I looked at my newly purchased packet of creamy Gorgonzola this afternoon and it had a number ‘5’ on it.  Presumably this is to tell you it is a strong cheese, just in case you mistakenly thought it was coconut ice with some blue ripples in it. Is the ‘5’ labeling another EU regulation?

So on that note and in the spirit of Christmas, I thought I would write about weird foods rather than lots of heavy “let’s all commit suicide now” political stuff.

Who would actually buy Gorgonzola if they had not grown up eating it? It’s actually quite  a bizarre taste if one thinks about it and lots of non Europeans find the whole idea of strong, wiffy cheeses quite awful. If a Tibetan goat herder was given it and told it was sweet, they would probably retch or vomit with  shock after tasting it, rather like the average Americans’ reaction to marmite.

Their reaction would probably not be much different from mine when, five months pregnant and finding myself halfway up a freezing Himalayan mountain at 10,000 feet in the middle of winter, I was given a cup of hot tea. It was worse than ‘quelle horreur’ – it was literally ‘where is the nearest bucket’.  It was hot. It was strong. It was greasy from the little globules of Nak’s butter floating around on the top. (For clarifications sake, there is no such thing as Yak’s cheese or Yak’s butter. A Yak is a male, a Nak is a female Yak.)

No, it was not the grease that made me decidedly queasy although that was bad enough. It was the shock of the salt . Not a pinch of salt but a whole desert spoon in a cup.  One could not think of a better emetic.

Salt and butter tea is a staple of Tibetans and Sherpa’s and like most awful tasting things is supposed to have lots of wonderful health qualities.

Staying in that part of the world, one of the most remarkable things I have ever tasted is ‘timbu’.

It is one of the few things you cannot find when googling and I have no idea what the biological name is. It is a berry from a Himalayan bush used to flavour meats and stews. Even in a stew it is rather piquant and creates a highly unique flavour but this is nothing compared to what happens when you put a piece in your mouth uncooked. First you get a sharp, extremely unpleasant tingling.  Shortly afterwards you lose all feeling in your tongue and eventually your entire mouth disappears and stays like it for a good half an hour.

Of course, no doubt it is another of those things like ‘Horny Goat weed’, otherwise known as Macca, that has ‘loads’ of unique properties for herbal heath officianadoes.  

The real viagra of the Himalayas is yarsagumba (a fungus) which sells for around $120,000 a kilo and creates a supposed $11 billion dollar industry from people scuttling around freezing forests looking for the stuff.  It literally means ‘summer grass, winter worm.’ I am not sure this would be classified as food, technically, but it is certainly eaten for pleasure (see here).

Changing continents, one of the oddest textured foods I have ever encountered is injera, made from the staple grain of Ethiopia, the teff. It is a type of bread, eaten universally with almost every meal.  There are two things that make it so odd. The first is the sheer size – they are often a couple of feet wide, enormous flat, wavy, thin things, the colour of a bit of old cow hide. The real oddity is the texture.  Injera are full of holes so the whole thing becomes a bit rubbery, so you end up eating something quite unlike anything you have ever had before, think of one of those old shammy leathers for window cleaning. It tastes similar to your shammy leather too.

A lot of people will have eaten the odd bit of snake, an eel or two (another of those foods with a rather odd texture), a bit of pigs trotter, some chicken feet, the odd fried cockroach and various animals eyes or male genitalia – and what fun it is boasting at dinner parties over such feats!

But the really awful thing about a lot of worldwide food is not about these adventurous or weird tastes but just how boring and bland most people’s diets are. White pappy bread and potatoes in Britain are replaced by equally boring things elsewhere. White rice with a thin gruel of watery red lentil dal is the staple of Nepal named Dal Bhat – and dull it is after the fiftieth meal in a row of it.  

I took a Sherpa from a mountain village to an expensive restaurant and guess what he chose, Dal Bhat – the same meal that he had eaten for lunch and dinner all week and probably everyday for his entire life. In Lidl today, the cashier said whilst scanning  Lidl’s rather cheap version of caviar, ‘I haven’t tried it but I wouldn’t like it.’

It seems a particular feature of the working class of all countries to have highly  parochial and conservative tastes when it comes to food.

Does this inability to try new things, even when the opportunity presents itself, contribute to their inability to move upwards in their respective societies?  Opportunity always rewards the inquisitive and the brave.

On that thought, I wish everyone a happy Christmas and enjoy your pigs in blankets, toad in the hole, faggots or whatever other British delicacy you are partaking off!


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