When Christopher Columbus set sail from Genoa in 1492, it was spices he was after -- Indian spices like cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. No, the great explorer didn't have a craving for curry. Asian spices were all the rage in Europe, and they were so tightly controlled and heavily taxed that it cost an arm and a leg to import them. Finding a new route to India would earn esteem and gratitude from his sponsors, the King and Queen of Spain. Plus, they'd promised him governorship of any land he discovered and 10 percent of any profits it brought in.
Columbus never did find his way to India. But his voyages spurred a trans-Atlantic food exchange that transformed European and American cuisines, providing tomatoes for Italian pasta sauce, potatoes for Irish stew and pigs for Southern barbecues.
Today, there are still culinary realms to explore, and the route is as clear as your Internet connection. Let this article be your Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria, bringing you five curious foods that inhabit the far horizons of the world of cuisine. In other words, five foods that make you say: "People really eat that?"
Do you have a taste for adventure? Good. First, we look at a food that's been a mainstay in Asian cooking for over 2,000 years -- but it's one that most Americans still don't know what to do with.
Forty years after it was introduced to mainstream America, tofu remains a mystery to most people. Tofu is a soy food, made through a process similar to cheese making. Hot water is pressed through ground soybeans, producing soymilk. The liquid is curdled to clump the dissolved solids using a mineral salt. These curds are pressed and drained until they reach the desired texture: firm, soft or silken.
Dieticians praise tofu as a rich source of all the goodies found in soybeans, including complete protein, iron and manganese. But adventurous cooks love its culinary possibilities. Firm tofu is sturdy enough for grilling, baking or frying. Soft tofu is crumbly, good for stove top skillet dishes. Silken tofu is smooth, just right for pudding and cream soup. Plus, pressed bean curd is like a wrung-out sponge, thirsty to soak up any flavor, from chocolate to barbecue sauce. Frozen, thawed tofu is especially absorbent.
Tofu can be a vegan substitute or recipe stretcher, replacing eggs in a cake and ground beef in a casserole. For a true tofu adventure, however, choose treatments that showcase the food. Firm tofu can be sliced, marinated and grilled like steaks. Try a milkshake of silken tofu, milk and fresh fruit. Blend soft tofu with frozen lemonade concentrate for a no-bake lemon custard.
Our next food also lends itself to innovation. But it doesn't hide its taste. You might even say it "hogs" the spotlight.
Scrapple is just what it sounds like: scraps. Specifically, it's the parts of a pig left over from butchering. It's a food as down-to-earth and thrifty as the people who invented it -- the Pennsylvania Dutch, for whom waste was an offense.
Authentic scrapple recipes include neck and shoulder meat, liver, heart, occasionally the skin, and sometimes the snout. They're cooked with cornmeal and a combination of white, whole-wheat and buckwheat flour, all seasoned with salt, pepper, onion, and sage. This heavy porridge is poured into loaf pans and chilled until firm.
Purists eat scrapple plain, sliced and pan-fried, which may be the best way for the novice to start. Then you can decide how to dress it up. True to its German roots, some people serve it with sautéed apple slices. Others wrap diced scrapple in tortillas along with peppers, onions and other Tex-Mex fillings for a cross-cultural fajita. It can also be a down-home, comfort-food casserole, layered with stuffing mix and gravy. Scrapple and scrambled egg on white bread is a popular sandwich, too. It can even be served as an appetizer, wrapped in bacon and broiled.
If scrapple sounds too heavy for you, how about a refreshing piece of fruit? Nothing daring about fruit, you say? Read on.
The first challenge to eating durian is finding one. The fresh fruit, imported from Malaysia and Thailand, is rare outside of cities with large Southeast Asian communities and well-connected international grocers. It's more commonly sold frozen in ethnic supermarkets and online.
The next challenge is stifling the gag reflex long enough to get a spoonful down your throat. The fruit's aroma is notoriously noxious. It's been compared to dead fish, rotting compost and a latrine. Even in its native land, where it's hailed as "the king of fruits," it's banned in hotels, airports and the subway.
With a smell that awful, you'd figure a food must taste awfully good to become a national icon. You'd be right. The durian's taste has been likened to bananas, caramel and walnuts, and sometimes all three, with a hint of vanilla and sweet onion. Its texture is soft, almost gooey, like custard.
