“Want to try the fried flies?” asked our Bangkok guide. Who could resist? I popped one in my mouth. For the record, fried flies are salty, oily, crunchy, and much like roasted peanuts – except for the wings. They’re not bad as snacks go. But I don't think you'll find any major fast food franchises asking its customers, "Will you be having flies with that?"
I am not a timid eater. Give me a chance to taste exotic foreign fare – snake, pig brains, alligator, bull’s tails, baby eels – and I rarely turn it down. But I finally met my limits last August in a Munich beer hall.
I loved Munich’s beer halls and beer gardens. Some could seat thousands of revelers, and even when empty they seemed to ring with drinking songs and roars of bosky laughter. The oldest were built in the 7th century, and a great deal of the city’s history has taken place in them – Mozart writing symphonies, Hitler rising to power, everybody holding his bachelor party. In the Hofbräuhaus, there’s a gutter under the tables, where centuries ago men who were too drunk to stand or didn’t want to face the freezing temperatures in the outdoor privy would simply relieve themselves under the table. Such a practical solution; so hard to see why it died out.
Another practical idea: Breakfast in a beer garden. Why wait for happy hour, or even lunch? One Saturday we met our new friend Mike and his mother Betty for a late breakfast under the trees in the enormously popular Augustiner Bräustuben. The centerpiece of the meal was the classic Münchner weisswurst, a white veal sausage, with a side order of pretzels as big as my head. Various beverages appeared in liter-sized steins that – according beer hall custom – had to be lifted one handed. In addition to fruit juices mixed with fizzy soft drinks, we drank weissbier (white beer, known outside of Bavaria as weizenbier, or wheat beer), and russin, a dark wheat beer with a Sprite-like mixer. I turned down offers to try another classic combo, white beer with Coke, because even I have some standards.
“The food here is very good here,” said Betty.
“Yes, it’s delicious,” I said.
“No, I mean it’s good for you.”
I stared at my portion of weisswurst which (I calculated later) contained 25 grams of fat, 73 grams of cholesterol, and .78 grams of salt. To say nothing of the giant pretzel and liters of beer ...
“It’s because we don’t use preservatives,” she added comfortably.
In that moment I realized two things. 1) Who was I to judge whether this breakfast was any less healthy than the typical American breakfast of chemicals and white sugar masquerading as a bowl of cereal? And 2) I didn’t have to say “yes” to every opportunity to eat local foods.
I wouldn’t have missed my beer garden breakfast for anything; the food, the company, and the cultural experience were delightful. But I was at the beginning of a three-month journey through Central and Eastern Europe, and I was already overwhelmed by the prospect of adapting to a rich, new cuisine every time we stepped off a train. The spirit was willing, but the flesh wasn’t able to keep up with locals who had spent a lifetime tucking into German weisswurst, Czech gulášh or Bulgarian kvarma stew. I began passing up the kielbasa in favor of simple soups and salads, at least much of the time.
By showing a bit more common sense at some meals, I felt free to indulge in the local fare at others. When something truly special presented itself, I could say “yes!” or “tak” or “да” with all the enthusiasm I’d shown for the fried flies. Bon appétit!
One night in the old Soviet city of Tblisi, Georgia, at the end of many hours of toasting and feasting, our host took out a knife the size of a machete. He seized the remains of the whole roast pig, which by that point in the evening had been reduced to a few rib bones and the head. “And now,” he declared, “for our guests of honor, Karen and Rich – the brains of the pig!” With a single massive blow he cut the head in half. Extracting a small morsel from the interior, he held it out to me on the point of the blade. “For you!”
Clearly this was an honor I couldn’t refuse. “You’re too kind!” I murmured and tossed the greasy morsel down with copious amounts of wine. (If you must know, it tasted like lard.)
Another time we were in Thailand, and our guide ordered a plate of fried flies, passing them around the table for everyone to sample. Later, telling friends about this unconventional snack, I explained that it was salty, greasy and crunchy – a lot like cocktail peanuts, in fact. “How do you know they weren’t really peanuts?” one skeptic asked. “Well,” I said, “the wings were sort of a giveaway...”
Sampling pig brains and fried flies make for good stories, but I wouldn’t recommend them as a steady diet. Some of the other odd things we’ve sampled – snake, for example, or alligator – are part of the everyday fare in other parts of the world. Here in Spain, we often eat colo de toro (tail of the bull), carillada (stewed pig cheeks) and angulas (baby eels). For health reasons, I draw the line at suspicious shellfish and raw meats, and avoid internal organs whenever possible. Except of course, for haggis.
This year, Rich and I were lucky enough to be invited to share a haggis with friends at a Burns supper on January 25th, when people around the world gather to celebrate Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns. Cue bagpipe music! Enter Rich, dressed in tartan and sporran with a dirk (dagger) tucked into his sock!
He’d been asked to perform the ritual reading of Burns’ famous poem, Address to a Haggis, which begins
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.
After eight verses in this vein, Rich concluded with the traditional stabbing of the haggis, and the meal was served.
For those of you who have not had the felicity to experience a haggis, I’ll explain that it’s a sheep’s stomach stuffed with sheep’s pluck (organs you don’t want to think about) minced with onion, oatmeal, suet and spices. Everybody always talks about the ghastly ingredients, but the flavor is actually quite delicious and savory. What they should warn you about is how staggeringly rich and filling it is. After a few bites I was ready to put down my fork, but I tried my best to do justice to the generous portion on my plate. A “wee dram” of Scotch whisky helped the haggis along.
People sometimes ask me about the aftereffects of feasting on strange and exotic foods and what I do to restore my system’s equilibrium. Every country has its own remedy. After a very long night partying with some Georgian friends in their family’s farmhouse near the Chechnya border, we all gathered for a breakfast of their traditional morning-after pick-me-up: entrails soup. I’m talking about a bowl of broth with unspeakable parts of the cow floating in it. Cooked, thank heavens, but still ... Luckily the grandfather was entitled to the choicest serving; his bowl had a whole cow’s hoof sticking up out of it. When they asked if I would like a glass of vodka with my breakfast, I actually said yes.
For the most part, these strange foods are much more challenging to contemplate than to digest. When my stomach does protest a bit, I usually turn to good old Coca-Cola. It’s available just about everywhere, and although it’s an everyday beverage now, there’s a reason it was originally sold in drug stores as a heath tonic. I don’t drink much of it in the ordinary course of things, but for settling the stomach after an excess of fried flies, haggis or home-made wine, it’s a much better pick-me-up than entrails soup.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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