believed her. I do have photographic evidence. More important, I have the memory of a unique experience that reminded me how colorful, diverse and, yes, educational street market foods are.
Eating scorpions, say, exposes the adventurous traveler to a new taste and demonstrates that all food aesthetics are relative; it also reflects the historic fact that billions of humans have had to consume whatever's available.
I began this adventure as a boy in Mexico. There are innumerable delights to be found in Mexico's lively markets -- fresh handmade blue or red corn tortillas, barbecued goat, handmade tropical-fruit ice cream, smoked eel. I encountered an unexpected treat in the night market in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán's lovely lakeside mountain village -- potato chips made on the spot. My wife and I had terrific barbecued pork shoulder at a lunch counter on the road to Tacámbaro. We headed there just to see what was there; I'd say the best barbecue ever is a pretty splendid discovery.
Let me answer the most common question: No, I've never been sick. Not outside the U.S., anyway; I did contract a mild case of paratyphoid from a public water supply in Louisiana, where I grew up. Yes, I have a famously ironclad Mediterranean stomach, but my wife possesses a more delicate Scandinavian version, and she's never been sick either. In Mexico, China, the Caribbean and, of course, Europe, we have witnessed the utmost attention to hygiene, even in the smallest food stands.
You do want to avoid fresh fruit with the skin on (oranges are OK, unpeeled apples, no), uncooked foods, and drinks that don't come from a bottle.
Aside from novel experiences, I've enjoyed new and fascinating flavors, discovered delightful exotic foods -- there are hundreds of wonderful edible fruits, of which only a paltry dozen or so are common in the Northern Hemisphere -- and made quick but warm connections with people around the world who appreciate a visitor's willingness to share their cuisine. You don't have to try foods that would give Aunt Margaret a heart attack either; even my Chinese guide shied away from fried scorpions.
The scorpion cook in Beijing got a huge chuckle out of the American tourist's alarmed reaction -- and so did I. There's a world of culinary wonder out there, on a billion street corners and market alleys. Some of my favorites:
Aside from fried scorpions, Beijing's colorful, pedestrian-only Wangfujing Street offers fried locust larvae, roast turkey tower-skewers, pot-stewed pig's intestines with baked wheat cakes, boiled tripe, stewed sheep's head (waste not, want not) and fried starch sausage in garlic sauce. And lots more, from humdrum dim sum to red bean cakes for dessert. Alas, there's no place to take a nap after lunch.
At markets in the central highlands, the chips vendor takes a big potato, deftly runs it through a slicer, ladles the result in a basket and plunges it in hot oil. Three minutes later she drains the chips, serves them into a small paper cup and hands them over with lemon and salt. You know how good real doughnuts are when they've just come out of the cooker? Like that. No, you cannot eat just one.
Each morning, 1,000 food-stand cooks start up a big stew pot of chicken, a second big pot of beans and a third big pot of rice. The sidewalk chalkboard is inscribed "stew beans & chicken," and at 11:30 everyone digs into the standard Caribbean lunch: a paper plate with chicken stew over rice, beans on the side. Red kidney beans, farmyard chicken, peasant rice -- it's rock-bottom comfort food, and, to me, it's way better than any chicken anything you'll get in the States.
Coconut bake is a local variant of roti, which is itself a variant of West Indian fry bread, which is nothing like Indian fry bread in this country and is similar to what we call nan, only that's baked and this is griddle-cooked, except when it's "bake." See how complicated this can get? The bake I had in a Milford Road market near Canaan had a light coconut aroma and taste and was dandy with a smear of butter. I know -- that's not health food.
The fruit stands in Kowloon's Fa Yuen Street offer items just as diverse, from Washington state Red Delicious apples, stickered and trademarked, to the real delights I sampled one warm January day. Yes, you do have to mind the no-fruit-skins rule, so let's focus on the two dozen things a tourist can eat. A mangosteen is a sweet-sour juice burst inside a leathery purple skin. Jackfruit, the world's largest fruit, comes in chopped-off half-foot chunks that you can slurp up like watermelon or scoop with a spoon.
And while you have that spoon in your hand, yes, there are durians to be found. This legendary wonder -- commonly said to reek of old, dirty socks -- is most often described, accurately, as "tastes like heaven, smells like hell." How often will you have a chance to eat a fruit subject to legal restriction? It's banned on subways, ferries and planes, but who could object in an open-air market? Aside from Aunt Margaret.
Chinatown markets in North America are no match for the real thing, but they do hold many novelties. My favorite food in Vancouver's east-of-downtown historic Asian district is honey-glazed roast quail; each one is a perfect midafternoon snack, requiring two napkins and nimble fingers. Wash it down with ginseng tea, eh?
Define "sausage." Then, once you've conjured up the three or four kinds we have in the U.S., hop on a plane to Hungary and the old Roman outpost town of Pecs. The town's huge flea market has a score of sausage-vendor stands at its periphery, and each one offers a dozen types of handmade sausage. They are fat, thin, long, short, dark, light, reddish, gray, purplish, spiced, cooked, smoked, cooked-on-the-spot, squarish, rounded, fatty, lean, made of wild and domestic meats and fillings and spices. No, I really don't have any idea what they all were. (You try to become fluent in Hungarian.) But there wasn't a bad one among the 10 I tried. Take that, Jimmy Dean.
Oh, the things the Brits do with the English language. When I saw the sign in Coventry's Spon Street Farmer's Market promoting a "faggot cob," it was imperative I have one -- pork, beef and venison mushed into a sausage patty, served on a bun. I washed that down with locally made cider of tart Cox and Bromley apples, which makes U.S. cider seem like Kool-Aid. Note to U.S. customs: Yes, I did bring a bottle of it back. Come get me.
Who says the earl of Sandwich invented his namesake food? Finnish street-market fish bread, kalakukko, consists of anchovy-like small fish stacked beneath bacon inside bread dough, salted and baked. It's a heritage food designed to last on long journeys, and it's so much more interesting than a tuna-fish sandwich. The traditional accompaniment is buttermilk. Yes, Aunt Maggie, the fish are bones, tails and all. Get your daily calcium.