Are adventurous eaters the product of nature or nurture? My own childhood sheds little light on the issue as I grew up in a family with a fairly daring dinnertime table, although whether this was due to my parents having risky palates of their own or arose from sheer necessity is up for debate. I suspect it’s a little bit of both. My parents were no-nonsense when it came to dinnertime [and life — Tony], doing very little to accommodate the random culinary whims of their children and generally refusing to kowtow to picky proclivities: we could eat what was served, and if we didn’t like it then we wouldn’t eat at all, plain and simple. Despite my mother ruling the kitchen with an iron spatula, mealtimes we’re rarely a grim affair, because one of my mother’s many talents is that the lady knows how to cook. With the exception of a few infamous meals that we still joke about today, she rarely put anything unpalatable on the table, and my brother and I learned pretty quickly to trust that, at least in the kitchen, mother really did know best.
So it was with minimal questioning that we dug into dishes like rabbit stew and liver & onions. These dishes might seem exotic and scary to many, but these were standards for my brother and me (whereas our pantry didn’t see a jar of peanut butter until I was in my late teens!), and I think they primed us to approach food with an open mind. In retrospect, I can see how savvy my parents were when it came to teaching us about food, because they managed to approach mealtimes with just the right balance of excitement and pragmatism. Sure, we didn’t have much say in the menu planning, but they’d butter us up every so often by telling us how lucky we were to be eating rabbit, how proud they were of us for trying steak & kidney pie and liking it. I still remember the first time we went out to a fancy-ish restaurant and my dad ordered calamari as an appetizer and made squid seem like an awesome culinary adventure that we were cool to be taking part in rather than something that should make us squirm.
And of course, when they were really trying to put one past us, they weren’t above subterfuge. Who can forget infamous “Tender Beef” Gate? For years when we were younger, my mother would prepare her special roast beef, which she simply called “tender beef”. We knew what beef was so would happily tuck into it, and when we asked once why the beef had tiny bumps on it, my parents shared a smirk and then equivocated. I don’t think they ever outright lied to us, but who cares! Tender beef was delicious, and we were too busy asking for seconds to bother about why they had not actually answered our question.
Years later, I remember asking my mother why we never had tender beef anymore. She broke into a big grin as though she couldn’t believe that her deceit still stood, and proceeded to tell me that actually, tender beef was really cow’s tongue, and moreover, we weren’t poor anymore so we didn’t need to eat it any longer!
I was momentarily stunned by her revelation, but mostly, I was just sad that there would be no more tender beef in our future, whatever the reason. By this point I could look past whatever random body part we were tucking into and simply focus on the flavor; whether it was tongue or shank didn’t matter. By the time I was in my mid-twenties and actively seeking out the weirdest foods I could find, from deep-fried alligator to poached sweetbreads, this seemed to be the next logical chapter in my eating autobiography.
In many ways, I think Tony’s food journey could not be more dissimilar to my own. Whereas I grew up in bustling, multicultural Toronto, he went through his formative years in small-town Minnesota, where the food scene was about as bland as Toronto’s was diverse. His mom is an amazing baker (I am forever grateful for the patient tutelage she undergoes each Christmas when she attempts to teach me how to master pie crust), but cooking has never really been her jam, so most of Tony’s childhood meals revolved around meat and potatoes and a few devilish Midwestern staples that would test the resolve of even the most adventurous of eaters.
The deck was stacked against him, yet ever since I have known him, I’ve been impressed by (and you’ll have to forgive me the pun) how whole hog Tony goes after the, well, whole hog. Within six short years, he’s undergone an eating revolution that took me decades to achieve, going from someone who had never tried Indian food or sushi, to being a master of chopsticks, chowing down with gusto on tripe tacos, and now knows his pâté from his rillettes. If ever I feel squeamish about trying something new, I just look to Tony, because whenever my courage fails me, I know he’ll dig deep and play guinea pig, which, now that I think about it, is one of the few things we haven’t tried yet…
When we set out to travel the world together, we made a pact that we would tackle global cuisine with the same fearlessness we’d shown the North American dining scene. For all intents and purposes, nothing would be off the table. And given that our first dinner after landing in Japan wound up being mostly pig guts—albeit tasty ones—it seemed we were going to have many months of exciting eats ahead of us.
