Sunday, June 01, 2008

Weird Eats

"Ancient people found that their clothes got cleaner when they washed them in a certain point in the river. Y'know why? Human sacrifices were once made on the hills above the river. Bodies burned and water seeped into the wood and ashes to create lye."

"Look at your hand. The first soap was made from the ashes of heroes. Like the first monkey shot into space. Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing."

-Tyler Durden, Fight Club

While having dinner with my girlfriend and a mutual friend, the dinner conversation turned to odd foodstuffs and the mindset required to actually resort to consuming them. My girlfriend is a bit of a coffee connoisseur, so she inquired about obtaining kopi luak, a type of coffee that has been processed in the digestive system of the luak, the local name given to the Asian Palm Civet, a wild mammal native to South East Asia.

In theory, upon consumption, the luak's digestive system enzymes partially break down the coffee beans, removing much of the bitter taste after the undigested beans pass through the system. Upon harvesting (a task destined for Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs, if there ever was one), these beans are cleaned, ground, and turned into the most expensive coffee in the world (never mind the fact that a 2008 Stanford study indicated that 1000 random taste testers couldn't tell the difference between that and the cheap brands).

This is but one of the weird foods that have become delicacies in parts of the world. Others may be familiar with durian, a fruit with an extremely foul aroma that has gotten it banned in public transportation in South East Asia. The Simpsons episode "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Bluefish" taught the world about fugu, a Japanese pufferfish that has been known to cause fatal poisoning when prepared improperly.

The conversation turned to us speculating as to how certain things defy all logic and wisdom and somehow end up being turned into food. If it's excreted from an animal's bottom, we leave it where it lies or we put it in a bag and toss it in the trash. If it's prickly and spiky and smells like turpentine and raw sewage, we leave it alone. If parts of it are poisonous, we don't touch the things. So how do they fetch stupidly high prices at the gourmet supermarket and restaurants? And why did we end up eating them in the first place? And who thought it would be a great idea to go to all this effort just to figure out how to eat it safely?

My first theory is that it's to do with desperation. When people get really hungry, people start eating just about anything. It's been established that dandelions, often the scourge of proud lawn owners, are edible and can even be found in salads. Denise suggests that everything is so accessible, that we've got bored with everything else.

So, that leaves the next question. How many people had to die before they figured out the proper way to prepare fugu? Fugu has been around as a foodstuff since at least 2000 years, so they've had at least that long to get it right, which invalidates my original theory that the Yakuza was using it as a method to kill off their enemies, and the survivors figured out that they were eating the right portions of it. An alternate theory is that they studied what predatory animals left behind and figured that those parts were toxic.

Denise tells me of a specific type of nut that must be prepared in a very specific manner -- it must be mashed, chewed, cooked for an exact period of time. Anything else and it will be toxic. And apparently, this was a traditional type of dish too (ie: before the invention of stopwatches and egg timers and the use of laboratory animals in research).

And then there's another alternate was force fed to the peasants so that the rich would know what food to eat without dying horrible deaths.

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