KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Scary Food
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Monday, October 31, 2005
Scary Food
I'm a white girl writing about the scariest foods I could find at Ranch 99, the Asian supermarket in Richmond. Prepare yourself: what follows is not politically correct.

But before we get into the nitty gritty, let me make myself clear: I think of myself as an equal opportunity eater, someone whose palate is endlessly expandable--I took on sushi at age 20 and haven't since met a piece of unagi I didn't like, and kimchee and I became fast friends in my thirties. And as for what other people eat, well, I tell myself that given the opportunity to develop a taste for it, I'm sure I too would develop a hankering for buffalo placenta soup when it's in season, as do a few of my Thai friends, or the crunch and instant protein fix of deep fried bugs, as does a British friend of mine who has lived in southeast Asia for twenty years.

And I'm conscious that my distaste for unfamiliar food is a luxury, in part the birthmark of someone who has grown up in a society that can afford to throw away guts and organs, tongues, ears and snouts.

The irrational wincing of the tongue, the squinching of the brow when faced with threatening food must surely be conquerable. In the context of food, "scary" is just another word for "unfamiliar."

I've long been a fan of Ranch 99, purveyor of fine pea shoots, crustaceans, galangal, kecap manis (a thick Indonesian soy sauce), and pastel-colored rice flour pastries that I grew so fond of when I lived in Thailand, and I delight in even seeing the packaging for "chicken paws" (feet), "free run chicken" and Confucious Family Liquor.

But this visit, the Sunday before Halloween, I was shopping differently: I was on a hunt for the six scariest food items I could find. And dammit, I was going to face my fears and eat them. And so was my friend Tristan who was visiting, who brought with him his usual penchant for talking about disgusting things he'd eaten and how disgusting the gas was that they gave him. We thought we were sooooooo sturdy. Nothing could possibly be as disgusting as our worst imaginings made them, right?

And so, dear reader, here you are, in reverse order, the top six scariest foods to be had at Ranch 99, including reasons for deeming them scary and taste-based assessments:

Number 6: Vermont Curry

Reasoning: As a native Vermonter, I've long wondered about the absurd pairing of the words "Vermont" and "curry" every time I see this ubiquitous item in an Asian market. But I've been willing to keep an open mind about it given that Vermont is actually known for some surprisingly tasty weird combinations, like the tuna sandwiches dipped in egg, fried like French toast, and topped with maple syrup, that I scarfed up as a child. So it made it into my shopping basket in the spirit of supporting Vermont quirkiness in all its permutations.

Verdict: Vermont Curry surprised me by emerging from the box in dung-colored blocks, sort of like a large chocolate bar. I broke off a few and tossed them in with carrots and onions, as directed by the package. After I cooked it, I let it cool for a few minutes, and a dark brown sludge had gathered across the top--far thicker and more ominous looking than the skin the develops on hot Jello chocolate pudding. ("It's okay," Tristan said with hope in his voice, "My mom's gravy does that, too.")

But by the time Tristan and I sampled the pleasures of Vermont Curry, I was already in high gag mode from a few other items listed below. My tongue was contorted in anguish, and poor Vermont Curry got the short end of the stick. Were I offered a plate of Vermont Curry under different circumstances--like after release from a concentration camp or tempted with the reward of a million dollars--I would eat it.

Number 5: Smoked Veggie Goose

Reasoning: I found this in the deli section, and while it did look a bit like goose, complete with goose-pimpled skin, it looked like goose that had spent a few centuries in a catacomb and then been rehydrated with pond water.

Verdict: One would think that mere wheat and soy sauce pattied to resemble meat would be innocent of culinary crime. Tristan noted, "It's a shame when you recreate meat you have to include the skin" and then took a bite. Then I took a bite. After a few minutes of debate, we arrived at an apt description: smoked veggie goose tasted like rotten chalk with a hint of imported barnyard.

Number 4: Fried Gluten with Peanuts in Soy Sauce, from Taiwan

Reasoning: There's nothing in the name to indicate that this would be offensive (aside from the word gluten), but a mere glance at the scrambled-egg like globs floating in dishwater-colored salt water with peanuts that looked like they'd suffered from elephantiasis was enough to earn them a place in my shopping basket.

