A Peruvian woman tended a small charcoal grill on the ground near the curb. As I passed by, she waved the small, crispy, skewered rodent she was grilling as a way to entice me. I did not buy that day. Earlier that week during my visit to the countryside outside of Cusco, Peru, when I had eaten cuy, aka Guinea pig, I felt like I was washing down with beer what could have been someone's pet. And for the curious, cuy tastes vaguely like rabbit, or squirrel if you have had that.
Americans have an aversion to the consumption of companion animals. Dogs, horses and cats are off the menu, but yet rabbit is fairly common. For dog lovers, the sight of a roasted dog would be most revolting. Even the suggestion of consuming dog is repellent. When teaching in Oklahoma, one of my students, born in Korea, give a presentation to the class about a traditional Korean wedding soup. Before he began, he distributed samples. As the class ate the soup, he went through the list of ingredients, which included dog meat. Most students immediately reacted and spat out the soup. The Korean student was as surprised by the reaction of the American students as they had been to his soup. What is bizarre and unappetizing food in one culture may be the primary ingredient in a traditional celebration recipe in another.
These kinds of fierce foods, some that take a little persuasion to sample, are readily available all over Charlotte.
Here in the South, animal body parts — especially those of a pig — are commonly consumed. Long before pork belly became ubiquitous, pig's feet, now known by the gentrified term trotters, were on area menus, at least since 1947 when the iconic and now-closed Coffee Cup opened its doors. Floyd's Restaurant (4122 N. Graham St., 7825 Nations Ford Road) not only has pig's feet on the menu, but chitterlings (pork intestines), chicken livers and gizzards, too.
Stewed pork intestines are also a standard item on the menu of take-out-only Van Loi Chinese Barbecue (3101 Central Ave.), which offers chicken feet stew and whole animals: duck, chicken and pig.
Some exotic meats have found their way onto area menus as well. Kangaroo meat shows up now and again. Alligator tail is offered as fried bites on the starter list at Boudreaux's Louisiana Kitchen (501 E. 36th St.). The Meat House (8410 Rea Road) carries a variety of meats, including alligator, boar and ostrich.
Many sushi spots offer uni, or sea urchin — or to be precise, sea urchin gonads. These spiky sea creatures develop a total of five identical sex organs, and both male and female sea urchins gonads are in demand. Uni has a shelf life of two days from harvest to plate. Fresh uni has the meltingly soft consistency of custard with a faint hint of brine. Bad uni, on the other hand, is a taste hard to forget.
To some, a genetically modified organism (GMO) is infinitely scarier than, say, chicken feet stew, or beef heart on a stick, or anticuchos, the Peruvian specialty available at Machu Picchu Restaurant (315 S. Polk St., Pineville). Most of the E.U. countries, in fact, have banned GMO crops, and all require labeling. To the vigilant in the U.S., the only alternative is to know your farmer and chef.
Would you eat cloned meat? Replicated meat? A Dutch scientist has already cloned beef muscle to create a cloned burger, and even though the science involved in this test tube meat is in its early stages, in vitro chicken may be next.
What about sucking an embryo out of a shell? Balut — duck embryos — is available from time to time in Charlotte's Asian markets. A balut is soft-boiled and served warm. One end of the shell is tapped open, a bit of salt is tossed in, and then the 17-day-old embryo and amniotic fluid is sucked out. The best balut still has its white membrane attached.
If balut is too extreme, try a food that just looks scary. Recently, Super G Mart (7323 E. Independence Blvd.) got a shipment of rambutan, a bright red Southeast Asian fruit about the size of a walnut covered with soft reddish brown hairs. Even peeled, the translucent white interior flesh resembles an eerie iris-less eyeball.
For this spooky time of year, try the unexpected: Offer your friends a tray of unpeeled hairy balls (rambutan) with a side of Walking Dead (pork intestine) stew from Van Loi. Go on. Just a bite.