Restaurants at the End of the World
Written about Korea, in 1987
His name was Kim, and his English was pretty good. His concept of breakfast was a bowl of noodle soup in a restaurant that was about twenty-five feet long and only three feet wide.
He got two bowls of soup and sat one in front of me. He said something about “a Korean standard” and went back to the counter. When he returned he had an odd look on his face. It was an “I am about to put a raw egg in your soup” grin.
I sat there stunned, not really having a good “you just put a raw egg in my soup” look to counter with. I looked at my soup; it stared back at me with a yellow eye. Kim smiled and put an egg in his soup and stirred it around with his chopsticks. I did the same. He ate some. I did the same. All right, so it didn’t taste bad.
Same trip, in the town of Yoseu (in the middle of nowhere)
The market was still crowded even though it was getting dark. A few small fires were burning on the street, and people were around them trying to stay warm. I stopped in front of what looked to be a restaurant. On the floor in front of the store were water-filled pails with things inside. I recognized squid in one, oysters in another, and clams in a third. There were three others: orange bulbous things with puckers, long brown things with puckers, and long smooth white things that half floated and half sank. I assumed they were all alive.
The woman who sat behind this menagerie looked up at me. I pointed to the orange things, pointed to the brown things, pointed at the tables inside of the store, and smiled.
She smiled back, got up and walked into the store.
I followed her. There were four long tables altogether; all empty. I sat down at the far table, facing the door.
There was a small standing heater in the center of the room with a large teapot on it, and a countertop with a sink on the left wall. Behind me was a rice paper sliding door, partly open. In that room I could see a rug, a couple of low shelves, and some pillows. There was a television on one of the shelves. It was on.
The woman brought three orange things and three brown things in from outside and proceeded to clean them. She set two bowls of water out in front of her: a green one and a white one. She cut open the orange things and put the orange insides in the green bowl, and the orange outsides in the white bowl. Then she cut open the brown things and put the brown outsides in the green bowl with the orange insides, and the brown insides in the white bowl with the orange outsides. The frightening thing was that I didn’t have the foggiest idea which bowl was for eating and which was for throwing away.
After she was finished she started cutting up the orange insides and the brown outsides. All I could think at this point was: Please cook this. Whatever you do, please cook this.
Then I noticed that there wasn’t a stove anywhere.
She put the orange and brown things on a plate and set it in front of me. Then she gave me a bowl of hot sauce for dipping, a bowl of kimchi, another bowl of greens, and a cup of cold tea.
I looked at my plate. I didn’t even know what phylum the stuff came from.
She then presented something to me with a flourish and a big smile. I looked at it. It was a fork.
Well, I had to take it. I really didn’t want it, but she probably had this fork for years, it was probably her only one, and I was probably the first American brave enough to eat here. I couldn’t spoil it for her.
I took the fork and stabbed a brown thing. She was watching me as I put it in my mouth. It was chewy, but it tasted pretty good. I tried an orange thing. It wasn’t as good. I smiled at her. She smiled back and went outside.
She poked her head in from time to time as I was eating. Once she brought a friend. She told her something in Korean. Probably something like: “Look at that. I gave him the orange insides and the brown outsides, and he doesn’t even know the difference.”
I just smiled.
Modern note: the brown outsides was of a sea cucumber. I never did identify the orange bulbous thing with puckers.
Animals evolve to fill ecological niches. Australia has the marsupial equivalent of the large ground rodent (the wombat), the marsupial equivalent of the fast ground hunter (the marsupial cat — no relation to the real one — now extinct), and the marsupial equivalent of the forest herbivore that begs for food around campsites: the kangaroo. This Australian deer ends up on dinner menus: I’ve seen roo steaks, roo burgers, roo pies, and roo pasties. It tastes a lot more like venison than it does chicken — probably the diet — and is actually better than you’d expect.
Australia is also the place to get a variety of weird exotic meat: camel (not memorable), crocodile (tastes like alligator, which tastes like chicken), and snake. Probably the weirdest Australian delicacy is witchity grub. The aboriginals traditionally live in some pretty desolate terrain, and they’ve been forced to eat whatever they can catch, pick, or dig. One of the things they dig up is a large insect called a witchity grub. The one I saw was white, about four inches long, about three quarters of an inch in diameter at the widest part and tapering at the ends. I think it had lots of legs, although it may have been a worm. If the Lilliputians lived on Dune, this is what their worms would have looked like. It spends its life burrowing around and eating the roots of plants. This one was going to end up pickled in alcohol. And no, I wasn’t able to try it.
Japan, again and again in the 1980s
I didn’t try the turtle, either. Many years ago I would go to Japan regularly (not frequently, but regularly). I stayed at a ryokan near Fussa (take the train to Tachikawa and change to a train headed for Ome…but that’s not important now). There was this fish restaurant near the train station. It was a small restaurant by American standards, but average by Japanese: about a dozen tables, a kitchen in the main room, and fish tanks all around. You would order something from the menu — thankfully, it had pictures — and the waiter would march over to one of the tanks with a net and catch your dinner.
The tanks were filled with perch, flounder, mackerel, catfish, lobster, and lots of things I didn’t recognize. One of the tanks had three turtles in it. Puzzling out the pictures on the menu, you had to order the turtle feast. They served turtle sashimi, turtle in some cooked preparation with vegetables and stuff, turtle soup, turtle-meat yakatori, and a cup of turtle blood. (Presumably, like every other weird Asian foodstuff, it has some traditional medicinal properties.) I was interested in the turtle; I really was. But it was triple the cost of everything else on the menu, and I didn’t really relish the thought of drinking a cup of turtle blood. So I didn’t order it. Then, in 1990 I changed jobs and moved to Chicago, and never went back to the restaurant. And for the past decade I have forever regretted not ordering the turtle blood.
