Published: January 5th 2010December 16th 2009
“How adventurous of eaters are you guys?” Andy asks from across the table on our second night in Tokyo. Even in the dim light, his eyes shine with a familiar spark of excitement. Andy is the older brother of my dear friend, Alan, and I have seen this same look on Alan’s face moments before some hilarious high school or college antics ensued. Trusting this familiar glimmer--and wanting to see where this is going--I reply for both Pierce and myself, “Pretty adventurous, I think.” With that, Andy’s face splits into a smile and his eyes dive into the entirely-Japanese menu--no doubt searching for the perfect selection to test our bravado. His fingers drop on to a particular section of the menu, before he ups the ante and says, “I’ll order something without telling you what it is.” With rising excitement he continues, “You take a few bites and then I’ll tell you what it is” he pauses, before he making the challenge official, “Are you up for it?” Sure. We are up for it.
Apparently, we have been “up for” trying just about anything during the last few weeks of our trip. Vietnam has been a culinary safari. You just
never know what might turn up around the corner and it seems dangerous out there. We see stewed insects, skinned frogs, slithering eels, behead (still wiggling) chickens, and hear about an entire market devoted to dog meat in Hanoi. In our ordinary lives, I am a half-hearted, self-proclaimed “sort of vegetarian” and an empathic “non-red meat eater.” Pierce is a hands-down “no seafood” kind of guy and--when he’s being picky--a “light veggies, please” kind of diner. But, this isn’t ordinary life and travel calls for a go-with-it kind of attitude. Pierce eats seafood on several occasions. I stomach red meat. That’s just the beginning, of course.
While we are in Ho Chi Minh City, we befriend a Canadian couple from Quebec, Mark and Thanh. Thanh is Vietnamese, which comes in handy for our food adventures. She speaks Vietnamese and is keen to share her country’s dishes with us. This union leads us to a hole-in-the wall joint for dinner where we feast on course after course of odd foods--chief among them frog and eel. The eel is particularly surprising as it is mostly bone and could be a dental nightmare if not chewed with care. Pierce complains that his
jaw aches after biting into the eel with a little too much zeal. We agree that the frog is “not too bad.” We wash down the meals with something called bia hoi, which translates to “fresh beer.” It’s basically beer-flavored water and must have about zero alcohol content. When the check arrives, we learn that the four of us have consumed a whopping 18 bia hois at dinner (Mark and Pierce consuming 15 of the 18 beers). No one is even remotely drunk. We share a laugh about our 18 beer feat and very soberly walk back to our hotels.
Pierce’s achy jaw isn’t the only part of our bodies that fights back. In Japan, our bodies finally let us know that we have crossed a line. With a mission in mind, Andy calls the sushi chef over to our table and tells the amused chef of his plan. While I don’t speak any Japanese, the social interaction is easy to decipher. At first, the sushi chef nods as Andy talks, but then he throws a few glances at us as if to say, “Are you sure about this plan? With these two? Really?” Several knowing smiles and “hai-s”
are exchanged before the chef trots off--slightly chuckling--to create whatever we are getting.
Minutes later, a plate with thinly-sliced, well-marbled, pieces of raw, red meat appears on our table. It doesn’t look like any particular animal and this makes me feel better. I dip the meat into a small bowl of soy sauce and garlic before tossing the morsel into my mouth. Immediately, the flavor is overwhelmed by the strangeness of the texture. The meat is cold and partially thawed--tiny, liberated ice crystals fill my mouth between bites of the meat. The meat is also noticeably raw and painfully chewy. It unravels into tiny threads and quickly dissolves--before I can determine what it might be. I can only taste the soy sauce and the garlic. Proudly, I stuff two more pieces into my mouth--without even querying about the mystery meat’s name.
“Are you ready to know what it is?” Andy finally asks. And the answer is…horse meat. It’s a little bit anticlimactic, but I am very relieved to learn that we are not eating whale or shark fin (both items on the menu and both delicacies enjoyed by the Japanese). Just your run-of-the-mill raw horse meat, I suppose,
and that’s fine with me. The rest of the meal--tuna sashimi, salad, and rice wine--washes down without issue. Later that same night, though,--and all of the next day--our bodies are angry. In the middle of the night, both Pierce and I are awoken by sharp, relentless stomach pains.
The horse is kicking back and he will be damned if we are sleeping through this. I suppose it’s only kind of fair.
Finally, as I drift back to sleep--clutching my stomach and trying to mentally muscle through the pain--I have to smile as I think to myself, ‘well this certainly gives a new meaning to the expression “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.”’
It turns out, I wouldn’t recommend it.
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