Saturday, March 26, 2011

Nonfiction 8: Eat My Globe by Simon Majumdar

Simon Majumdar is a British person who traveled around the world, eating enormous amounts of food everywhere he stopped, and wrote about it all in a hilarious, highly raunchy book.

I absolutely enjoyed this book, even as I wondered just what the impact was on Majumdar's health as he repeatedly ate enormous amounts of meat, generally several times in one day (and usually accompanied by alcohol). He does appear to walk a lot, and by the end of the book he's developed a stress fracture in one foot. Health tip: Exercise cancels out gluttony.

His style reminded me of Anthony Bourdain. It's a comparison that Majumdar brings upon himself. He has the experience of visiting a small eatery in Hong Kong that turns out to be fantastically good. He's convinced that he's stumbled across an unknown gem, but as he gets up to leave he realizes that the eatery prominently displays a photo of Bourdain sitting on the premises, eating much the same meal Majumdar just finished.

Besides the love of food and the bawdy writing style, Majumdar and Bourdain also share a lack of both standard snobbery and reverse snobbery. Majumdar loves good cooking and fine meals at expensive restaurants, but he also loves eating his way across a traditional market going from street stall to street stall. And he doesn't romanticize street food, either. If it's bad, he tells it like it is. (Stir-fried rat. From a street stand in Yangshuo, China. He doesn't pretend he likes it.)

Majumdar is one of those Europeans who are able to write hilariously about American culture without coming across as a snobby little snot. I appreciate that.

He never made it to Taiwan, or to Central America (where we spent our honeymoon), but with his reports from every continent, my wife and I now have plenty of tips and recommendations. And I must say I loved his description of India, particularly Mumbai, the one city on Earth that has left me feeling truly intimidated.

The extremes of my own eating adventures:

I have eaten dog once, in Korea. Boshintang. It wasn't terrible -- it tasted something like lamb, and was served in a flavorful broth alongside a peppery powder mix that you dip the meat into.

Not long after that meal, I was in a rather decrepit part of Seoul where I saw a dog store. It sold large dogs, who sat outside in cages. They were panting in the hot sun. They weren't being sold as pets. That didn't exactly do wonders for my desire to eat dog again. There are also plenty of markets in Korea where you can see no-nonsense older ladies carving up dog carcasses for consumers.

I know it's hypocritical for an omnivore like me to be grossed out by that. I eat pork, I eat mutton, and I know where it comes from. Shall I mention the widely believed story that dogs are often beaten before they're slaughtered to make them taste better? I've heard from sources I trust that that's only a rumor, started by Westerners who were disgusted that Asians ate dog at all. And I've heard from other sources I trust that it's no rumor. I don't know what to believe.

I have eaten silkworm larvae. In Korea it's called bundaegi, and it's usually sold from outdoor stands in markets. You eat them with a plastic spoon from a cup, and they taste something like boiled nuts.

That was the only time I've knowingly eaten insects, although I wouldn't refuse to try them again. Here in Taiwan they feature in Aboriginal cuisines, and I've seen hornets on the menu at Aborigine-owned restaurants.

I've eaten cephalopods, cooked, raw, and whole. Honestly, in East Asian cooking they're nothing special, and the sense of slight disgust I felt growing up at the thought of eating tentacles just seems embarrassingly provincial now.

I have eaten camel. Once, in Beijing. I don't remember much about it.

I have eaten sashimi so often that my provincial Western childhood disgust at the idea of eating raw fish has completely evaporated. I tried raw chicken once, in Japan. My dining companions and I decided that, if any nation could be trusted to prepare raw chicken so as to be safe to eat, it was the Japanese. Unlike Majumdar, I have not tried horse sashimi.

I have eaten snake, at Snake Alley in Huaxi Night Market in Taipei. Make no mistake, if you eat snake there you've fallen into a tourist trap. You're about as daring as if you'd gone on a particularly scary ride at Disneyland.

I have eaten most varieties of Taiwanese stinky tofu, chou dofu. The fried version's not so bad -- there's a lady near our apartment who dishes out tasty servings of fried tofu and oyster soup. And the tofu on sticks available at the market in Shenkeng is pungent and flavorful. But I've also had serious chou dofu. The kind that's not for beginners. I have been to Mama Dai's House of Stink, the restaurant that humbled Andrew Zimmern. It isn't the flavors at Mama Dai's that I remember from my visit. It isn't the textures. It is the scents. The scents that waft over to you if you're sitting on the downwind side of the table when she places a hot bowl of soup in front of you are what I imagine it smells like to be downwind of a pack of shuffling zombies.

Despite living in Korea for two and a half years, I never tried cheonggukjang jigae, which I understand to be something of a Korean equivalent of chou dofu.

I have eaten durian. I don't dislike it, not exactly, but let's just say a little durian goes a long way. I have eaten durian ice cream. It tasted like durian. I had a factory-produced durian hard candy once, and afterwards my wife said she could still smell it on my breath.

I have eaten chicken feet. Ironically enough, it was in a dim sum restaurant in Virginia, not anywhere in Asia. I was not impressed. Not enough meat. The sauce was decent, but I felt like I was slurping it off the bones.

I have eaten congealed pig's blood. It's a common ingredient in soups and stews here in Taiwan. I wouldn't say I like it, but I don't find it revolting either, and I can slurp it down with a spoonful of broth. I had some deep-fried blood sausage in Nicaragua; it was so-so. Simon Majumdar sings the praises of a good English black pudding, and I suppose I'll give it a chance if I get the opportunity.

I have a complicated relationship with organ meats. As a good American, growing up I thought they were gross. That mental block did not really begin to crack until just in the last few years.

I've eaten intestines a few times here in Taiwan. I have nothing against the taste, but the texture leaves something to be desired. I don't like feeling like I've got meat-flavored chewing gum in my mouth. If it's prepared in ways that don't make it chewy, though, I have nothing against eating any portion of an animal's digestive track.

I've never knowingly eaten brain. I suppose I will eventually. Simon Majumdar writes so lovingly of eating brain and heart and lung and spleen. Look, I tell myself. I have no problem eating small fish whole -- they must have most of these organs, only in miniature. Why do I erect these totally arbitrary mental blocks preventing me from enjoying certain parts of animals?

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