A few months ago I found myself waaaaay down the South end of the South island of New Zealand, wondering just which direction to go in next (Duh…North?) when I realized that the Southern Wild Food Festival was coming to Invercargill.
I like food. It’s no secret. And wild food? Sure, why not?
What does wild food mean, exactly? Well, it’s food that’s sourced from the land, hunted and gathered, such as wild boar, venison, seafood or snails. It could be simply making use of food sources we might not normally think of. In this case it’s also things that might be farmed, but are considered ‘alternative’ such as sheep’s milk, colostrum, or sweetbreads.
I knew there would be delicious things to eat there. I also knew there would be weird things to eat there.
When I was a kid I was a picky eater. I remember my mom saying that when I grew up I’d probably survive on nothing but PB&J sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies. Boy was she wrong!
Somewhere along the way I developed a love for food that only grows with each new taste I discover.
But while I will try new dishes in a new country, I don’t often go out of my way to try the really weird stuff. I did not eat the fried cockroaches in that market in Thailand. I did not eat crickets on a stick in Laos, or scorpions in Beijing. I have not had prairie oysters or rocky mountain oysters or whatever you want to call them. I have not eaten dog.
I did, however, eat plenty of beondegi (silkworm larvae) in Korea, and a dish of fried up crickets in Vietnam. I had squirrel in Laos, kangaroo in Australia, yak in Tibet and camel in Mongolia. I’ve had cheese and yogurt made from yak, camel, and horse milk. I even tried the soup in China that had sheep heads floating in it and ate the mystery meat within (I don’t think it was brain. I think perhaps tongue. I hope.)
So it turns out that I’m not all that timid when it comes to food. I don’t actually seek out the weird stuff, but I’ll try just about anything that’s put in front of me and if I happen to stumble across something odd in my travels, well I might just give it a go. I like to push the boundaries of my sheltered Western upbringing a bit, and if the people there will happily eat it, why shouldn’t I?
It helps if I have an audience, or companions to join me in the strangeness. And beer. Beer also makes it easier.
So the only problem with going to the Wild Food Festival was that I had no one to go with. Only it actually wasn’t much of a problem. It turns out that if I’m in the right mood, and go there with the intent to try new and weird things, I’m ok with it.
So what did I eat there? Well I had a delicious creamy Fijian fish curry. I devoured a wonderful venison samosa. I sampled tender smoked salmon. I set my mouth on fire with a piece of salted caramel and chili chocolate.
New Zealand celebrity chef Richard Till was there, giving cooking demonstrations. I’d never heard of him, but he was really quite entertaining and I got to try both his venison stroganoff and his absolutely scrumptious mussel fritters. I’ll be making these at some point while I’m here in the Coromandel – this is mussel country!
And in between all that? Yes, I tried the weird stuff.
I had dried bugs – grasshoppers, crickets, and worms that came both on their own and in bug and pork dumplings with rice. They were…dry. Fibrous. A bit nutty. No big deal. I’ve had bugs before.
So then I got really brave, and tried the bull’s penis. Because seriously, if you’re going all the way to a wild food festival you might as well just try all the stuff. And if they’re serving up bull’s penis with a lovely satay sauce, well, that doesn’t sound so bad, right? I like satay sauce.
Now of course I’d never had bull’s penis before, and had no idea what to expect. What do you think bull’s penis might taste like? And the texture? Just guess.
I thought it might be kind of like a sausage. Because, y’know, the shape…and…that’s it really. But that’s what I was expecting.
Bull’s penis is more or less the shape of a sausage (but smaller than I would have thought…it’s a BULL for god’s sake!) but that’s where all resemblances end. I got three slices of penis on a stick, looking crispy and delicious. Too bad what appeared crispy was actually just sort of chewy, and once I bit through the outer layer it was like there was a giant chunk of soft fat in my mouth, rolling around amongst my teeth, my tongue probing it for anything, any part of it that would make it palatable. But no luck.
I finally broke up the block of fat in my mouth and managed to swallow it with the help of some water. Then I tried the next one. Because, y’know, maybe I’d just had a bad piece.
This time I coated it in as much satay sauce as possible. Same thing. The ‘creamy coconut peanut sauce’ helped a little but could not possibly cover up the fact that I was eating a piece of fat. And of course my brain knew that it was not just a piece of fat, but a bull’s penis. I choked it down and drank a lot more water.
But by this time I had just one, lonely, last piece left. The smallest and possibly the crispiest piece. I couldn’t just leave it there. I’d come this far, I’d eaten two pieces already and survived, and now I was determined that I would finish this penis.
So I did. Along with the last of the satay sauce, of course. Because bull’s penis without satay sauce is like a hot dog without ketchup. Tortilla chips without salsa. Pizza without cheese.
Ok, it’s far, far worse than all of those things. It’s like….a chunk of fat. Thank god for satay sauce.
I sat there, looking at the empty dish smeared with coconutty peanutty sauce, wondering what, exactly, I had just done and feeling slightly ill.
I went and got myself a mango lassi, both as a reward and as a cure. Because lassi = yogurt = good bacteria that would hopefully counteract the awfulness I had just consumed.
Of course I finished with dessert, from the same stall. ‘Bull shots’ were a set of three – cranberry juice with crushed berries, vanilla mousse with kiwifruit juice, and chocolate mousse with chocolate sprinkles. Now that’s more my style!
But apparently I wasn’t done yet. There was a wheel to spin, where if I landed on the right spot I could win a prize. I like prizes, and the $2 per spin went to a charity, so I paid and I spun. And I won!
As I munched on my prize of a white chocolate-covered scorpion, I knew I was probably done for the day. Belly full of random wild food goodness (plus bull’s penis….), I had conquered the most strange of all the weirdness available. So I headed for the door, feeling quite pleased with myself. And a little queasy.