Whatever doesn't kill you…
Bull's penis, grilled squirrel, snake blood: our columnist Simon Reeve has eaten them all on his travels, but there's one unfamiliar food at which he did draw the line
Simon tucks into a meal of grilled squirrel and fried caterpillars in a market in Luang Prabang, Laos
I ate rotting cow's feet for dinner the other night. Or at least they looked like cow's feet. I was sitting in a restaurant in a shack by the Indian Ocean when I foolishly agreed to the waiter's suggestion that I try the "seafood medley". The giant plate of what looked like abbatoir scrapings he dumped on my table was probably the least appetising meal I have ever seen and certainly one of the most revolting.
I should have known better. Besides the "seafood medley" - which is just a chance for a restaurant to flog off leftover bits of fish - the waiter was a greasy character with an evil grin that flashed gold teeth. I would have been counting my fingers after offering him a bus fare, so why did I trust him with care of my insides?
But such are the perils of eating abroad. And consuming strange foreign food is part of my job. Filming TV documentaries in far-flung corners of the world, I know my crew will volunteer my stomach for active duty whenever someone mentions that a bizarre local delicacy is on the menu. So I've feasted on fried caterpillars, grilled squirrel, various kinds of penis and cod fish sperm, snake blood, goat's head, roasted maggots, fish eyes and many other things you might think should have been kept well away from a menu.
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Usually, I love these culinary experiences. There's nothing better than making mates back home blow the froth off their pint when you tell a particularly unsettling foreign food story. And strange foods are unlikely to kill you (unless you try to prepare something potentially lethal yourself like a Japanese puffer fish - in fact a delicacy when handled properly).
Disgusting looking but delicious
Moreover, unfamiliar dishes that might look and sound disgusting are often deliciously tasty. To my shock, I found sheep's eyes and goat cheeks to be melt-in-the-mouth treats. And have you heard of a dish that midwestern Americans delicately describe as prairie oysters? They are actually bull's testicles. Coated in flour and deep-fried, they become a finger-licking appetiser.
Simon Reeve gets to grips with one of a zebu's most prized parts in Madagascar
By eating local foods we not only add to our stock of travel tales but also get a window on to the functioning of a strange culture. Travelling in horse-powered areas of Moldova, for example, it was fascinating to realise the main thing bothering locals about political unrest in neighbouring Ukraine was whether it would have an impact on the price of pig fat, known as salo, which Moldovans eat with black bread and even scoff covered in chocolate.
In Asia, which offers an entire buffet of exotic feasts, the people of Laos have been particularly inventive with their diet - partly because most are desperately poor and partly because Laos was traditionally a forested country where locals survived by eating whatever scampered, climbed and roosted in the woods.
Driving across Laos one day after eating grilled squirrel for breakfast, a BBC team and I stopped for lunch at a remote cafe where tiny carbonised bats and birds were sold spatchcocked. Our driver insisted on ordering his favourite dish, a regional staple, and as he chewed his way through it casually mentioned that the central ingredient, which gave it a unique flavour, was a steaming mass of buffalo poo. Each to their own, of course. But how anyone ever discovered that buffalo crap makes an appetising meal remains a mystery.
Legs crossed during the meal
Only occasionally have I found funny foreign food to be completely inedible. In Madagascar my guide insisted we stop at a filthy market stall to eat her favourite lunch snack: a bowl of zebu penis soup. The zebu is a type of tropical cattle ubiquitous throughout Madagascar. You see zebu across the island pulling carts, ploughing fields and hauling wood. Chopping off its todger to make soup is the final indignity for this long-suffering beast. And the dish it creates is unspeakably gristly and awful. I had my legs crossed during most of the meal.
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Still, I survived intact and had a tale to tell. But there have been occasions when head and heart have both said no to what's being offered, and I have drawn the line and refused a dish. Staying with a tribe in northern Borneo, I was asked to join them around the fire at night for a meal of blackened monkey. Apart from many of their species being endangered, monkey is just too close to us in the food-chain. I might as well start nibbling on a cousin when peckish.
A Borneo tribesman hunting... Simon drew the line at eating a 'close relative' such as monkey
So I diplomatically declined, saying that in my culture people believe we should protect our relatives. It might have sounded slightly pompous, and the elders of the tribe did take mild offence, but even my inclusive eating ethos has its limits.
Author and TV presenter Simon Reeve has visited around 100 countries and circled the world three times for the BBC TV series Equator, Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer. He is currently filming a major new journey.
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For more information on holidays in Laos