Verdict: Like Vermont Curry, fried gluten with peanuts in soy sauce was a victim of lineup--the smell of Scariest Food Number 1 (keep reading, you're almost there) was wafting through the kitchen, and had the gluten been chunks of perfectly ripe honeydew decked with proscuitto, I probably would have gagged. I took a bite, gagged, and staggered toward the garbage, only to remember that that was exactly where Scariest Food Number 1 was lurking, so my gag volcanoed into a hefty spit into my palm. I closed my eyes and tossed the gluten in the direction of the garbage pail and Scariest Food Number 1.

Poor little gluten. It probably isn't so bad.

Number 3: Pig Ears in Soy Sauce

Reasoning: Like the smoked veggie goose, I found pig ears in the deli aisle, but thinly sliced and looking quite harmless in a clear plastic deli container. "It could be brown chewy ginger/soy/wine-infused coleslaw," I thought. I've eaten cracklings, and I love scrapple and hot dogs, both of which surely have fragments of pig ear. Dogs highly recommend pig ears. Maybe I'm missing something.

Tristan tried it first. "I just thought about what it is," he said as a swallow turned into a gulp and look around for grapefruit soda. A slice of pig ear--I looked for a bite that looked like it was more meat than cartilage--made it into my gullet.

I discovered there's a reason I don't like dogs. Dogs like pig ears.

Number 2: Preserved mudfish fish sauce, from Vietnam.

Reasoning: I'm a fan of fish sauce in general--a tablespoon or two adds a lovely piquant je ne sais quoi to spaghetti sauce, and of course it's a staple in sanitized western-style Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. But this, with its tightly packed filets of clearly aptly named mudfish, intrigued me. In comparison, it made the pigs ears look like a pulled pork sandwich from Everett and Jones.

Verdict: We opened the jar to be mystified by a plastic strainer installed on top of the fish. At first I thought that it might be so that cooks would use the liquid that drained from the fish, not the fish itself. But no, that didn't make sense because only about a tablespoon of liquid dribbled out, and the jar said it contained a whopping 22 servings.

I pried off the plastic strainer, holding my face as far away as possible for fear of flying fermented fish juice. I stuck a fork in and pried up one filet and took a sniff. This was beyond piquant: was this mudfish fermented in a public toilet?

"Please don't make me eat this," Tristan pleaded. "I don't want to be yacking up mudfish."

And mudfish is where we both drew the line. They say smell is an integral part of taste, in which case both of us were surely off the hook.

And now...

Number 1 Scariest Food to be had at Ranch 99:

Pig's Uterus.

Reasoning: Pig's uterus faced some stiff competition from the pre-packaged meat section from the likes of black-skinned chickens with the heads on, pork bung (intestine), pork snout, pork brain, and liquid or solid pork blood, but if my mission was to find the scariest items I could find in Ranch 99, pig's uterus could hardly be overlooked. It lay pinky grey behind the shiny plastic wrap, and I was drawn by its uneven, scalloped, might I even say Baroque tubes.

Verdict: I looked on line for pigs uterus recipes, to no avail, so I decided that maybe stir frying it, with oyster sauce, might work. The oil heated in the wok and I peered at the package. The oil just started to smoke, and I plunged my fingers into the pink labyrinth and dumped it in the oil.

And it began to cook.

And it began to smell.

"Jesus Christ, there is NO WAY, I'm tasting that," Tristan shouted. The smell got worse, perhaps mixing with eau de fermented mudfish. "It smells just the way a cooked [uterus] probably should smell," he cried above the hiss of the oil and the mass of sizzling pink-grey tubes.

It was already unspoken that the uterus was going to bypass oyster sauce and go directly into the trash. I dumped it in and thought, good God, I'm taking that trash out this instant.

But I stupidly waited, thinking I'd wait until the end of this dreadful experiment. And before long, Elizabeth, one of my two cats, was sniffing with determination around the garbage. Bear in mind that she has never shown any interest thus far in either the garbage or anything other than kibble, but apparently pig uterus lightly seared in peanut oil was enough to drive her wild. I slapped her away and went to enjoy the tangy splash of a beer and an escape from the stench in a better-ventilated living room.

And then I heard a rustle from the kitchen and slid back my chair to see Geraldine, my other cat--who has also never been interested in garbage or anything other than kibble--lapping delicately at a chunky string of uterus she'd lugged out of the garbage onto the linoleum.

