Bitter melon

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There are lots of different fruits and vegetables around in China that would go very well on my blog, but none sounds as unappetizing as the so-called bitter melon. The bitter melon, in the same family as cucumbers, pumpkins and zucchini, comes originally from India, but is now found all over Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. It is shaped like a cucumber, but with lots of bumps all over the skin almost as if it has some kind of disease. Now that sounds promising.

I had never tried it, because it just doesn’t sound appealing, but not so long ago it appeared on the buffet line of the teacher’s cafeteria at my school and I had no reason not to try. It was served cold as a salad and cut into strips. It appears only the skin was used, so I’m not sure if these guys are hollow or not. I’ve eaten some terrible things such as whale bacon and of course durian, but I never expected a vegetable to rank among the worst things I have eaten. Now, I know better. I took one bite and a massive wave of bitterness washed over me – hence the name of course. I spat it right out and didn’t even bother giving it a second chance, good for you or not.

Fear Factor – 5 / Taste Test – 1

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Yam yogurt

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I often have a bit of fruit with some yogurt and muesli for lunch, though I’ve never had it mixed with vegetables before. Which is why I was a bit surprised to see a blueberry and yam yogurt in the shops. When I say yam, I am referring to Chinese yams, which are root vegetables that are similar in taste and texture to a potato. I couldn’t see how that would work in yogurt, but I was willing to give it a try.

I think the yam might have been grated in raw, or finely diced, as I would pick up a texture of raw apple every once and a while. There was no discerning flavor to it though, which made the whole experience rather normal. If it hadn’t been for the odd crunchy bit I would never have known there was any yam in it at all.

Fear Factor – 2 / Taste Test – 7

Cucamelons

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One thing I like writing about are fruits and vegetables that I had never tried before. Whenever I’m traveling I always swing by the supermarket to see if I can find something unusual. It was in Shanghai, at an import supermarket, that I found a whole array of fruits and vegetables including some tiny looking watermelons. It turns out that they weren’t watermelons at all, but cucamelons.

Cucamelons are much more like cucumbers than watermelons, even though they look like that. They are the size of grapes and inside you’ll find a greenish watery flesh with seeds much like a cucumber. It is no surprise then that they pretty much tasted like that as well, though they were juicier. Now I don’t like cucumbers, but I do like pickles so I decided to pickle some. I served them alongside some homemade gravadlax and cream cheese with some freshly grated wasabi, which all worked very well together.

Fear Factor – 3 / Taste Test – 5

Iceland moss

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I had a lot of unusual food in Iceland, from sheep’s head jelly to fermented shark, but perhaps the most unusual was something I bought at the airport to take home as a souvenir – Iceland moss. It looks exactly as it sounds, like moss. However, the name is a bit of a misnomer, as this stuff is not actually moss. It is in fact a lichen, which belongs to the family of fungi.

In Iceland it is most often used to brew tea as people contribute medicinal properties to it. It is supposed to suppress coughing and help beat a cold, however this has never been proven. People have also used it in other forms of cooking such as in bread or porridge, but I simply used it to brew tea as I couldn’t find any recipes.

In many ways it definitely worked as a tea replacement as the water turned greenish brown and did take on a big flavor. Unfortunately said flavor was very bitter. You would need to add quite an amount of sugar to make it more palatable. I didn’t dislike it though. You could drink it without sugar, which is what I did. I had it on a day that I was running a cold and a fever, and I did feel a lot better the next day. That could just be a coincidence though. Or is it?

Fear Factor 4 – Taste Test – 6

Fresh wasabi

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As much as I love Japanese food, I’m not really a fan of wasabi. It’s a dangerous condiment. If you take a bit too much it will blow your head off. Trust me, that’s happened to me on many occasions. Almost all wasabi that we get in supermarkets or restaurants isn’t actually wasabi at all, but rather a dyed horseradish paste. Real wasabi comes from the root of the wasabi plant and is extremely sensitive to the climate which makes it difficult to grow and transport.

I was excited to find some wasabi root in an import supermarket in Shanghai as I had never tried it before. When using fresh wasabi, you usually grate it on a fine grater which creates a kind of pulp. Some chefs in Japan use shark skin as a grater. Unfortunately I was fresh out of shark, so I used a normal grater instead.

Trying some of the fibers with great caution I found that it had all the flavour of wasabi, but it didn’t exactly slap you in the face. It had a kick, yes, but not one so strong that it leaves you in tears. I later grated some over some sushi and that was quite tasty. I only wonder if maybe the wasabi had lost some of its power and taste over the long journey from Japan to my stomach.

Fear Factor – 6 / Taste Test – 8

Asparagus liquor

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The other week I told you how white asparagus are a favorite of my the area I grew up in, Limburg. I had planned to dish up a big multi course dinner celebrating local produce and found an online shop with loads of ingredients that are locally sourced. Among those, I found a bottle of asparagus liquor. I had never heard of such a thing before, so naturally I bought it.

I served a glass of the asparagus liquor to all the dinner guests as an aperitif, and no one had heard of such a concoction before either. I was half expecting a savory drink, but actually it was quite sweet. I couldn’t really pick up on any asparagus, so my guess is this drink is not so much flavored with asparagus, but actually distilled from it like you distill vodka from potatoes. Then again I’m no scientist, perhaps they should have just put more in. It tasted quite good though no matter the process

Fear Factor – 5 / Taste Test – 7 .

Asparagus panna cotta

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If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that every once in a while I like to cook up a multi course dinner on a special occasion. I thought my visit to my parents in July warranted such an occasion. I decided to cook a meal centered on local produce and recipes. In this case I cooked with ingredients from the Limburg region. This is the southernmost part of The Netherlands that has a strong French influence.

One of the things we are famous for throughout the country is asparagus. We always eat the white asparagus that hasn’t seen the sun yet, which is known as our “white gold”. I didn’t want to simply cook them and add a poached egg, some cheese and a slice of ham, so I transformed them into something completely different.

I used some asparagus puree and some cream to make an asparagus panna cotta. I served it with some crispy ham and a wafer made of local cheese. The panna cotta was perfectly velvety smooth and soft, so you could use the chips as a spoon. I have to say I was really pleased with this concoction as the taste was great, and it was well executed.

Fear Factor – 1 / Taste Test – 9

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

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