The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Food

The second most unproductive yet inevitable process after sleeping is eating. Eating is not only time consuming but also exceedingly annoying. By the flawed process of human evolution, eating is still performed with the mouth, preventing us from speaking in a coherent fashion while replenishing our body with nutriments. The same orifice could also engage in several other activities, but let us not get overly technical. While I would much prefer an instant subcutaneous injection to deliver said nutriments directly into my bloodstream with no time wasted, sometimes I make an effort trying to understand why people like to eat and what they like to eat. After years of careful observation, I came to conclude that people like to eat weird things.

Head of a half-hatched duck

Conservative ducks could use this picture to campaign for anti-abortion laws.

Volunteering in an orphanage in Cambodia, I sampled a delicacy that was prepared specifically in my honour. A heap of boiled eggs were waiting their destiny, each with a half-developed duck inside. As I opened one, feathers and structures of the duck were already visible, yet the bones were still soft, I could eat the whole thing with a spoon. It was a disturbing dish, but I did not understand why: people eat eggs and ducks anyway, this thing was half-way in between.

Rats in a plastic bottle

Rats and coconuts.

A few days later my adorable hosts prepared a bowl of ant curry for me. The last scream froze on the mandibles of the giant ants as they were being cooked alive. The strange bitterish sour taste was worth the death of an entire ant colony. Another day we were roaming the rice fields with the kids to pluck coconuts. A delegation detached from the main group, only to reappear about two hours later. They were swinging a plastic bottle cut in half containing their catch: a dozen rats, quite deceased. I congratulated them for ensuring a great harvest by eliminating the vermin. The kids gave me puzzled looks and explained that they caught rats to have them roasted. They told me rats tasted great. Well, the rodents were undoubtedly organically farmed, but I did not join the feast. Not that I was invited.

Travelling further north to Laos, I spotted dried weasels on skewers at a market. I went around the restaurants in town, trying to explain that I wanted to have the dried weasel dish. My lack of linguistic skills barred me from success. I also heard rumours of fermented finches that rot in clay vessels underground for a few months before consumption, but my luck was against me.

The roasted leg of a guinea pig

The tiny toes of the roasted guinea pig were a turn off.

Hop across a couple of oceans, and you will be surprised how normal South American cuisine is. Sure, you can chew coca leaves along with your llama steak, or fry your piranhas by the Amazon, but there is nothing of the fermented finch or giant ant curry type. The Inca came up with one strange dish: roasted guinea pigs. They are not easy to get, they are normally consumed only during festivals, but luckily South America has no shortage of festivals. The hind leg of the beast is about the size of a bigger drumstick. While a chicken’s feet is amputated before serving the rest of the limb, the tiny toes of the guinea pig give you a sense of remorse as you are embedding your teeth in the charred flesh.

The pinnacle of human civilization, Singapore, has culinary surprises for the adventurous. Having no arable land, most agricultural goods have to be imported, but the country is proudly self-sufficient in one product: frog meat. It tastes like chicken, of course. The fun part of eating frogs is that you can pick the ones you fancy to devour. “Hey, uncle-uncle, get me that big fat one, long time no makan liao,” as the polite request goes. “Walao, angmoh need calories also,” the reply wisely observes. The selected frogs perish in a spicy clay hot pot. A Lao version adds a twist by deep frying the frogs — perhaps remotely inspired by the American habit of deep frying everything.

Fried frogs on a plastic plate

Street snack in Laos.

Yet, the weirdest of frog dishes is a delicacy made from a precious organ of my amphibian gendermates. Frog’s ball soup is believed to give a boost to your fertility. My dearest friends in Singapore were keen to surprise me with this dish, and they succeeded. As the jelly-like substance travelled down my throat, I felt that I did something deeply wrong to myself and to the world. I expected the sudden death of us diners. We not only survived, but thirteen months later my friends had a baby. I see a pattern there.

Frog's ball soup

A substance like no other: frog’s ball soup. Not recommended in countries with a one-child policy.

Continuing the soup theme, turtle soup is still sold at some places in Singapore. An 80+ couple used to sell it on Beach Road. They closed shop every day around 11am, when the turtle meat ran out. They sourced the turtles from a Malaysian farm, it was a legitimate business, but the Urban Redevelopment Authority probably already bulldozed its location into a new condo.

Shark’s fin soup is a dark abyss of human cruelty, but an almost sustainable way of eating sharks exists. Shark meat contains chemicals that lead to diarrhoea or even death. Icelandic people are among the most inventive, and they would not let all those sharks swimming around their island uneaten. They figured that if you dig a hole, dump a shark there, and let it rot for a few months, then the dangerous compounds vanish, and the feast may commence. Hákarl is the name of the snack, and nothing compares to the strength of its penetrating odour. I opened the container in the house, and my buddy arriving home could smell it from the street. The stench is a blend of refined ammonia, nylon socks worn for two weeks in leather boots, and the pure hatred one feels for airport security officers. So brush up your fishing skills, bury your catch, and make your own hákarl.

A plastic container with hákarl

The camera died after taking this picture: the stench of hákarl dissolved its copper components

A few months after turning vegetarian, I embarked on an extended trip to Central Asia. Kazakhstan has a commendable programme for rural tourism. I signed up, and following a twelve-hour microbus ride, I arrived in a tiny village in the mountains. I was greeted by a jovial couple in their seventies. Having established my country of origin, the old man got excited. The Red Army stationed him in that bleak capital where I hail from. He showed me pictures of the city in the 1950s, with him grinning with a dash of youthful innocence. He immediately announced that he regarded me as his grandson, and that we should have a celebration. He ordered his wife to bring forth the festive food, which was horse meat in various manifestations. My protests were ignored. We started with a hearty horse meat soup, and followed it up with horse sausages and horse meat jerky. The following morning I got up early and went for a run. The decapitated head of a young horse was staring at me vacantly from the village’s garbage dump. I did not feel elevated.

A horse's head

I am so sorry.

Getting stricter and stricter with my diet, I venture off less and less from dishes of plant origin. A stint in Japan challenged me. Not being able to read Japanese, I randomly picked stuff in the supermarket that I expected to confirm with my diet. I bought tiny styrofoam boxes that were cheap, and twenty-five available brands hinted that the boxes contained a staple food. Each container had about 150 grams of strange, gooey, brown substance. I had no idea what it was, but I liked it a lot. Soon I was having three to four containers a day. Weeks later I learned it was the dreaded natto, fermented soy beans that divide the Japanese society to natto-lovers and natto-haters. Foreigners are supposed to hate it, but they forgot to inform me in advance.

Natto dripping from chopsticks

That is it? Rotten soy beans? There must be more to outlandish vegan food.

Humans are universal eating machines. They will eat anything they find in their environment: ants, rodents, sharks, horses, or fermented soy beans. It does not matter what time I log in to Facebook, I always see somebody’s lunch: hey, check this out, I am about to eat [insert name of scorched dead animal here], I am the happiest person on the planet. So what? Having sampled a cross-section of the world’s food, I came to believe that I am unlikely to ever understand the obsession. I am better off vegan and let others revel in their gory eating habits.

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