I'll tell you I have never, ever been so happy to take out the garbage, an everything-must-go excursion that won't even spare the not-so-scary things. It's all ruined, contaminated by association with pig uterus and my own defeat--a girl who likes tuna sandwiches fried with maple syrup on top, foie gras, uni, and lima beans but isn't necessarily an open-minded eater.

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Blogger wendygee said...

Check out the book Unmentionable Cuisine by Calvin W. Schwabe -- lots of interesting (gag!) recipes.

10/31/2005 8:40 AM

Anonymous tobin said...

Great article. Don't sweat it by thinking that this article is politically incorrect. I think every culture has its share of 'gross' foods; even deemed gross by the members of the culture. When living in Japan, I met Japanese natives who didn't like sashimi, if you can believe that. I don't think i'd ever think of eating pig uteri, unless i was on fear factor and had a lot of honey with which to drown it.

10/31/2005 11:45 AM

Anonymous lylen said...

Oh, very good indeed. This is quite funny. It reminds me that there is some sort of Bay Area Bug Eating society that has a buffet in Delores Park on Holloween. Anyway, I used to live in the Bay Area, now in Tokyo. I guess I've shoved lots of wierd stuff in my mouth, but man that Pig Uterus... leave it to Anthony Bourdain please. Lots of fun things to eat in Tokyo. I'm a regular for natto. Please check my blog sight, there's a story I wrote called "all hail natto". Don't give up finding fun stuff for your tum.
my blog

10/31/2005 3:07 PM

Blogger missmobtown said...

this was a most entertaining read!

10/31/2005 8:19 PM

Blogger Marc said...

On the strangeness of Japanese curry labeling, I have a photo of a restaurant sign in Japan that says "Baltic Curry" and has a picture of a viking next to the logo. I suppose it is a corruption of the term Balti (a style of curry developed in England), unless there is a genre of Estonian or Latvian curries I haven't heard about. I have vague memories of my Tokyo-residing brother telling me that Vermont curry is so named because it contains apples.

Does anyone have recommenations of books or articles on the subject of food taboos and phobias? Why, for example, can some people eat piles of boiled shrimp or sausages but be sickened by the mere thought of eating silkworms or locusts? Marvin Harris' "The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig" (a.k.a. Good to Eat) is great, but it is not written with the post-industrial eater in mind.

10/31/2005 11:17 PM

Anonymous ChrisO said...

Enjoyed this immensely. It's a classic can't-tear-my-eyes-away-but-don't-want-to-look thrill. Thanks! (Also check out the book "Man Eating Bugs" by Peter Menzel for more gross-out beauties.)

11/04/2005 10:48 AM

Anonymous anniebelle said...

This list is hilarious and really emphasizes the cultural differences with food. Hey, at least you tried it and made a judgement from having tried. It always irritates me when people say that they hate something without ever sampling it. As for the mudfish, your sampling technique is wrong, especially here. There's a reason why the jar says 22 servings. Most people take the a small piece of the fish and mash it into a paste. They then add it to a stew of catfish, eggplant, and pork. It's delicious, if you can get past the smell. Think of it as Vietnamese anchovies, you're not supposed to sample whole, but as a seasoning in many dishes.

11/04/2005 12:07 PM

Blogger meowbaby7 said...

I was talking with someone about unusual foods and asked if she had tried kidneys. She got a sort of shocked look and said "You mean like.......meow, meow?"! Anyway, lamb kidneys are delicious sauteed, but, kitties? Of course not.

11/05/2005 8:04 PM

Blogger jondis said...

the idea of venturing to an Asian grocery store simply to try to gross yourself out leaves a poor impression on me.

The things you listed are actually the most banal things in there with the exception of the pigs uterus. Maybe this was just to spoof all the other typical "culinary ventures into exotica" (myquotes).

sorry, just sick of this topic over and over and over.

11/28/2005 2:26 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have no problem with anyone thinking any food is gross - but i do think it's lame to point the gross finger at a bunch of asian stuff without adequately looking at yourself and your own heritage. who cares about political correctness? how about introspection or analysis of your own culture.