What accounts for this cruel, gastronomic joke? Durians contain sulfuric compounds similar to the ones that give onions and garlic their eye-watering sting. But they're also unusually high in sugar and fat, making them rich and creamy. It's easy to go overboard when eating durian, as legions of fans will attest.
If you should develop a durian habit, take heart: Scientists are working to create less stinky varieties. That upsets some long-time durian lovers. To them, the foul aroma sharpens the anticipation of eating.
Next: a food that a lot of people consider a pest.
A thousand years ago, a desperate (or daring) Aztec ate a bulbous, grayish tumor sprouting on an ear of corn -- and a taste for huitlacoche (hweet-la-CO-cheh) was born.
Huitlacoche, called "corn smut" by exasperated North American farmers, and "Mexican truffles" by clever entrepreneurs, is a fungus that infects and explodes corn kernels. The effects can be dramatic, a fist-sized growth wrinkled like a human brain. Like its botanical cousins, the mushroom and the truffle, it's deemed a delicacy by some. Chic chefs and Mexican villagers alike savor its earthy, smoky taste and pleasingly pungent aroma. Huitlacoche may be mildly sweet, depending on the variety of corn it grows on.
Right now, only a handful of small farmers in the U.S. grow huitlacoche, mostly for the kitchens of trendy restaurants. There's actually a ban on the import of the fresh fungus, with or without its host. Also, this ugly organism is deceptively fragile; you'd almost have to be waiting on the other side of customs to get it home before it loses quality. The average stateside consumer has to settle for huitlacoche either canned or flash-frozen.
If the first four foods have primed your taste buds for unusual edibles, then our final entry will make your mouth water in anticipation. If not, it will drop open in disbelief.
In his "Address to a Haggis," the great Scottish poet and patriot Robert Burns hailed this traditional peasant dish as a symbol of national identity. Today, the poem and the food are synonymous with celebration dinners on Burns Night, Jan. 25, the anniversary of the poet's birth.
The ingredients of haggis help explain why it's not served much outside that one day. Haggis is a sausage of sorts. Sheep organs, including the liver, lungs, heart and tongue, are chopped fine and mixed with suet, oats, onions, and herbs and spices. The mixture is stuffed into a cleaned sheep stomach, which is sewn shut and boiled in water for several hours.
To get a genuine Scottish haggis, you'd have to go to Scotland. The USDA outlawed the import of Scottish lamb and mutton after an outbreak of BSE (mad cow disease) in 1989. Although the agency is reconsidering that rule, its ban on sheep lungs remains. Domestic haggis makers have stepped in with a nearly identical recipe, minus the lungs. Some even use imported Scottish oats, which are coarser and chewier than the rolled oats used in American foods. Their version comes in a synthetic fiber casing or canned.
Following the Burns Dinner tradition, serve the haggis with mashed rutabagas or turnips and mashed potatoes. If you like, toast the poet with Scotch whisky, splashing a wee bit on your serving of haggis.
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More Great Links
- Arumugam, Nadia. "The Haggis Wars: Could a Scottish Invasion Signal the End of American Haggis?" Trueslant.com. Jan. 26, 2010 (Aug. 22, 2010) http://trueslant.com/nadiaarumgam/2010/01/26/the-haggis-wars-could-a-scottish-invasion-signal-the-end-of-american-haggis
- Blonder, Carol. "Huitlacoche: Mexican Truffles." PhoenixNewTimes.com. July 15, 2010 (Aug. 20, 2010) http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/bella/2010/07/huitlacoche_mexican_truffles.php
- Hansen, Liane. "U.S. Haggis Lovers' Hopes Dashed." NPR.com. Jan. 23, 2010 (Aug. 22, 2010) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123179163
- Library of Congress. "1492: An Ongoing Voyage." (Aug. 16, 2010) http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/1492/columbus.html
- Stanton, Andra F. "Huitlacoche: Friend or Foe?" Edible Boston. Summer 2007. ( Aug. 20, 2010) http://www.ediblecommunities.com/boston/pages/articles/summer07/pdf/friendOrFoe.pdf
- The Ohio State University. "The Age of Discovery." (Aug. 16, 2010) http://www.hcs.ohio-state.edu/hcs/tmi/hcs210/hortorigins/AgeofDiscovery.html
- The World Burns Club. "What Makes a Burns Supper?" January 2000 (Aug. 23, 2010) http://www.worldburnsclub.com/supper/burns_supper_1.htm