Weird Food Festival XIII
Los Angeles, California
There is an old adage that one man’s meat is another man’s poison; in fact there are times when one man’s meat is the same man’s poison (in the case of fugu (blowfish), poke salad, mushrooms, etc.) Many Westerners (Americans in particular) recoil in disgust when reading about or watching the exploits of culinary adventurers who circumnavigate the globe looking for food that is wriggling, rotting or serves as an internal organ of some bizarre creature; television viewers peer through their fingers as contestants on programs like “Fear Factor” are subjected to eat animal eyes or live insects. Truth be told, as much as being a spectator to this apparent gastronomic death drive puts many of us in a heightened state of revulsion, there are places on earth where somebody is consuming these comestibles on a daily basis without a second thought.
Some of these culinary practices were borne of survival, having to make do with whatever was available; the recent “nose-to-tail” culture adopted by modern gastropubs is a throwback to a time when a family had to make a single animal provide sustenance for long periods of time. At some point in time, some castaway on a desert island decided that eating a lobster (the aquatic cousin to a scorpion) seemed a better option than death; workers in silk factories simply ate the silkworm pupae after unraveling the silk from the cocoon in an effort to improve endurance on the job. In this age of instantaneous global communication, we are being exposed to the culinary practices of other cultures that were previously only accessible to world explorers. There is a growing movement of people who not only embrace cross-cultural dining practices, but pursue them with an unbridled passion.
In 1999, Los Angeles foodophiles Marc Moss and Scott Ahlberg decided to hold an annual dinner with the intent of having the participants bring the most unusual dishes they could find or make, establishing the L.A. Weird Food Festival. More dinner party than fairground event, the Weird Food Festival challenged the group to get creative with members attempting to out-do each other with their gastronomic finds. Through author and radio/television food personality Eddie Lin, I was recently invited to join the group at their 13th annual dinner. Since this was my first year in attendance, I wanted to maximize my chances of getting a return invitation to next year’s event, and I knew that Fluffernutters and bacon-wrapped hot dogs weren’t going to cut it.
I recently obtained some llama meat from Exotic Meat Market in Perris, California and decided to utilize two of the more exotic cuts for my entry: the liver and testicles. I have never had any formal training as a chef, never worked in a restaurant’s kitchen, but I felt that with a little creativity I might just be able to put together a dish that would be unusual and flavorful at the same time. I decided to sear the liver, leaving it pink inside and use the testicle as a sauce or topping; I pan fried the chopped testicle with onion, cactus and grapes and added some Chilean wine and draped the mixture over the liver. I’m assuming this recipe hasn’t been used before since I made it up as I went, but I was hoping to create a dish that represented elements of the region where the llama calls home in South America.
The group is relatively small, but many of the participants brought multiple items. I knew it would be a challenge to present something unique – in past years, the Weird Food Festival diners have partaken of musk ox, beaver tail and lion, and that unusual collection of flora and fauna just scratches the surface. We started out with Eddie Lin’s entry, fried duck tongues procured from the subject of many a Trippy Food article, Chinatown’s Hop Woo. Having had Hop Woo’s version of the avian mouthpieces, I knew that they would be delicate, savory morsels requiring the same kind of oral finesse as chicken wings. Eddie had cautioned me about ordering them the first time based on his past experience with substandard quality at other restaurants, but Hop Woo’s met with his approval.
Some of the dishes only skirted categorization as weird; a green Jell-O mold would most likely be regarded as bizarre by other cultures, but since the item was featured in Eddie Lin’s Extreme Cuisine, it was in fair play. Although common, dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) are still considered unusual to many Americans and Marc Moss ensured they would meet the standards of the Weird Food Festival by appropriating dolmas marinated in pomegranate, which gave the vegetable-stuffed dish a sweet flavor as well as a deep, dark green color. Another variation on a theme was a warming, sweet pomegranate soup; although Marc wasn’t sure what type of grain was used, I detected the faint taste of lentils (it was difficult to tell since the fragrance and taste of pomegranate permeated the bowl.
We had almost overlooked a bowl of periwinkles provided by Scott Ahlberg that were already on the table; I used to see these tiny sea snails on the rocks at the beach in my childhood, but it never occurred to me to eat them. These delicate mollusks are tenderer and less oceanic tasting than their gastropodic cousins, but were likely to unseat crawfish as the seafood requiring the most amount of effort to extract meat from; once I got the hang of finding the little critter with a toothpick the pickings got better. Levi also provided the dish with highest degree of funk factor that evening – sea squirt. These animals belong to a group called Chordata and they almost defy classification; if ever there was a WTF moment in the development of aquatic life as food, the sea squirt handily wins every time. There are a variety of edible sea squirts, and unfortunately we didn’t know which bucket our snack fell into (or fell out of). The flesh is yellowish and somewhat rubbery with a taste that immediately evokes an ocean bottom-dwelling filtering animal; it has almost a caustic, chemical taste, but more curious than off-putting. Where the insidious little bastard gets you is in the aftertaste, a lingering funk that multiple swigs of North Korean soju can’t quash. Scott also attempted the British delicacy, jellied eel; unfortunately a miscalculation didn’t produced enough collagen to set the gelatin, but it didn’t have any effect on the flavor. The strangest-looking dish on a personal level was something that would probably be aesthetically pleasing to a child, a pink cigar-sized cylinder described as “fish sausage”. The aquatic tube steak had a flavor similar to gefilte fish, but I couldn’t explain the pink color; it seemed like a dish that might be manufactured and distributed en masse in the future, similar to Soylent green (I think I’ll call it Soylent pink).
After the funky feast, the group was told to expect a grand finale; Eddie Lin entered from the kitchen with a pitcher of what looked like sangria without fruit, but turned out to be sangre (blood). I can’t recall if the beverage was pork or beef blood, as I didn’t think to ask as my bottom jaw hit the table. A round of glass goblets were filled with the fluid, which we raised to drink a toast – it had to be the most apprehensive moment of the night, watching as the participants slowly and with great hesitation brought the cups to their lips. Take this and drink, indeed. A bowl of cooked blood resembling lumpy hot chocolate was also brought out but didn’t seem to generate any interest. While the fresh blood had a mild metallic taste, it was largely inoffensive; I expected the cooked blood to have an au jus flavor but with no fat in it there was only the taste of liquid chalk.
The Weird Food Festival was an event that I won’t soon forget and that I thoroughly enjoyed, not only for the unusual cuisine but also the spirited conversation about other cultures and their cuisine. I’m already anticipating next year’s and hoping that I receive a return invitation; the Weird Food festival is right up my alley, which gives me an idea for an entree for the next event.
Exotic Meat Market (online)