....and what culture is that? you call yourself a "white girl", like so many other self-professed "white" folks (i forget, are the french, italians, spanish, greeks, portuguese, middle easterners or mexicans lumped in with "white" now? or are they divided and separated by how un-white they are?) without seeming to realize whatever ethnic heritage you have. Are you german, scandinavian, scottish? Or, like those who call themselves "white", are you clueless about or so far removed from that heritage? If so, isn't that sad? Isn't it sad that many white cultures have been so watered down in America that whites constantly refer to themselves by a color rather than their actual ethnicity?

is your state your cultural heritage--it seems you kind of head that way, you call yourself a vermonter and talk about gross tuna fish sandwiches. to contrast, are these Ranch 99's in asia? no, they're in california. many of the regular customers at Ranch 99, would be less foreign than you, in a sense, they having been born and raised locally.

No, I'm not trying to be politically correct--I'm trying to be open in viewpoint to cultures that still have strong and practiced traditions. Maybe America is a melting pot, but that can make us stronger rather than dissolve us into bland sameness.

I can assure you many whites, browns yellows or blacks would be thoroughly scared and grossed out by head cheese, lutefisk or haggis.

I'm half german-french and half pilipino born and raised in california.

12/05/2005 2:01 AM

Anonymous Guerrero Guerrilla said...

This post seems out of place on this blog, although I did get the Halloween theme. It would have been more interesting to actually investigate how the foods are prepared or stage an Iron Chef type of challenge. If you're going to take us on a ride of Fear Factor culinary tourism, please make it worth our gastronomic while.

As for Vermont Curry, stuff like it can be had all around Japantown. I would put it in the same category of off-the-shelf jars of mole or risotto in a box. It's really tame stuff.

12/26/2005 2:30 PM

Blogger Hoosierpeach said...

You want Euro-gross food? I give you: Lutefisk. There is no accounting for what comfort food means to one people (or one subset of a people) vs. another. I love nouc mam (sp?) and will eat a rabbit or a squirrel if you soak it overnight (and make sure you pick out the buckshot, ouch!) and SPAM is such a part of my childhood I would never renounce it, but Lutefisk? Them Norwegians are crazy, sure? Ya!

1/15/2006 7:47 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Foul! Flag on the play! This seemed familiar. Versions of this have been done earlier. Steve, Don't Eat It being a fine example. Natto was included, as well as silkworm pupa. 0 style points for this one.

2/06/2006 12:05 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice piece of writing but a little sophmorish and naive. It would have been interesting if you have contacted folks that knew how the items were cooked and wrote about that, perhaps we would have been enlightened. I shop at Ranch 99 often and am from the culture, I would have expected sophistication from a Bay Area writer.

5/19/2006 3:42 PM

Anonymous Andy said...

Nice piece of writing but a little sophmorish and naive. It would have been interesting if you have contacted folks that knew how the items were cooked and wrote about that, perhaps we would have been enlightened. I shop at Ranch 99 often and am from the culture, I would have expected sophistication from a Bay Area writer.

5/19/2006 3:43 PM

Anonymous Piccolina said...

I read your article with interest because yesterday in a T&T Asian market near my home I spotted pig's uteruses and haven't been able to shake the image from head all day, nor coax my appetite into returning. I like to think that I'm very open minded when it comes to foods of the world, but even this one had the gag meter about as far up as it'll go. To make things just that much worse, the lable actually read "baby pig's uteruses". Wow.

Props on an enjoyable article, it's nice to know I'm not the only one whose been affected by this particular cut of offal.

6/21/2006 5:23 AM

Blogger Jeff said...

I'm just reading this now, but nice Meghan. I'm reposting it on meeteat.com

6/27/2006 4:46 PM

Anonymous leigh said...

I linked over from your newer blog.
The really scary thing is that stove of yours! It needs a good scrubbing.

11/05/2007 4:15 AM

Blogger AARON said...

Just had Pig Uterus for dinner. No, I am not joking. My Lao friend cooked it up in a curry, boiling the stuff for about 45 minutes first. The pungent smell of urine accompanied the boiling process, and I at first suspiciously eyed the dog. The boil was intended to removed the smell, but even once dinner was fully prepared, I still caught hints of it as I chewed. Copious amounts of rice and water were consumed with this meal. I am sort of mentally blocking the worse aspects of eating uterus, though a shiver occasionally runs down my spine. I DID finish my portion, save a few bamboo chunks and veggies. 16 hours later I have not suffered any ill effects nor expect to. Having survived this, I hope to have left a good impression on my host, but not been so enthusiastic as to encourage a gift of leftovers.

1/09/2008 8:03 AM


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