Delicacy. What is that? Webster’s dictionary says that it is “the quality or state of being luxurious; something pleasing to eat that is considered rare or luxurious.” What comes to my mind when people use this word to describe food tends to be things like caviar, Kobe beef or the puffer fish. Something that is sort of unobtainable because of price and usually reserved for special splurges or occasions.
But what happens to this meaning when you travel to foreign lands? I always have a great time meeting new people and learning about their cultures and customs. We just get along swimmingly; but when it comes to food and their local “delicacies”, somehow we are no longer on the same page! I have come to learn that when people preface food with “Oh, this is a delicacy of the area!”, it really means they don’t want to tell you what the dish is because they know that you are going to be a little put off by it. Take for instance some of these “delicacies” from around the world:
Cambodia – Fried Tarantulas
Yes, just as you might imagine, these guys are sautéed and fried with a little bit of garlic and salt. Apparently, crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. Yum?
Philippines – Balut
Balut is touted as being the Filipino equivalent to the American hotdog, meaning it is ubiquitous and thoroughly enjoyed by the masses. Take a fertilized chicken or duck egg (around 17-24 weeks), boil it until the yolk leaks out followed by the fetus of the animal. Apparently you drink the liquid and chase it with the fetus. Buyer beware: Sometimes the eggs might be a little further developed, in which case you might get a beak, bones and/or feathers. Oh boy! (No pic on this one because I find it a bit nauseating, but feel free to do a search!)
Sardinia – Casu Marzu
Are you a cheese lover? Just love the moldy goodness of a fine brie or camembert? What about the smell of Lindbergh cheese? How about a jiggily surprise? Yes, in Sardina, the cheese can wiggle-waggle just like good ol’ J-E-L-L-O. Only it’s not gelatin…it’s maggots! Apparently, introducing cheese fly (how aptly named) larvae into the cheese helps it ferment because those little buggers digest the fat. And you have to eat it while those guys are still alive because when they are dead, it has been reported to be toxic. So much so, that it has actually been banned for health reasons. Bon appetito!
Now, you are probably wondering why I am talking about this. It has to do with my Thanksgiving picture from yesterday. You see, here in Peru, the guinea pig (known locally as cuy) is quite the delicacy. It seems so hard to believe that people could eat these little guys, as they are pets in the USA and Europe. But here in Peru and South America, they have been domesticated since well before the Inca; it is believed to have started around 5,000 B.C., although the earliest evidence found dates to 500 B.C. These furry friends have been a dietary staple for the Andean people for a long time and traditionally raised solely for subsistence consumption within the household. There are still wild cuy roaming the hinterland, and they are used for other ritualistic and medicinal things. I will talk about what and how (it is pretty interesting) in a future post.
Cuy are typically housed indoors and kept in the household kitchen, where they are allowed to run around freely. Most highland families keep at least 20 animals in this fashion and feed them a great variety of food such as alfalfa or a good selection of leftovers or scraps. I don’ t know if you have ever heard guinea pig squeaks before, but when there is a group of 10 or 15, it’s a little bit like being in a science fiction movie. I just feel like they are an alien species trying to communicate with me. I often have the episode from the original Star Trek series in my mind, when Captain Kirk meets the Tribbles!
Now, as much as I felt bad, I decided to be bold and try a little guy. After all, it is better than fried tarantula. You can find them totally intact, like a pig on a spit: with their little faces and feet. The difference is that they are skinned, fried/barbecued and stuck on a stick like a giant corn dog…sans the breading. I chose to go a fancier route and had it braised and plated with mashed potatoes and vegetables. It looked like miniature lamb shanks. It wasn’t bad, I will admit. A little greasy like duck, with a mild gamey aftertaste. The only thing is that there are plenty of bones and not much meat. I worked pretty hard to get every bit off, and I think at the end of the meal I was actually hungrier! But I gave it a try and that is what counts.
Would I call this a delicacy? No, not really. Is it something luxurious or pleasing to eat? Again, I don’t think so. And it definitely is not rare. It is pretty common here in Peru, nothing so special about it to the locals. The specialty (and thus the reason it gets to be touted as a “delicacy”) is that most foreigners view these as pets. So, by slapping on this description, the tourism industry has found a spectacular way to posh up something that will surely disappoint/sadden/appall some people. And I am not sure how the people in Switzerland will feel about it. They have a law that says you cannot keep just one by itself, as they are social animals. So when one dies, you have to get at least one more to keep the other one company. Or you can rent one from this lady.
So, just remember that the next time you are traveling and hear the word “delicacy”, be prepared…you might just be about to crunch down on some furry/gooey/squirmy goodness!