By Alli Sinclair
Now, no one can ever accuse me of not being adventurous. In my backpacking days it was usually me that came up with harebrained schemes that resulted in many fellow travellers shaking their head and saying, “No way, I’m not doing that! Are all Australians crazy like you?” This adventurous spirit didn’t just include scaling mountains and visiting places I really shouldn’t have, it also included food.
When someone asks me about a country, I tend to base my decision on the friendliness of the people and the quality of the food. Everything else is icing on the cake. Turkey is on top of my list for excellent food, but Latin America tops the list of bizarre local dishes. Here’s a rundown on some I have tried (or had others try and got their feedback because, really, everyone has a line that can’t be crossed):
It took alcohol to get me to try this. Lots. Of. Alcohol. Cuy, or guinea pigs as we know them, were traditionally a food only eaten by indigenous people in the Andean highlands but since the 1960s, cuy is eaten by people all over Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia, including foreigners.
Guinea pigs are popular because they produce quickly, take up little space, and don’t eat much, plus their meat is high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol. The taste itself is gamey (like rabbit) and people serve cuy fried, boiled, roasted, or in a casserole or soup.
Peruvians eat around 65 million cuy a year, and it’s eaten as a celebration food for many religious festivals. This animal is so entrenched in the culture, there is even a painting of The Last Supper in a cathedral in Cuzco that has cooked cuy on the table.
My experience with Cuy was during the Summer Solstice festival in Peru. I’d been celebrating with friends who told me I couldn’t live in their country and not at least have tried cuy. I had been sitting in the sun at a restaurant, enjoying the local brew, Cusqueña, so it didn’t take too much persuading—until the cuy arrived at our table. The poor thing had been skewered, fried in fat and it looked at me with bucky teeth and arms and legs outstretched like it had just had a fright. I’m sure it did.
Not wanting to let my friends down, I bowed to the pressure and had a miniscule amount. I must add that I can’t stand anything gamey, so after my taste test I had to drink half a litre of beer to get rid of the greasy taste from my mouth. That was the day I discovered sometimes it is totally okay to say “no thank you.”
Beef heart skewers…really, what can I say about that one? Anticucho is served at many street stalls throughout Peru and locals delight in watching foreigner’s eyes bulge and mouths drop when they describe what this delicacy is. No, I didn’t try it, I didn’t have the heart (boom boom).
Calzones Rotos (Ripped Knickers), Chile
This is a Chilean dessert that tastes divine but it made it on my list of strange food because of the name—ripped knickers. Calzones rotos are flat dried pastry twisted into interesting shapes and topped with icing sugar. Yum yum. Add a cup of strong Chilean coffee and you won’t hear me utter a word until I’ve finished both.
Chirimoya, Andes (although some will argue Central America)
Chirimoya trees thrive in the tropics at altitudes of 1,300 to 2,600 metres (4,300 to 8,500 feet). It is now cultivated throughout the world but in my mind, Chirimoya will always be a South American fruit to me.
The name, chirimuya originates from Quechua, a language of the indigenous people of South America. Meaning “cold seeds” because it grows at high altitude, chirimuya morphed into chirimoya, a combination of Quechua and Spanish. The fruit has an array of varieties, textures, and shapes and the flavours can be acidy sweet or mellow sweet. Depending on the fruit and the person, people say it tastes like papaya, strawberry, pear, pineapple, apple, or banana.
I had a wonderful cherimoya supplier near the apartment where I lived I in Cuzco, and he would delight in offering the different variations to try. Not far down from the fruit seller was a lady who made the best fruit juices I’ve ever tasted and yes, chirimoya was one of my favourites.
How about you? What delicacies have you tried whilst travelling that you wouldn’t dare taste at home? Do tell!