Jicama

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One of he joys of travel for me is getting to know the country through its food. I always make sure to visit a local market and try out some street food to really get to the heart of the country. On such occasions I often come across fruits and vegetables I never got to try before. That’s how I met my arch nemesis the durian, from a street food vendor in Bali. In Mexico, when I ordered a fruit cup with chili, I received a mix of fruits hat included jicama, another first for me.

Jicama is a root vegetable native to Mexico that has spread to Asia and other countries. I’ve seen it at supermarkets here in China, but not back in Holland. The tuber is shaped like a drop of water and can be the size of a fist, or as large as your head. It’s usually eaten raw and has a similar crunchy texture to that of raw potato. It’s supposedly sweet though, and therefore often used more as a fruit, which is how it ended up in my fruit cup.

Having tried it, I can definitely see the comparison to raw potato. The texture was indeed eerily similar. I found, however, that it wasn’t just the texture that was so familiar. The taste itself also reminded me of raw potato, a little watery yet also a little dirty like the ground it grew in. I personally don’t quite enjoy raw potato as much as you might. Therefore this experiment of eating jicama was sadly a fail.

Fear Factor – 0 / Taste Test – 3

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Mexican corn ice cream

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I have eaten corn ice cream before, but that was a prepackaged highly processed ice cream bar. This time around I came across some freshly made corn ice-cream from a street food vendor in Valladolid, Mexico. That made it a lot more authentic. On further inspection, the ice cream also contained real kernels of corn. The ice cream itself was super smooth and creamy like an Italian gelato. It definitely tasted of corn, which made the whole thing a little strange, but still delicious. Round two proves that corn can indeed be used as a dessert.

Fear Factor – 1 / Taste Test – 7

 

Huitlacoche quesadilla

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A while back I mentioned trying huitlacoche at a fancy restaurant in London. It’s also known as corn smut, and is essentially a disease that turns corn black and a little mushy. When I had it, it was only a little schmear on a plate, so when I was in Mexico I tried it again, but this time as a filling for a quesadilla, which was much more substantial. Though it looks obviously different from regular corn, it doesn’t actually taste that different. It unsurprisingly tastes of corn. The texture is what makes it different though, more like a corn puree.

Fear Factor – 0 / Taste Test – 7

Stir fried banana flower

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In South East Asia not just the fruit of the banana tree is eaten, but also the flower. A new restaurant serving food of the Chinese province of Yunnan was offering a banana flower stir fried with bacon. My friend and I decided to share a portion, amongst other things.

When it came out you could see that the entire flower was used and cut into strips. You could see parts of the leaves as well as stamen and carpel. There was no distinct taste to the flower. The taste was overtaken by a kind of gassy flavor, that I assume came from the oil. The texture was a little more interesting, with the outer parts being quite tough and leathery, and the inner parts a lot softer.

Fear Factor – 0 / Taste Test – 6

Bamboo shoots

 

IMG_7663As a kid I had eaten bamboo shoots once or twice. Always from a can, and only when our supermarket had their yearly Asian week. In China, where bamboo actually grows, you can get it much more easily whether fresh or pickled.

I ordered a helping of bamboo shoots at our university canteen and was presented with a beautiful plate of what appeared to be fresh bamboo. You had to peel off the outer layers, as those were as chewy as wood. It is a grass after all. The inner parts where super tender though, and had a mild acidic flavor. Perhaps they were pickled after all. You don’t eat bamboo for its taste, but rather for the texture as texture is really important in Chinese cooking.

Fear Factor – 0 / Taste Test – 8

Natto (fermented soy beans)

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As a blogger of unusual food, I was looking for something that people in other countries would never want to eat. During my research I found that most people list “natto” as a strange food, so of course I had to find some. I picked up a rice roll filled with natto to eat for breakfast. You might wonder what natto is.

Natto is a product of soybeans that are left to ferment. After a while they go “off”. What’s left is a pile of beans that have turned slimy, leaving threads similar to melted cheese. I have learned that Japanese people like slimy foods, such as okra and raw egg. Not only that, but the beans also are supposed to be very smelly.

