A gastronomic guide to local delicacies
Pizza in Italy, frog’s legs in France, kangaroo in Australia, sheep’s eyes in Mongolia – wherever you travel there are local delicacies to be enjoyed, or endured.
But just where is the best place in the world to eat freshly-cooked squid? And which countries should you avoid if you don’t want to tackle a sheep’s eye sitting on your plate?
Here’s our guide to some of the best, and most unusual cuisines to be found around the world.
Gastronome on a Budget
Not feeling that flush but want to eat something a little more exotic than battered cod from your local chippy? You don’t have to go far for some foreign treats. Just hop on a plane to Italy, Ireland or Sweden for a taste of the exotic. All of these culinary delights can be experienced in less than two hours flying time, and with budget prices at www.cheapflights.co.uk, it’s a restaurant experience that won’t break the bank.
Pizza and Pasta
Want to indulge your craving for carbs? The undisputed maestro of the pizza is, of course, Italy.
Although the whole of the country will serve you up a pasta or pizza to die for, the sauces and toppings differ from region to region.
In general, the coastline of the country specialises in fish and shellfish, so if you want a crab pasta head for the seas. Pizza con prosciutto, perhaps with a few olives on the top, is a simple culinary delight that will leave you wanting to order another for pudding.
But although Parma is thought of in the UK as the best place for cured ham, the Italians often prefer prosciutto San Daniele, which comes from the small farming region of the same name near the Alps in Italy. And if you’re staying in the countryside, there are few things in life more tasty than Italian tomatoes and mozzarella – as a pizza topping, in a pasta, or simply on their own for lunch.
However, if you think that one pizza is like any other, be warned. There is an intense rivalry between Naples and the rest of the country, especially the nearby Rome, over the thickness of pizza base. The Neapolitans prefer their bases thick (though we’re not talking Pizza Hut stuffed crust here) whereas the Romans like a thin, crispy, paper-like base. Saying the Roman version is better when you’re in Naples, or vice versa, can land you in serious trouble.
The Italians are so proud of their culinary heritage, that there is even a pizzeria in Turin that was opened by some Neapolitan players for Juventus football team. They relocated their favourite chefs from Naples, because they didn’t believe that the chefs in Turin could cut the mustard. Now that’s amore.
Frog’s Legs and Snails
Despite the stereotype, the French don’t always smell of garlic, wear stripy jumpers, carry onions round their neck and consume huge amounts of escargots and cuisses de grenouilles.
Unlike in Italy, where you will be hard-pressed to find a restaurant without pasta on the menu, these traditional French dishes can take a bit more searching for.
If you’re looking for a little bistro in Paris with these on the menu, you may find yourself surrounded by other tourists doing the same. Christmas and Easter time is when the French usually eat the creatures, so if you’re visiting then you shouldn’t have any trouble finding some.
So do frog’s legs taste of chicken? And are snails really slimy? Well, yes, a bit, to both questions.
Frogs legs look a bit similar to a chicken wing – the top joint of the hind leg is the part you’ll be eating – and they are usually fried or deep-fried and sometimes covered in breadcrumbs. Snails traditionally come in a garlic butter sauce, and often it is difficult to taste anything else. Don’t worry, you’re not actually eating the whole snail. They are removed from their shells, stripped of their entrails and then cooked, before being put back into the shell, so you can remove them with a tiny fork.
To be honest, it’s unlikely that either will disgust you or convert you to the point of abandoning steak in their favour. But, when in France, it’s definitely worth giving them a try.
No self-respecting Burns supper would be complete without one – a lovely boiled haggis. But if you’re planning on trying this delicacy soon, it might be wise to skip the rest of this section so that you don’t find out what’s in them before you eat it.
Haggis is made from the liver, heart and lungs of a sheep, mixed together with some oats and stuffed inside its stomach. It is then boiled for around an hour and eaten with neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes). That didn’t put you off? Well good, because if you want a carnivorous feast, not much can beat the Scottish national dish for pure meatiness (and economy with the parts of an animal that might otherwise get wasted).
The Scots have been eating haggis for time immemorial, though it has recently become something of a “specialist” dish, more likely to be found on the table in New York on January 25 than anywhere else. And just remember – it’s all the same stuff that goes into sausages, they’re just more open about revealing the ingredients.
