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Archive for the ‘Food For the Daring’ Category

Icelandic Braveheart

Top left to right: dried fish, Brennivín, hákarl

On our recent trip to Iceland, one delicacy I wanted to try was Hákarl, or fermented Greenland Shark.  In Reykjavik, the capital, we found Café Loki, which serves traditional Icelandic dishes including hákarl.  We ordered it as part of a couple of taster plates, the Icelandic Plate II and Icelandic Braveheart.  Both dishes included some combination of rye and flatbreads, dried fish, mashed fish and smoked lamb (all very tasty).  The Braveheart was accompanied by a shot of caraway-flavoured Icelandic schnapps, called Brennivín.  The innocent-looking hákarl looked like three small cubes of slightly shiny cheese on toothpicks.  We took a whiff.  A strong ammonia smell burned our nostrils, and we should’ve ended it right there, but we hoped it tasted better than it smelled, like some strong cheese.

Well, sad to say, it didn’t.  It has got to be the most vile, disgusting thing I have ever eaten that was supposed to be food.  The first bite was not as horrible as we imagined, with a slightly rubbery texture, but by the time we got to the third, the smell and taste of ammonia was overpowering our palates.  Thank goodness for the Brennivín to wash it down.  On the up side, we didn’t get sick afterward, although we fully expected to.

Icelandic Plate II

Clockwise, from top right: smoked trout, smoked lamb, mashed fish, dried fish and in the middle, hákarl

Hákarl is prepared by beheading and gutting the shark and letting it ferment in a pit full of sand and then hanging it to dry, the entire process taking several months.  This is done so that the poisonous trimethylamine oxide and urea in the flesh are converted into ammonia… infinitely more palatable, right?

And so the question is, why would anybody want to eat something that smells and tastes like household cleaner?  We asked several Icelanders during our trip if they liked it, and none of them did.  But they dutifully ate it once a year, during the midwinter festival called Þorrablót which is a celebration of their heritage.

Those Icelanders sure are tough!

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14 years ago, I spent some time in Suriname, a little-known South American country.  It is flanked by Guyana and French Guiana and its official language is Dutch, making it a country like no other on the predominantly Latin continent.  The food there was a wonderful blend of Indian, Indonesian and Creole dishes.

A staple is cassava, a woody shrub of which the tuberous roots are used as a form of starch.  Tapioca comes from this root.  The cassava is used in Suriname as you might a potato, boiled in soups, sliced and fried as chips, in cakes.

One of the most unusual uses of cassava is to make an alcoholic drink called Casiri.  Apparently the cassava is chewed and then spat into a container, where the enzymes in the saliva start a fermentation process.  Now, cassava is poisonous unless properly prepared as it can liberate cyanide, so I don’t know if the root is cooked before being chewed.  I never got to see the process, but I did see the finished product, a thick, dark yellow, shall i say, vomit-like concoction.  I didn’t have my camera with me, but you get the idea.  This was served at a celebration of some sort that I attended in town, and when I was offered some, of course I had to try it.

A fancy drink it's not!

I figured, the scientific side of me kicking in, that the enzyme amylase in the saliva would break down the starches and the fermentation would pretty well kill any lingering germs, so it was safe.  I steeled myself and had a quaff.  The Casiri was thick, sour, and heavy in alcohol.  I couldn’t finish it.   I’m not really selling this, am I?

When I got “home,” my host family dad said incredulously, “do you know how they make that?” and when I said yes, he couldn’t believe I’d tried it anyway.  He never had, and had no intention of ever doing so.  Well, how often in life was I going to have the opportunity to taste a drink made with saliva?

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The u is pronounced like the u in “pull.”  For those who don’t know, this Japanese dish is sea urchin, or specifically, the sea urchin gonads.  Sounds gross, and we have to admit, we never liked it before we went to Japan, but that was because we had the more commonly found previously frozen ones.  The “live” ones are the way to go, no comparison.   These are soft in texture, almost like a pudding, and sweet.  The presentation is impressive, all nestled in the shell and perhaps on a bed of shredded daikon and shiso leaves, as shown here.  And yes, it’s raw, so it’s considered sashimi.

uni

Live Uni

You can dip it in soy sauce with a bit of wasabi if you like, but I prefer its pure, unadulterated taste.  Here in Vancouver, this is a seasonal dish between September and April.  If you get it, make sure it is “live.”  If you have tried the previously frozen and not liked it (I still think it’s gross), give the live one a try.  Added bonus – it is harvested sustainably here on the west coast of Canada, and earns a “best choice” rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

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