That’s not to say we haven’t encountered a few stumbling blocks along the way that caused us to pause and re-evaluate our eating manifesto. While we tend to be “equal-opportunity” eaters, we aren’t completely indiscriminate about what we put in our mouths: arbitrary though it may seem, certain animals we just can’t view as viable food sources rather than family, which means we won’t be tucking into dog or cat any time soon. We also try very hard not to eat meats that aren’t sustainable or humanely raised, meaning we don’t dine on veal and we try to keep our consumption of tuna to a minimum, even if it is delicious. Although it’s considered a delicacy in China, we very much wanted to avoid eating shark due to how disruptive it is to the aquatic ecosystem when the shark population is hunted with utter abandon as it frequently is in this part of the world. Of course, despite our best intentions, we all remember how that turned out, but we assumed that, ordering gaff aside, that would be our last time eating an endangered animal during our trip.
Little did we know at the time that just a couple of weeks later we would find ourselves thousands of miles away in the township of Banbanan. It is one of the poorest places we have ever been and we were honored guests. As Tony has already said, the people living here have very little by way of material possessions and most people survive by living off the land, yet they overwhelmed us with their generosity, giving us everything they had by way of food and never asking for anything in return. Given their meager belongings, the best way Apo’s family could welcome us into their home was through food. The portions were ample and, as we would soon see, the items on the menu would be fairly exotic.
When we returned from our hike from the swimming hole, Apo exchanged a few quick words with one of his brothers-in-law and turned to us, his eyes wide with excitement. He told us that for dinner we would be having one of his favorites, a special animal, one he didn’t know the word for in English, but its meat was very sweet. He took a stick and began to draw the creature in the sand for us, saying it was like an anteater. Tony gazed at the drawing slowly emerging before our eyes before recognition flitted across his face and his eyes too grew large: “Oh! It’s a Pangolin!” he exclaimed.
Apo enthusiastically confirmed the identity of our main course before rushing off to the cooking area of the hut. I was still trying to figure out what exactly a pangolin was, when Tony turned to me and told me they were really cute and also “super endangered”. It’s not just that pangolin are considered a delicacy in places like the Philippines, but like so many animals on the verge of extinction, they are highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine, as their scales (which are nothing more than keratin—the same substance that makes up your hair and fingernails) are believed to have curative properties. Obviously, this was one animal that our conscience dictated we not eat.
We were facing quite a pickle: we certainly did not want to be contributing to the annihilation of a species, but on the other hand, we also did not want to insult our hosts. Although we may not choose to eat certain foods, we recognize that being able to somewhat arbitrarily decide what we will and will not eat is a privilege that we can afford, but many—certainly the denizens of Banbanan—cannot. As guests in their community, it was certainly not our wish to judge or shame the people who had welcomed us so warmly for what they eat, no matter our own personal feelings about what is on the menu. Hunger is a powerful master and when you are faced with people for whom $2US per day is considered a lucrative salary and most are simply living off the land, you may find that your high-minded principles do little to fill their bellies.
We decided that given our hosts’ obvious pride at being able to offer us such a special treat, there was no way we could refuse the pangolin. Any thoughts of trying to gracefully pardon the beast by insisting they save the animal for themselves rather than wasting it on us were squashed almost as quickly as they arose in our minds, as we discovered that the creature had already been captured, killed, and cooked well before we had returned from our trek. In some ways, I think this made things easier on us as it pretty much made the decision for us, since given that this was the case, refusing to try the dish would accomplish nothing other than potentially insulting or upsetting our hosts.
So that night, we were seated at the head of the picnic table and were served our own grilled red snapper (caught fresh from Exodus’s pens), leftover veggies from lunch, and hearty servings of pangolin that had been simmered in coconut milk. Our dining companions waited anxiously for us to dig in, big smiles and vigorous nods of approval breaking out when we took our first bites of the pangolin. The meat was a bit overcooked and so was quite chewy, but even still, just as Apo had promised, it had an undeniable sweetness to it. I could lie and say that the twinges of guilt that contracted our hearts as we ate the creature detracted from the meal, but truthfully, I could see all too easily why pangolin is prized for its meat because, endangered or not, it really is delicious. That said, I did my best to just enjoy the meal and the company, because the entire experience just seemed like one of those things that only happens once in a lifetime. While I would have been perfectly happy living my life having never eaten pangolin, I appreciated the spirit and intention behind the meal so much that I can’t honestly say I regret my choice.
At the end of the evening before heading to his own home, Exodus said that the next time we come to Banbanan, we should make sure Apo gives them a heads up so they have time to prepare something really special for us. Tony and I stared at him dumbstruck, wondering what exactly more these people could ever hope to do for us when they had just killed and cooked an endangered creature in our honor. Noting our expression, Exodus flashed us a wry smile and warned that if we thought pangolin was exotic, just wait until the next time when we will have Apo’s favorite: monitor lizard.
Tell us, what’s the most exotic/endangered thing you’ve ever eaten? If you were in our position, would you have eaten the pangolin?