Haggis has become such a symbol of Scottishness that it’s even found its way onto the sports field. The annual haggis hurling event, held in – you’ve guessed it – the United States, invites participants to show off their prowess by throwing a haggis as far as they possibly can. Scotland’s other “national dish” comes into play as well, the throwing platform, on which the competitors stand to make the throw, is a barrel of whisky. So if you lose, at least you can console yourself with a hearty supper and a good drink.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most Irish dishes are based heavily around the humble potato.
A visit to the Emerald Isle is not complete without eating the tuber in as many forms as possible. But boxty, a sort of potato pancake, is a perennial favourite – immortalised in the rhyme “Boxty on the griddle, boxty in the pan, if you can’t make boxty, you’ll never get your man”.
If your cooking skills leave a bit to be desired, fear not, you can still get your man by whisking him off to Ireland, and let someone else sweat over a stove for you.
Boxty’s are made from a mixture of grated raw potato and cold, already cooked mashed potato, mixed together with some flour and milk. They are cooked in a pan in a similar way to pancakes.
Mussels in Brussels
Moules frites can be found on menus throughout Belgium and many parts of France, but eating them in Brussels has a certain ring to it. If you order them, you’ll have steaming great bowls of the mussels in their shells brought to your place, probably with a bowl of water to wash your hands in, and some chips on the side. The mussels are usually cooked in a sauce – moules mariniere is one of the most popular, a garlic, onion and white wine sauce.
Mussel etiquette, like the food, is a slippery beast. Many swear by the “pincer action” method, whereby you use the shell from a mussel that you have already eaten as if it were a pair of tweezers to remove the others. But if this seems too messy, a small fork is also fine. Just don’t think that the water bowl for washing your hands is a soup – though it often resembles the mariniere sauce.
There are some experiences worth travelling for, and fried chicken feet bought from a roadside barbecue in Africa might just be one of them. If you’ve been saving up for a long-haul holiday, here’s a pick of the local delicacies that you mustn’t miss out on. Save money on your air fare with www.cheapflights.co.uk and you can spend even more in the restaurant. Who says a seven-course meal is too extravagant?
Or, more accurately speaking, raw fish. The Japanese consume on average three times the amount of fish per head than we do in Britain. And one of the most popular fish dishes is sashimi: raw, very thinly-sliced fresh fish. It is often served with rice, as sushi, and with ginger, soy sauce and wasabi.
Many types of fish are used for sashimi, including tuna, mackerel, squid and octopus. But the most famous fish used must be the potentially deadly fugu, or puffer fish. The puffer fish has a poisonous sac, the eating of which will kill the gourmand, if it hasn’t been removed in the correct way. Needless to say, only a few chefs have the licence needed for preparing the fish.
But plucking up the courage to eat fish that hasn’t been cooked – and just might kill you – isn’t the most intimidating part of eating in Japan. In a country of great politeness, table manners are crucial. Just so you don’t completely embarrass yourself here’s a quick guide to what can seem a baffling code of dos and don’ts:
- Most Japanese tables in restaurants and homes are low to the ground. Do: take off your shoes and sit cross-legged at the table. Don’t:sit down on the table itself.
- As a general rule, everything that would be rude in Britain is the same, but even more so. Do: finish your bowlful, right down to the last grain of rice. Don’t: blow your nose at the table; discuss your toilet habits; burp (it’s not considered a sign of appreciation here, as in some other Eastern countries.)
- Utensils can seem a bit daunting. Do: Persevere with your chopsticks for large bits of food and rice. Fingers are acceptable for some sushi.Don’t: say “Can’t you give me a knife and fork, for heaven’s sake?”
The status of fufu as a delicacy is arguable. Remember that flour and water paste you used to make as a child to hold together Blue Peter loo-roll castles? Fufu (or the East African equivalent ugali) is a little like that. A staple food in Ghana, with variations across many African countries, it is used instead of potatoes or rice as an accompanying “filler”, often to go with big stews.
Similar to porridge, fufu is made from grains – usually maize or corn – pounded and then boiled with water, and mixed together until it is a thick mass. It is eaten with pretty much everything. In Ghana, you often see women outside their houses, battering the contents of a stew-pot with a large wooden pestle. This is to pound the grains to make fufu, the overall process of which can take a whole day.
