pigeon, squirrel, rabbit, elk, escargots, sea snails, and all manner of innards, no matter how offal-sounding. You may wince at the idea of eating alligator, but Bub's Bar-B-Q in Sunderland, Mass., will change your mind, and that's no croc.

Different folk have different tolerances. The food I can't bring myself to try is balut, a hard-boiled fertilized duck egg that can be purchased in varying stages of development (10 days old, 14 days old, etc.). I'm told you can feel the tiny beak, feathers and bones as you chew the egg, purple juice running from the corners of your mouth.

One of the world's strangest foods is durian. This spiky fruit, which originated on the Malay peninsula, is described by those who prize it as having a custard-like texture and heavenly, vaguely fruity, taste. However, the flesh of the fruit gives off an overpowering scent like excrement. Think of it as the gastronomic equivalent of Rafflesia arnoldii, another Malaysian plant that can produce a blossom three feet in diameter and up to 25 pounds but whose powerful scent led to its common name--stinking corpse lily.

I palmed off a durian-flavored popsicle on a friend who claimed to have no remaining sense of smell. He stands corrected. My wife savors durian shakes and popsicles, but must keep her distance from her family because the smell of the fruit comes out of her pores like garlic.

You can find durian popsicles at A. Dong Market in West Hartford. In fact, you can find more bizarre items in this Asian supermarket than in all of the restaurants I've mentioned combined. You can also find balut, frozen bangus (milkfish, highly prized for its sperm-like fatty deposits), live tilapia, cutlass fish, freshwater prawns, frozen skewered cuttlefish, sugar cane, duck feet, chicken feet, beef tendon, pork blood, pork spleen, pork large and small intestine, and a host of uncommon fruits and vegetables. My wife nearly fainted from joy when I showed her the place.

What's the most extreme food I've heard of? In my wife's homeland in the '80s, her cousin's military regiment consumed the flesh of fallen communist rebels to intimidate their comrades. In this country, the preparation of a human placenta on a British cooking show made headlines roughly a year ago. Apparently, the Vietnamese and Chinese prepare placentae for consumption by mothers due to their high protein content. The practice isn't confined to maternal use in China, however, trade in placentae is commonplace despite being discouraged by the authorities. These are items I'm certain you won't find on local menus. To cannibalize a phrase from John Lennon: Strange foods, indeed. Most peculiar, Mama.

MORE FEATURES: The Accidental Rockhound By Tom Vannah Tupperware Party in the Woods By Hank Hoffman Are The Prices Right? By Colleen Van Tassell Summer Listings can be found in our Happenings Sections: Arts | Stage | Etc. For summertime music listings, go here and click on 'future concerts'

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