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Appetite for adventure

Fried locust larvae? A fish and bacon sandwich (bones and all)? At food stalls around the world, some tasty surprises await. Here is one global gastronome's list of favorites.

November 25, 2007|Eric Lucas | Special to The Times

believed her. I do have photographic evidence. More important, I have the memory of a unique experience that reminded me how colorful, diverse and, yes, educational street market foods are.

Eating scorpions, say, exposes the adventurous traveler to a new taste and demonstrates that all food aesthetics are relative; it also reflects the historic fact that billions of humans have had to consume whatever's available.

I began this adventure as a boy in Mexico. There are innumerable delights to be found in Mexico's lively markets -- fresh handmade blue or red corn tortillas, barbecued goat, handmade tropical-fruit ice cream, smoked eel. I encountered an unexpected treat in the night market in Patzcuaro, Michoacan's lovely lakeside mountain village -- potato chips made on the spot. My wife and I had terrific barbecued pork shoulder at a lunch counter on the road to Tacambaro. We headed there just to see what was there; I'd say the best barbecue ever is a pretty splendid discovery.

Let me answer the most common question: No, I've never been sick. Not outside the U.S., anyway; I did contract a mild case of paratyphoid from a public water supply in Louisiana, where I grew up. Yes, I have a famously ironclad Mediterranean stomach, but my wife possesses a more delicate Scandinavian version, and she's never been sick either. In Mexico, China, the Caribbean and, of course, Europe, we have witnessed the utmost attention to hygiene, even in the smallest food stands.

You do want to avoid fresh fruit with the skin on (oranges are OK, unpeeled apples, no), uncooked foods, and drinks that don't come from a bottle.

Aside from novel experiences, I've enjoyed new and fascinating flavors, discovered delightful exotic foods -- there are hundreds of wonderful edible fruits, of which only a paltry dozen or so are common in the Northern Hemisphere -- and made quick but warm connections with people around the world who appreciate a visitor's willingness to share their cuisine. You don't have to try foods that would give Aunt Margaret a heart attack either; even my Chinese guide shied away from fried scorpions.

The scorpion cook in Beijing got a huge chuckle out of the American tourist's alarmed reaction -- and so did I. There's a world of culinary wonder out there, on a billion street corners and market alleys. Some of my favorites:


Aside from fried scorpions, Beijing's colorful, pedestrian-only Wangfujing Street offers fried locust larvae, roast turkey tower-skewers, pot-stewed pig's intestines with baked wheat cakes, boiled tripe, stewed sheep's head (waste not, want not) and fried starch sausage in garlic sauce. And lots more, from humdrum dim sum to red bean cakes for dessert. Alas, there's no place to take a nap after lunch.


At markets in the central highlands, the chips vendor takes a big potato, deftly runs it through a slicer, ladles the result in a basket and plunges it in hot oil. Three minutes later she drains the chips, serves them into a small paper cup and hands them over with lemon and salt. You know how good real doughnuts are when they've just come out of the cooker? Like that. No, you cannot eat just one.


Each morning, 1,000 food-stand cooks start up a big stew pot of chicken, a second big pot of beans and a third big pot of rice. The sidewalk chalkboard is inscribed "stew beans & chicken," and at 11:30 everyone digs into the standard Caribbean lunch: a paper plate with chicken stew over rice, beans on the side. Red kidney beans, farmyard chicken, peasant rice -- it's rock-bottom comfort food, and, to me, it's way better than any chicken anything you'll get in the States.


Coconut bake is a local variant of roti, which is itself a variant of West Indian fry bread, which is nothing like Indian fry bread in this country and is similar to what we call nan, only that's baked and this is griddle-cooked, except when it's "bake." See how complicated this can get? The bake I had in a Milford Road market near Canaan had a light coconut aroma and taste and was dandy with a smear of butter. I know -- that's not health food.


The fruit stands in Kowloon's Fa Yuen Street offer items just as diverse, from Washington state Red Delicious apples, stickered and trademarked, to the real delights I sampled one warm January day. Yes, you do have to mind the no-fruit-skins rule, so let's focus on the two dozen things a tourist can eat. A mangosteen is a sweet-sour juice burst inside a leathery purple skin. Jackfruit, the world's largest fruit, comes in chopped-off half-foot chunks that you can slurp up like watermelon or scoop with a spoon.

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