Though quite bland, fufu is certainly an acquired taste, as it can seem a bit gloopy to the uninitiated. It is normally served as a big round ball placed on the table, from which you tear off small pieces, roll into a small sphere with your fingers and then dip in the soup or stew. As meat and fish can be scarce in the poorer regions of Ghana, the stew is often full of very strong spices to make up the flavour, and fu-fu is the equivalent of rice served with curry to help make the flavour milder and bulk up the menu. You won’t necessarily be converted if you try this dish, but if you’re spending lots of time in Africa you’ll certainly have to get used to it.
Of course, you could save yourself a trip overseas and just head to Brick Lane in London or Curry Mile in Manchester for a fantastic curry. But if you want sunshine while you eat, you don’t need us to tell you that the place to go is India.
Spices were originally used in curries to mask the taste of what might not have been the freshest bit of meat. But it was a formula worth discovering, and the popularity of curry has spread so much that the chicken korma is now one of the nation’s favourite dishes – in Britain. Authentic curries in India are often not as hot as those created over here for a British palate, and the flavours used are more delicate.
If you can’t abide an Indian curry, no matter how weak, the other great curry-making country is Thailand. Thai green curries tend to use coconut milk and a lot more fresh herbs. Instead of dried spices, a curry paste is created with anything up to about 20 ingredients, typically including chillies, coconut milk and coriander, ground together with a pestle and mortar.
Legend has it that biltong was first created by South African pioneers. The delicacy takes its name from the words “bil” meaning buttock and “tong” meaning strip, and is exactly what it says on the tin, thin cured strips of beef (usually taken from the buttock region of the cow).
The migrating tribesmen had no way of storing meat as they were travelling, so they strung it to the underside of the horses’ saddles as they rode. The salt in the horses’ sweat cured the meat, and the air that went past as they rode along cured it. It was also an economical measure as salt was expensive and hard to get hold of.
Fortunately for biltong lovers, this method of preparation has fallen into disuse. The beef is now prepared by being covered in salt (that’s real sea salt) for an hour or more, dipped in vinegar, sprinkled with pepper and coriander and left to dry in a more usual way.
Biltong has become so popular worldwide that you can even buy it in plastic bags from the same place as your pork scratchings at the local pub. But if you want to eat the original and best, South Africa is the only place to go. And how does it taste? Well, let’s just say that if you’re expecting it to be chewy, you won’t be in for too much of a surprise.
National dish of Australia? Not quite. Eating kangaroo meat has actually only been legal in the country in recent years, but since these bouncing animals have been allowed on the menus it has become a bit of a novelty meat in many high-priced restaurants. Many people still hate the thought of eating it, but the dark, gamey meat is quite lean and very good for you. As it is one of the native animals of Australia, it is also potentially less damaging to the environment to farm than sheep or cows.
And if you’ve got a taste for the unusual, Australia has many other “exotic” options to put on your fork. Crocodile meat is available, though often is something of a gimmick for tourists. A white meat, it looks similar to fish, but tastes more like, you guessed it, chicken. Ostrich meat is dark and quite tough, but popular as an alternative for beef in burgers.
However, for something unusual and genuinely traditional on the Australian menu, you have to think smaller. Witchetty grubs are the larvae of the ghost moth and are found in the trunks of gum trees. They have been part of the Aboriginal diet for centuries, as well as some C-list celebrities on recent game shows. It’s enough to make you scream: “Get me out of here”.
It’s not a myth – fried locusts, worms and cockroaches are eaten as a snack in many African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Believe it or not, archaeological evidence shows that mankind has been practising entomophagy – that’s insect eating to you and me – since we first arrived on the planet. Nowadays, rather than being the only option when you can’t catch a tasty hairy mammoth, insects are eaten as a delicacy in many countries.
In the Mexican town of Oaxaca, fried crickets, prepared with salt and lemon, are known as chapulines and are a speciality of the town. In Thailand, they enjoy not only crickets, but also grasshoppers, beetle larvae and even dragonflies.
Still not convinced? Then consider your health. Insects are low in carbohydrates but high in protein and fat – a fact that Dr Atkins surprisingly hadn’t picked up on. To boost your levels of protein go for earthworm or termites; silkworms are high in vitamin A; while grasshopper are good for vitamins B1 and B2.
And if that all sounds a bit gruelling and drives you to the whisky bottle, take pity on the people of Mongolia, where the hangover cure is supposed to be a pickled sheep’s eye-ball in tomato juice. We’ll stick to the traditional bloody mary, thanks.