Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Exotic Foodstuffs

Out of personal interest, I do a lot of reading about different forms of food culture and technology, how they developed, and how they survive even in today's world of factory-made, plastic-wrapped food. I think the problem of how to supply its population with food is one of the problems, if not the problem, at the root of every society, and the solution(s) to that problem determines a lot about that society's culture, technology, and economics. So out of a combination of idleness (my interests are really too broad for my own good!), a love of novelty, and a recognition that everything - including food - is better if there is a story to go with it, I find things out.

Here are some pictures of food technologies from other cultures. Let's see if you can guess what they are. I'll make it easy: multiple choice.

First, what the heck is this? A) A yak turd. B) Enough wacky tabacky to guarantee your reservation at the Mexican prison of your choice. C) The basket in which Pharaoh's daughter found baby Moses floating in the Nile. D) Fermented tea.

Second, what the heck are these? A) Wedges of chocolate fudge. B) Slices of peat portioned for chafing-dish-sized fires. C) Child-safe crayons. D) Shrimp paste.

Third, what the heck is that item in the foreground right? A) Irradiated raw turkey (gross, but safe to eat). B) A pork chop cooked with the fat attached (to hold in the juices). C) Lox in aspic. D) Cod soaked in lye.

Fourth, what the heck is this? A) Egg sacs of the man-eating spiny giant slug of Western Samoa. B) A demonstration of a new technique for using canteloupe to transport organs for veterinary transplant surgery. C) An amazing tropical fruit that, to some people, tastes like "a rich custard highly flavored with almonds" and, to others, like "French-kissing your dead grandmother." D) Smurfberries.

Fifth, what the heck is this? A) Vietnamese breakfast cereal (with craisins). B) Polish duck blood soup. C) Feeding time for my Uncle Rodney's pet tapeworm. D) Menudo.

Sixth, what do these three eatables have in common? (Hint: I take an interest in linguistic coincidences, too.)

  1. D. Check out this Wiki article on Chinese pu-ehr tea.
  2. D. Check out this Wiki article on one of the essential ingredients of curry.
  3. D. Which is to say, lutefisk. (I'm not making this too easy, am I?)
  4. C. The durian fruit, banned from most airlines. (Gotcha! You thought all the answers were D, didn't you?)
  5. B. Gotcha again!
  6. Sake, mole, and mate all have names that look like something else in English. Which is why some writers put a superfluous accent over the final e of each word, to make it clear that it is being used in its two-syllable sense.
I have tried most of these substances, and been in the presence of the ritual drinking of the last-named - quite interesting - rather like watching grown men taking turns sucking tea out of a hollowed-out baseball full of loose tea leaves. That silver straw thing is built into the cup and has a filter at the other end, so one doesn't necessarily end up with leaves stuck in one's teeth.

All I can say is, life seems so much simpler when the tea comes in little dunkable pouches, when you don't have to see what goes into the curry. But at the same time, I have a deep admiration for the culture that invests great care and discrimination in every step of the process of making tea, shrimp paste, and all the ingredients that make our food and drink good. We don't even think about these concerns, but they are important to someone - and because they take such things seriously, we too might someday have an opportunity to taste true excellence.

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