Aspen Times Weekly: How Bizarre — The World of Strange Edibles
August 30, 2013
IMAGINE YOU ARE out to dinner, enjoying those first glorious sips of wine, when the waiter reappears with an amuse-bouche. He presents a small dish cradling a glossy, pulsating, bean-shaped lump and introduces you to a rare Korean delicacy: freshly harvested frog's heart.
Do you: A.) Gasp/shriek and recoil in horror, or B.) Cock your head, bite your lip and raise your fork?
Only a few brave souls will choose B. But, oh, what a strange thrill it can be to watch those people in action. Indeed, during one of the most-viewed episodes of the insanely popular Travel Channel program "Bizarre Foods," fearless host Andrew Zimmern pops a still-beating frog's heart into his mouth as if it were a chocolate bonbon. Later, when he peers into a dish of cartilage stew and declares, "This is a freak show in a bowl," his eyes sparkle with the kind of delight that a child's might when seeing an ice cream sundae.
A kindred spirit of badass globetrotter Anthony Bourdain, producer of the Emmy Award-winning TV show "No Reservations" and now "Parts Unknown," Zimmern is a dining daredevil respected — and reviled — around the world for chewing on tarantulas in Cambodia, sucking down squirming worms in the Philippines, and slurping coagulated duck blood soup in Vietnam. In Japan, he samples octopus eggs and sea cucumber jerky with one of Aspen's most revered chef-entrepreneurs, Nobu Matsuhisa. Once past the initial ick factor, Zimmern chirps enthusiastic praise for most of these regional specialties, which are partly responsible for keeping eateries in far-flung corners of the world in business, after all.
“We don’t get too much fetish food. But it’s fun
To play with, and we try to introduce people to
— Sabato Sagaria, director of food
and beverage at The Little Nell
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Ingredients of questionable origin are few and far between in our comparatively tame dining landscape: monkfish liver pâté at Matsuhisa Aspen or the popular Oaxacan snack of chapulines, aka fried grasshoppers, used in mole and sprinkled over guacamole at Zocalito Latin Bistro (see Bug Bites on opposite page) are probably the most cringe-inducing to the masses. But restaurants are taking a cue from celebrity showcases à la Bourdain and Zimmern and tempting adventurous palates more and more.
"What's commonplace today may not have been 10 years ago," notes Sabato Sagaria, director of food and beverage at The Little Nell. "Octopus is one of those things we sell a lot of, but five years ago it probably would have been considered a foreign food. Tartare is another: we've seen a resurgence. We are using lamb sweetbreads on one of our dishes at element 47. You have chefs thinking outside of the box; taking odd cuts but putting them in a familiar package gets people to step outside their comfort zone a bit."
Rustic peasant dishes — tripe, offal, headcheese — have been featured on local menus sporadically, mostly during special events and wine dinners, where chefs have a captive audience. "We're a hotel and we have to appeal to the masses," says Sagaria, who enjoys the occasional plate of pickled tongue and fondly recalls tasting raw pork sausage at a chef's home in Tuscany. "We don't get too much fetish food. But it's fun to play with, and we try to introduce people to this stuff."
Sagaria hopes to do just that at the second annual Rocky Mountain Oyster Festival and BBQ, held on the patio of Ajax Tavern on Labor Day. While oysters in all permutations — on the half shell, Rockefeller, in creative hors d'oeuvres — and spit-roasted swine and lamb are hardly considered bizarre foods, the event title's double entendre — beef testicles — certainly qualify.
"We do it in a way that's approachable: fry them up with Buffalo-style breading, with blue cheese dressing and spicy wing sauce to dip them in," Sagaria says.
While Tavern chefs are frantically shucking an anticipated 5,000 oysters, the Rocky Mountain Oysters will likely draw less demand.
"Nobody sat down and said, 'Let's have a Rocky Mountain Oyster eating competition,'" Sagaria says of last year's inaugural event, which drew about 150 guests. "But everyone got a gold star (for trying them)."
Forget Rocky Mountain Oysters: some individuals can't get past the slippery texture or briny flavor of bivalves. Humans across all cultures have widely varying opinions about what is delicious versus disgusting, and while some of it has to do with biology, a lot of it relates to culture. In his latest book, "Cooked," bestselling author Michael Pollan explores the complexities of offensive foods, especially related to smell.
"The bacteria that give cheese their aromas are, at least in some cases, closely related to the bacteria that give us our aromas," Pollan writes. "A cheese that stinks — of manure, of sex — offers a relatively safe way for us to flirt with forbidden desires."
Furthermore, Pollan continues, "the specific things that elicit disgust in one culture don't necessarily disgust people in another…Certainly it can take the full force of a culture to overcome people's resistance to the odor of rotting plants or the back end of animals in something you're supposed to eat. This is what is meant by an acquired taste. If a culture is capable of inspiring disgust, it can also help us overcome it."
Sagaria maintains that the trick to shifting perceptions lies in making iffy ingredients approachable to cautious diners.
"On our deviled eggs (at The Little Nell) we serve salmon roe," Sagaria says. "We've done pig's face, the jowls, all of it is full of rich goodness. The cheeks will be up there (on Sept. 2), but no real odd parts. There's a certain amount of trust in terms of the diligence we have with preparing it safely."
Those who have the, uh, balls to try Colorado bull bollocks on Labor Day are wise to do it Aspen-style — with a chaser of bubbly.
"That creamy texture of the Rocky Mountain Oyster when they're fried, with a glass of Champagne is one of those awesome things: a juxtaposition of something so peasant but so luxury," Sagaria says.
Which brings us to another truth: Enough Champagne and you just might forget what you're eating in the first place.
Amanda Rae will try a Rocky Mountain Oyster if you will, too. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org