I was so hesitant when I opened the package as I really thought a bad smell would hit me straight away. There was nothing to be afraid of as I couldn’t smell anything. Only when I held it very close to my face, could I smell a faint bad smell. It didn’t taste all that bad either. It wasn’t exactly a rotten flavor, more like a mature cheese. I wouldn’t normally pair old cheese and rice, so I don’t think I will try again. It was kind of fun to play with my food and find the strands between bites.

Fear Factor – 8 / Taste Test – 6

Lotus root

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Lotus root is one of my favorite vegetables in China. As the name implies, it is the root of the lotus plant. The lotus flower is perhaps the most famous of flowers from Asia. It grows in water, so you can imagine the roots are extremely difficult to harvest. They come out in long white tubes with distinct holes inside.

Before I came to China, I had only once eaten a fried lotus root crisp at a Japanese restaurant. In China it is used more liberally as a vegetable. It’s sometimes simply stir-fried, or eaten cold as a salad, but it can also be more adventurous stuffed with minced pork or shrimps. In its simplest form, as a salad, it provides a great texture. It’s crunchy yet soft. There isn’t much taste to it unfortunately, so it’s best to add some flavoring. Personally, I like it in hot pot with a nice spicy sauce.

Fear Factor – 0 / Taste Test – 8

Corn juice

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I know these days we make lots of veggie juices such as kale or beetroot, but corn juice that was a thing anew for me. In order to make corn juice, kernels of corn are cooked and then blended with hot water, so it’s technically speaking not a juice. I have seen it served hot at restaurants in China, but it’s not something you will find at every street corner.

As I don’t really like the idea of drinking a hot juice – wouldn’t that be soup? – I held out till I found a can of it. I can tell you it was weird. Not bad, just weird. Corn does have a natural sweetness, so it definitely worked as a juice, but it’s not fruity  so you’re still left with that savory sensation. There was also a hint of bitterness, almost as if it was burned, that I didn’t particularly care for.

Fear Factor – 3 / Taste Test – 6

Lily bulb

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There are horror stories in my country about people having to eat tulip bulbs during the hunger winter on 1945. In hindsight eating these tulip bulbs is not that strange a thought, as we eat many other flower bulbs such as onion and garlic. In China, and especially Lanzhou where I live, people also eat flower bulbs. Lily bulbs are sometimes eaten fresh, but tend to be dried for storing.

In some restaurants you can find lily bulb as part of a vegetable dish. I recently tried it with some wood ear mushrooms and lotus root. The white colored petals don’t have much taste of their own. It’s definitely not like onion in that regard. The texture is interesting though, as it’s halfway between soft and crunchy. Perhaps a slightly undercooked potato would be a good comparison. It was a great texture as part of a dish, but it would be bland just on its own.

Fear Factor – 3 / Taste Test – 7

Curry leaf tempura

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Last year I visited Colombo in Sri Lanka, and I had to visit a Japanese restaurant. Don’t worry I had plenty of local food and rice and curries, but this particular place made it to the top 50 best restaurants in Asia, and that made me curious. It turned out that “Nihonbashi” was indeed a great restaurant, and I still consider it among the best restaurants I have ever eaten at.

My partner and I ordered a wide array of smaller dishes to share including, of course, sushi and sashimi, but there were also a few more unusual items on the menu. One of those was a curry leaf tempura. Curry leaves are native to Sri Lanka and are an essential ingredient in making curries. Hence the name. Obviously.

Curry leaves are often sold dried, as they turn  bad quickly, but at Nihonbashi fresh leaves were used. They were served with a very light, but very crispy tempura batter. To be perfectly honest, I don’t recall any distinct flavors from the leaves. Perhaps the frying had dulled them down, or maybe they just aren’t very strong to begin with. I did find that the crackle of the tempura coating gave a wonderful texture, and made this a perfect snack to munch on.

Fear Factor – 2 / Taste Test – 7