Pleasure Palate: Six Taste Bizarre Food Challenge
By Abby Abanes
When I think of what constitutes as a “bizarre food”, it’s not so much that I think particular foods are inherently bizarre by definition. It’s more like there are foods out there that I can’t fathom myself wanting to eat. Wanting to expand my culinary horizon, I decided to take on the Six Taste Bizarre Food Challenge. Six Taste is a Los Angeles food tour company and you can read about a couple of other tours I’ve been on with them here and here. As for their Bizarre Food Challenge, it’s a tour that you have to set up with them as a private tour. It takes place in the city of San Gabriel and the focus is on “bizarre” Chinese delicacies.
Our first bizarre bite of the day was from a Century Egg. The sheer blackness of the egg looked a bit daunting in the bright morning light, but it was a pretty background surrounding the striations of the yolk, which looked like agate. Century Eggs are duck, chicken or quail eggs that are preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, quicklime, salt and rice hulls for several weeks to several months. They can be eaten on their own, but are usually eaten with something else like chilled tofu or mixed in a rice congee.
I think this is one food I would have liked to eat with something else. By itself, the strong ammonia smell was off putting. When I finished eating the egg, there was a lingering sulpher taste that lingered on my palate that even a few swigs of water couldn’t seem to drive away. Suffice to say, this is one egg I’m happy to avoid in the future.
Afterwards, we walked over to Aji Ichiban, which our guide referred to as a Taiwanese-Japanese Branded-Chinese Snack Shop. Got that? I actually had to write that down so I could remember. Inside, you’ll find a variety of dried goods like dried fruit and vegetables. You’ll also find dried seafood, jerky and other types of snacks as well as candy. In fact, they even sell durian candy and of course, I got some to take home.
This is where we dug into fried mini crabs. What was bizarre was that I had no problem munching on them; yet, when I’ve had fried whole smelts (which are small fish), I always cut the head off before eating the rest of the body. But then there are others who will only have fish fillets because eating from a whole fish would be too foreign. People definitely do have interesting food do’s and don’ts. Me included.
Right next door was our next stop at 101 Hot Pot Cafe. This restaurant shares its name with another 101 Hot Pot Cafe that is located in the Taipei 101 Mall, which is the second tallest building in South East Asia. Here we sampled three dishes.
First up was a Steamed Stinky Tofu. Stinky tofu is basically tofu that is preserved for a several months in a brine made up of fermented milk, vegetables, meat and possibly other ingredients. I was a little worried about eating this because I had fried stinky tofu a couple of weeks ago at another restaurant and found the taste to be too pungent and a little too “rotten tasting” for my palate. However, it was total night and day with this plate of steamed tofu. It definitely had a distinct taste, but one that I liked. Apparently, not all stinky tofu is created equal.
Last was a bowl of soup that our guide referred to as a good hangover soup. Ingredients included more pork intestines as well as pork blood cubes. I’ve never been a blood fan when it comes to my food. I just find the taste to be really minerally plus I have to admit to a slight repulsion to eating “blood” foods in general. I did have a little of that blood cube with a spoonful of soup and that was enough for me.
Our next stop was upstairs at Tasty Village. By the way, I may have forgotten to mention that the majority of our tour took place at Focus Plaza, which is home to 99 Ranch Market, restaurants and other businesses. Here we shared a plate of jellyfish. I’ve actually had jellyfish before and just like then, I enjoyed its cool and crunchy texture.
After we enjoyed the jellyfish, we walked next door to Ay Chung Noodle House, which is a US outpost of the same restaurant that exists in Taiwan. However, in Taiwan, Ay Chung Noodle House is literally a hole in the wall night market stand with no seating and no trashcan. Customers eat standing up out of bowls which they then return to the restaurant when they’re done. There they only serve a couple of items. Chung is also the last name of the family that runs these restaurants.
While the San Gabriel location has a bigger menu then their Taiwan counterpart, what they are known for are their rice noodle soups and stinky tofu. The first thing we had was their Small Intestine Rice Noodle Soup made with soy sauce, garlic, a Taiwanese-style vermicelli noodle and thickened with cornstarch. I enjoyed the flavor of the soup, was fine with the intestines, but the soup just had too much of a thick and gloopy texture that I didn’t care for.
As for the Fried Stinky Tofu, I also really enjoyed it. Like the steamed version I had earlier, it also had a distinct flavor to it that wasn’t unappealing.
From Ay Chung Noodle House, we took a walk away from Focus Plaza to Nature Pagoda. The owner of this restaurant also owns a Chinese Medicine Shop at Focus Plaza so some of the foods at Nature’s Pagoda are made from various Chinese herbs. Our stop here started innocently with a plate of vegetable dumplings.
Then that plate was joined by two different soups. The first soup was Turtle Soup with a Chinese herb broth that included ginseng and goji berries. This was the first time I’ve ever had turtle soup. The turtle pieces looked like little beef spareribs and also tasted beef-y to me, but others in the tour thought that the turtle tasted more like duck.
I almost wish that we stopped with the turtle soup because the next soup was definitely a hard mountain to climb for me and for the majority of my group. Before our guide told us what was actually in the soup, he talked about traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine. One of the premises is the belief that whatever organ you eat can replenish a similar or same organ in your body. For example, if you’re having liver problems, you’d eat liver. He also mentioned how eating black sesame seeds is thought to keep away gray hair.
The role of the main ingredient in our mystery soup is suppose to help with male virility; hence, what we had before us was an Ox Penis Soup. If I was hesitant about eating the pork intestines, I was even more so about eating this ox penis. After all, I don’t need help with my male virility. It didn’t help that it looked exactly what it was supposed to be, but this was a Bizarre Food Challenge, so I eventually did the deed. However, I couldn’t fathom chewing it, so I just swallowed it whole and yes, I’ve heard all the jokes already.
From Nature Pagoda, we went to Tasty, a Chinese dessert place. I’ve only been here once before and it was on the Six Taste New Chinatown Tour. On that tour, our dessert was a mango-coconut dessert. For this second visit, we had a similar dessert, but with a twist.
This particular dessert included black rice, coconut milk ice, fresh mangoes and frog fallopian tubes. Yes, frog fallopian tubes. Like the ox penis, there is a purpose for eating frog fallopian tubes and it has to do with helping with a woman’s fertility. As for the frog fallopian tubes, they looked like jelly or a soft jello which you’d find in a lot of Chinese desserts and/or drinks. There wasn’t much flavor to them and since I had no issue with the texture, I didn’t have a problem eating them, but it’s not something I’d go out of my way to order again.
I got two things out of taking this tour. I can definitely say that my culinary horizons have been expanded a bit further. First, I’m more open to the thought of eating pork intestines than I was in the past. Second, stinky tofu really can taste good as long as you go to restaurants that know the best way to prepare them. Third, I wouldn’t turn down a bowl of turtle soup if someone offered it to me.
I also reaffirmed to myself that just because certain foods are enjoyed by others, it doesn’t mean that I have to like or even eat them (again), regardless of why. I’m glad that I tried the Century Egg, had a bite of that blood cube and even swallowed that ox penis, but there doesn’t have to be repeat performances for any of those foods for me. But if I decide never to eat a blood sausage, haagis, a scorpion or a guinea pig, that’s okay, too. It’s my prerogative.
In the end, while I have my limits, I do have a pretty adventurous palate compared to many. That was very evident when I started regaling my co-workers about all the interesting food that I ate on that tour. My audience wasn’t to keen on the century egg and the stinky tofu but once I got to the pork intestines, I completely lost them. Can you imagine how they would have reacted to the ox penis and frog fallopian tubes? Now that would have been interesting.
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