Rodent brain is among the delicacies that tour guide Ann Lombardi probably wouldn’t eat.
“I just don’t like the consistency,” she says of animal brains in general, though fans of squirrel brain, a treat in parts of Kentucky, might disagree.
Cow brains, however, available on menus in Europe and the U.S. Midwest, “are in a whole different class,” Lombardi says appreciatively.
Also pretty good, she says, was the roasted guinea pig on a stick she once got in Ecuador. And despite trying unusual foods in 67-plus countries, the Trip Chicks co-owner says one of the funkiest foods she ever tried was the BBQ raccoon she was served in Appalachia. “It was actually quite tasty, once I got over the ‘road kill’ gross-me-out hang up.”
Like Lombardi, you may be an adventurous eater when you travel. And while pushing your culinary boundaries is okay and advisable every now and then, consider these ways to look before you eat.
Take to the streets carefully.
Mere mention of “street food” triggers our inner warning bells, but it would be a shame to abandon this category of eating altogether. Key is knowing under what circumstances to avoid it, says Andrew Zimmern, host of “Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods” and “Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World” on the Travel Channel.
“In many countries, ‘hot food hot and cold food cold’ type rules of Western food storage, prep, cooking, and sanitation are non-existent,” Zimmern says. “I use one rule of thumb only: I eat street food only in stalls with lots of happy smiling customers. If you don’t see them, move on. It’s anecdotal at best, but it works.”
Mentally slip on your health inspector hat, too. “Linger around the street cart for a bit and watch the vendor's basic food prep techniques,” suggests nutritionist Monika Woolsey. “Is he exhibiting basic food sanitation precautions, or is he sneezing, coughing, or wiping his nose?” Also look at how the vendor is storing the food, she says. Try to “stroll around the back and look for an ice chest. And be sure to catch a peek inside to see if there's actually ice inside.”
Along those lines, Zimmern says, avoid “juice from vendors on the street who aren’t pureeing or squeezing to order. It’s the oldest scam in the world: keep a jug of diluted old juice - using unfiltered, impure water - under the table and display a basket [of fruit] on the top of the counter to appeal to the customers’ sense of freshness. If you don’t see it squeezed in front of you, don’t buy it.”
While it often doesn’t conjure up the same concerns as meat on a stick, fruits and vegetables should be treated with just as much caution. “I'd stay away from foods that don't have skins that can be peeled off,” Woolsey says. Likewise, avoid ingesting lettuce, spinach, cabbage, or other vegetables that grow near the ground, she says, because “you don't know what was used as fertilizer, and how well the product was cleaned to remove that fertilizer.”
“Want to lose weight fast?” Lombardi warns. “Just eat an Asian pear-apple, especially one in Korea, without peeling the skin. Without sounding graphic, there has to be an expression for an ailment beyond the worst Montezuma's Revenge imaginable.”
Don’t assume your hotel is a safe food haven.
Retreating to the recesses of your hotel’s restaurant is not necessarily foolproof, especially if you’ve already noticed questionable hygiene practices elsewhere in the destination, Woolsey says. Heed those flickers of doubt, as well as any flickers of light. “If you notice inconsistent electrical service in your hotel room,” she says, “consider that the kitchen is also having issues and your food may not have been properly refrigerated.”
Despite the strange edibles he’s encountered on the road, Zimmern’s number one thing to avoid on the road is “the salad buffet at the fancy hotel restaurant. It’s almost always poorly tended, not kept cold, and arguably the main source of food-borne pathogens in many foreign countries. And since [the foods are] often washed in unfiltered water, travelers run the risk of getting the trots more often than not.”
“Beer here!” may be different than beer there.
One food-related danger that doesn’t always spring to mind is that different countries have different rules about alcohol content, Woolsey says.
She recalls the time a friend on a Toronto business trip ordered a Molson, but instead got Brador, a type of Molson that is only sold in Canada and is actually a malt liquor, with a higher alcohol content than U.S.-sold Molson beer. Likewise, “Heineken brewed for consumption in the United States has a lower alcohol content than Heineken brewed for consumption in Germany,” she says.
Listen to the locals.
When it comes to dabbling in extreme cuisine, a word that sometimes goes hand in hand with adventure is authentic, which “can be an appealing word, says frequent business traveler and AllBusiness.com blogger Ken Walker, “but be wary of just how authentic some foods can be.”
Walker says many “authentic” Tex-Mex restaurants in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico serve Fajitas Cabrito (“goat, delicious, but greasy”), Barbacoa (“shredded beef meat from the head and brain”), and Huitlacoche, “which is the fungus that grows on ears of corn,” he explains. “It's best to visit authentic restaurants with a local friend or colleague who can help guide you through the menu,” he says.
Likewise, Walker says, be wary of coastal cities, foreign and domestic, that are famous for their local seafood. “The trouble is, clams, crabs, and shrimp have a very short shelf life. Locals know what restaurants are safe and which ones carry the best reputations when it comes to freshness, proper storage and cleaning.”
Also bear in mind that nature has its own version of street food. “If you're out hiking,” Woolsey says, “don't eat mushrooms or pull berries off of bushes unless you are with a native guide who you trust and who can steer you to the right ones.”
Perhaps the most storied of extreme foods is the chile pepper, whose heat can cause issues beyond your digestion. By touching the outsides of some of the stronger peppers, you can absorb the capsaicin compound found in the chile oil, and “it's hard to get off of your skin,” Woolsey says. “It's not much of an issue if you're not chopping the chiles, but it's important both at home and on the road when handling chiles to not rub your eyes.”
“And for men,” Woolsey adds, it’s particularly important when handling chile peppers “to exercise caution when urinating. I had a friend discover that the incredibly hard way.”