A question I'm commonly asked relates to unusual foods which I've consumed over the years. People are usually expecting tales from far flung places, involving Johnny Foreigner and his more disgusting habits.
Well, it's not just charity which begins at home. Try, as I have done, describing haggis to a busload of 50 non Scottish tourists and observe the looks of sheer horror on their faces. And remember that when Anthony Bourdain was travelling the world seeking out the weird and the wonderful - eating a cobra's heart while it was still beating, that sort of thing - he included deep fried Mars Bars in his anthology.
But today I'm not talking about actively seeking the disgusting. No Icelandic pickled shark or the revolting stuff fed to those poor wannabe-famous-again third raters on I'm A Celebrity. By far the strangest food I've ever put in my gob came completely by accident. More of that in a moment.
Food in Italy is usually fairly mainstream, though they are a little too fond of tripe for my taste. But quite recently, in the very lovely Osteria del Duomo in Verona, I was fed horse stew, which I'd eaten before, and a ragù made from donkey, which I hadn't. Delicious, both. But I digress, not for the first or last time. Come with me to the idyllic island of Bali, just a few years ago.
Revisiting after over 30 years I was delighted the the lovely hospitable people hadn't changed. One couldn't say the same of the traffic. We struck lucky, renting an apartment for a month for very little money. The only stipulation was that we continued to employ the maid (their word, not mine). There was very little for her to do. As a result, we learned more of her chaotic personal life than we would have liked. The plus side was that she was impressed by the fact that I tried to cook Balinese dishes, and would bring produce from her market, of far superior quality to anything sold locally.
Christmas was a-comin, or rather the Balinese equivalent, Galungan. Galungan occurs every 210 days, when the souls of your ancestors return to earth, departing a few days later on Kuningan. Every festival worthy of the name demands a feast. We have turkey: the Balinese have roast suckling pig. With that they eat lawar merah. Other than the fact that it is a blood based dish, I knew nothing about it.
Our new Balinese bestie offered to take us to see the huge central market. That's worthy of an article in its own right. Better still, she extended an invitation to go to her aunt's house afterwards, to watch the lawar being made. I'm partial to a black pud/boudin noir/morcilla. Very much looking forward to it.
A lovely house, spacious even by Balinese standards. I remember a great pile of sound equipment stacked in a corner. One relative is a DJ. The kitchen, on the other hand, was surprisingly small. Pork had been very finely chopped and cooked, as had pork rind. Bulk came from onions (in Bali, closer to our shallots), coconut and jackfruit. There were a lot of spices and a fair bit of heat. Everything is mixed together to await the final ingredient, the blood.
I have learned that you can also make lawar with chicken or duck. The only stipulation is that the blood must come from the same creature which provides the protein. I was relieved that the blood came in clear plastic sachets, and that they didn't bring in an unfortunate animal to have its throat slit in front of us. In a scene reminiscent of stir up Sunday, everyone takes a turn at mixing.
Time is wearing on, and we have Lili's services for just a couple of hours a day. Time to leave, we suggest. Lili is having none of it, insisting that we stay to sample the finished lawar. We shrug, but have no idea how long a black pudding takes to cook. No worries - we're not in a hurry. Turns out that time was the least of our concerns.
After the last members of the family have had their stir, two bowls are produced. Large, nay enormous, spoonfuls are piled on. These are presented to us as the two guests of honour. They say that at times of crisis your whole life passes before your eyes. Try raising a spoon to your lips while your brain is screaming at you. A dish with raw blood? In tropical heat. Have you gone stark staring bonkers?
Well, obviously, we lived to tell the tale. Proud to relate, we both cleared our plates but politely declined second helpings. I actually quite enjoyed it, apart from the texture of the pork rind. Would I order it again? No fear. But it did give me some decent street cred among foodie folk out east. And the smugness of not having been sick - though L was a bit queasy the following day. To misquote Dickens's Sydney Carton, it is a far, far braver thing I do, than I have ever done before.
Tom's Food! is interested to hear of your own weird and wonderful food experiences. Either leave a comment below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org