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5.8.11

To Eat Or Not To Eat?

That is truly the question.


Indonesia, and Asia in general, is a minefield of new and interesting things to eat.  They put to sauce what Americans fear to see.  There are animal parts in my dinner that I never imagined possible.  Most of it's quite good, but some of it is just, well, intolerable.

One sign I was not in Kansas anymore was the first time I ordered up a bowl of chicken soup, and there, floating gracefully in the middle of my bowl, was a chicken foot.  My first reaction, being from East Texas and all, was that this was some kind of voodoo.  I looked around to see if I could spy a mammy with a kerchief sitting in the corner cackling with a toothless grin and staring at me with evil design.

Come to find out, chicken foot is a very common ingredient.  Even when you go to Carrefour or Giant, you can find piles of chicken feet stacked by the packages of chicken skin, just waiting to be thrown in the pot.  They don't scare me like they used to, but I still can't bring myself to gnaw on them like the local folk.  Maybe four more years?

Of course, sate, or satay as we reckon it, is popular the world over.  It's one of Indonesian's most famous exports, and it's delicious.  There's the goat with thick soy sauce and a cucumber/onion medley.  I love that one.  There's chicken with a spicy peanut sauce, which when it's perfect, I can't get enough.  But, I have this habit, see? 

Sometimes, I go into a restaurant and I look for something I've never heard of before, and which I can't translate.  Call me crazy, I know.  This one time, though, I was at a sate restaurant, the kind that literally folds up at midnight and disappears until the next night.  They actually had a menu, which is unusual.  I scanned the list of satay favorites...fish, chicken, goat, beef.  I came to one I couldn't decipher.  It was usus ayam.  Now I knew ayam meant chicken, and still being a bit naive at the time, I figured what the heck?

A few minutes later, I was treated to a plate full of chicken guts on a stick with yellow curry sauce.  And I do mean guts.  The heart led off, followed by an artfully arranged snake of bowel, and capped with liver.  I don't know about you, but liver makes me vomit, unless it's pate de fois gras with caviar on a delicate wheat biscuit.  Mmmmm! 

But this aborration sitting in front of me was...how do I put it?  Frightening.  It looked like something Vincent and Mary Price would cook up for Halloween.  And you know what?  I ate every piece of it.  Personal rule.  Can't break it.  No matter what.

One thing I'm growing more tolerant of is the idea of frying shrimp without removing a single part of them.  The head, tail and armor plating all come delicately fried to a crispy crunch.  I try not to look at the inscrutable black eyeballs when I'm eating, though.  Can't says as I like the whiskers, though.  I tend to pull those suckers off before I eat.  When it's done right, it's pretty darned tasty.  When not, you can chew the armor plates all night and not choke them down.

The next item on the list is almost a joke, but when I first enjoyed gurame, which is a fresh-water fish, I was entertained by the presentation.  The entire fish had been battered and fried, and it was then served on the plate standing on its belly fins, looking like it was swimming with its flesh flying off at all angles.  It looked something like that art exhibit of actual human bodies in various stages of dissection and engaged in a range of activities.

Actually, the fish was quite good, and it's normally served with sweet and sour sauce with is one of my favorites.  And no, the sauce is not like that strange red concoction that you get at Chinese restaurants in the States.  This is actually flavorful with complex tones and pleasant after-taste.

After we had picked the carcass bare (now there was a swimming skeleton), I was presented with the prize.  In fact, to Indonesians, the rest of the fish is just prelude to this.  THIS is the reason they eat gurame!  There, on the plate before me, in all it's fried wonder, was...the head!  Now at 50 years, I've never eaten a fish head in all my life.  Not that I haven't scarfed on barbequed goat head and monkey brains and head cheese, but FISH?!

Not only that, everyone at the table was looking at me with that look that says, "You bastard, you got the good part."  I could hardly refuse, even though I tried for 10 minutes.  So, I did what any self-respecting, red-blooded Texas boy would do...I hunkered down and ate it.  Wasn't entirely unpleasant, but I'm not running out buying sack-fulls of fish heads for dinner anytime soon.

By now, you've probably figured this is all heading somewhere, right?  There must be some point to this rant about strange and unusual things to eat.  I mean, fried skin ain't all that strange.  Cracklins are a staple of East Texas diets.  My grandfather ate pickled pig's feet all his life.  In the jungles of East Texas, I've eaten alligator and turtle and frog butts and armadillo.  So what could all this possibly be leading to?

It's kind of like that scene in Life of Brian, when they are at the Colosseum and the vendor is selling weasel snouts, badger butts and grilled hedgehog.

So one night, I was having dinner with some Balinese friends, and the fare was quite good.  Especially the pork, which is a rarity around these parts.  My host opened a bag of what looked like normal, everyday kerupuk, of which there are a thousand varieties, made from plants, roots, fish, skin, and dozens of other fry-ables.  She offered me some and I obligingly took a handful.

I mindlessly popped the first one in my mouth, having eaten a metric ton of these things in the past few years.  The first thing I noticed was that it was very salty, which I don't like.  Then came the texture, which was akin to week-old squid.  In other words, it was a crispy rubber-band.  Then came the flavor, and here I run out of metaphors, because there is no flavor I know of that comes close.

"What do you think?" she asked.  At this point I knew I'd been had.  Whenever someone asks you that, it means they've just put a fast one over on you.

"Hmmm...," I replied, being as diplomatic and non-committal as I could.  "What is it?"

"Paru-paru," she announced triumphantly. 

Now, if you know Indonesian, then you are probably laughing.  Indos love this stuff, but I must say, and I rarely say this about anything, I hate it.  It doesn't have a single redeeming quality that I can find.  Not only that, there are various kinds of paru-paru, just to make sure that if you didn't get a snoot-full with the kerupuk, then there's a handful in your soup.

Paru-paru means "lungs".  The fried version I ate that night was beef lung cut up and fried like potato chips, save for the deep red color.

I've encountered it again and again, since then.  My wife, God bless her, loves chicken lungs.  I can't even stand the sight, much less the smell or taste of it.  I forbade the least particle of lung to touch my plate.  I REALLY don't like it.  And that says a lot, because I've choked down just about every animal, insect and plant laid before me.  But lung is right up there iwth beets.  I don't like the taste, the texture or the name even.

So it you're traveling this way anytime soon, and someone offers you paru-paru, run, do not walk, as fast as you can. 

Unless you're just weird.

By the way, would you pass the dog, please?

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