I think of this quote from Jonathan Swift frequently when I travel. I don’t know how it started, but about a decade ago, business colleagues began to assume I was the original “Mikey” and that I would eat anything. I would fly overseas and the local team would insist on taking me out for a meal that always pushed the limits of my American culinary cultural boundaries. I never determined whether it was intended as some sort of challenge or a sign of respect. All I knew is that wherever I visited, a gustatory trial awaited.
The first time was during a visit to Beijing. The local team took me out to dinner at what they described as a “ very special” restaurant. We sat down and, not understanding a word of Mandarin, I left it to my host to order. A few minutes later, the first course arrived. It consisted of some kind of spicy stew with assorted vegetables and, in the middle of the bowl, a fairly large bullfrog. That’s correct. A bullfrog.
Not wanting to offend, I dipped into the stew with trepidation and eyed the bullfrog staring back at me. As I attempted to carry on a conversation with my coworkers, my mind vacillated between (a) “how do I eat this thing?” and (b) “is there any scenario under which hurling on the table is not a career limiting move?” The combination of intense jet lag, a foreign environment and the sizable amphibian made me begin to feel lightheaded and nauseous. Luckily, it was at that moment that the waiter reappeared and said something in sharp Mandarin that brought me out of my haze. With a deft movement he plucked the bullfrog from the soup and onto a nearby chopping block where he quickly carved it and scraped the meat back into my bowl before doing the same for others.
After giving a quiet prayer of gratitude to the food gods, I took a deep pull of my beer to settle my stomach and dug in. As I recall, it turned out to be a very tasty dinner. But I don’t remember what else I ate that evening. When your repast begins with a bullfrog, everything after that is forgettable. As we left the restaurant and walked to our car I turned to one of the local team and asked, “How, often do you eat a meal like this – bullfrog, for example?” With a sly grin she said, “Almost never. It’s considered traditional food that no one eats anymore except with guests like you.”
Since that time, I’ve encountered this same type of “hospitality” in visits to other places. It has resulted in me eating: spicy dried crickets and deep fried worms (both surprisingly tasty snacks) in Mexico City; snake and sea horse soup in Beijing; phaal curry (so spicy it seared my taste buds for weeks) in Bangalore; pig knuckles in Munich; jellyfish in Tokyo (never again); pigeon in Chartres; kimchee in Korea (in my opinion, no food should be fermented unless it comes in a beer bottle); and a kangaroo steak in Sydney.
Along the way, I’ve learned to embrace the cuisine on my travels as a part of the cultural experience, no matter how alien to what I normally eat. On some trips, I’ve actually acquired an affinity for a food I have never previously sampled.
I’m planning on visiting the Adobe team in Singapore sometime in the next few months. I expect that durian will be on the menu. Durian is a sweet tasting South Asian fruit known for its spiky appearance and, especially, its strong odor. Just how bad does it smell? This should give you an idea.
I’m going to start preparing for the experience by emptying my son’s gym bag and picking up after my dog more frequently. But, to my colleagues in Singapore, I look forward to the challenge.