Cuba has two parallel economies, one in local pesos and the other in American dollars. There’s no regular exchange rate; foreigners aren’t supposed to buy things in stores that take pesos. And honestly, there’s nothing that pesos can buy that’s really worth buying.
We were wandering through a flea market in Havana. Bruce had seen these markets before — Riga, Sofia, Istanbul, Rangoon — piles of stuff Americans wouldn’t look at twice before throwing out: clothes, machine parts, plastics, weird Western and communist products, bootleg Duran Duran tapes. Someone was selling cardboard boxes of food, the size of a small tissue box. Not tourist food; local food. And hot.
Karen talked with the seller (as best she could; Cubans talk fast and have a difficult accent). We had to buy forks.
Surely someone in the market sold forks. We eventually found a bagful of plastic ones. I handed over a dollar. I got the forks and a small pile of filthy banknotes. With the change I bought two boxes.
It wasn’t pretty.
It was a box of flavored rice with little bits of stuff. In the middle was a piece of meat…well, it was a piece of fat. I thought it was okay; Karen was much less thrilled. We gave most of her box to a nearby street person. And nearby was a tourist restaurant that served barbecued chicken, at about $10 per serving.
Of course, it’s against U.S. law to engage in commerce with Cuba. The above story is pure fiction.
It was my first year out of college and my first international trip (not counting Canada). Jay and I organized the trip around eating at this Michelin three-star restaurant in Rheims. I wrote this soon after:
We also had our dinner at a three star restaurant: Boyer “Les Crayeres.” It was wonderful. It opened with a Salade Pere Maurice, whoever he was. The next course was le Petit Chou Farci Langoustines des Glenans, Sauce Coraline, which was lobster wrapped in baby cabbage leaves in an incredibly delicious sauce. After that was le Panache de Poissons Grilles au Beurre de Caviar, or three types of fish in a butter sauce accompanied by their respective caviar. This was followed by le Pigeonneau Roti a l’ail Doux et au Persil, or roast pigeon with garlic. For dessert we had le Nougat Glace Sauce Abricot au Miel, which was a wonderful vanilla nougat with an apricot sauce. Of course there were hors d’oeuvres, a cheese cart, and pastries after dinner. We had a Sancerre to accompany the meal.
What I was too embarrassed to admit when I wrote that story was that the entire menu was chosen by our waiter, except for the pigeon. Neither of us had ever had pigeon, and we were interested. It was the weakest item on the menu.
In 1995 I was back in France, back in Rheims, and Karen and I visited the same restaurant. The chef from 1985 was gone, replaced by his son. The menu was different, but the food was wonderful. And this time we also stayed overnight at the hotel.
Guinea pig is a traditional Incan delicacy, and figures heavily in the culture. In a church in Cuzco, there’s a large painting of the last supper where Jesus and disciples are obviously eating guinea pig. It’s called cuy, and it’s still served today.
Karen and I were in Peru with two professor friends of mine; they spend a lot of their time teaching mathematics to third-world children. We had all just come from a day of teaching in a rural Peruvian school. Some official was taking us out to eat: us, my two friends, the official, and her small daughter.
The restaurant was someone’s backyard. There were a few small signs in Spanish that implied that it was a commercial backyard, but it was a backyard nonetheless. And were going to have cuy.
“No thank you,” I said. “We had cuy last night.”
In fact we did. Last night we were in Cuzco, and I wanted to try cuy. Karen and I went to a real restaurant; she ordered something normal and I ordered cuy.
Cuy, Cuzco style: Take one guinea pig, larger than you find in an American pet store. Kill and skin. Cut the thing in half lengthwise. Gut, more or less. Grill. Arrange daintily on a plate, head to the side and legs down. Serve. Run before patrons react.
It was all I could do to cover the head artfully with my napkin.
I ate it. There’s not a lot of meat on a Guinea pig, and there was nothing to disguise its origins. There was nothing really to say for it, other than “that’s explicit.”
But that was yesterday, and neither of us wanted to repeat the experience.
“All they have here is cuy,” our host explained.
Cuy, rural style: Kill and skin as before. Cut, this time leaving the entire head for the honored guests. Bread. Fry. Serve, just as explicitly as before.
This was better. The breading bulked it up a bit, so there was more to eat. The breading also disguised the rodent bits a little, so it was easier to eat. And it was tasty. Even so, we Americans were having a hard time of it. Our host was eating heartily, and her daughter spent the entire time gnawing on a head. I suppose that was the good part.
In Slavic countries, you start calling restaurants “pectopants.” Trust me on this one.
In Thailand, you start calling Coca-Cola “fan.”
In Argentina, dinner starts at 10:00 pm. If you show up at a restaurant much earlier than that, you’re the only ones eating and the waitstaff looks at you like you’re from Mars or something.
In 1997, I had to go to China for a conference. The flight takes forever — they serve three meals on board — and when you land, you’re exhausted. We got to our hotel, checked in, put our things away, and stumbled down to the several hotel restaurants. It was some weird time of day, and only one was open. They had an English menu, translated even more poorly than one might expect, but we were grateful for the pointers. Karen ordered soup with whitebait. She innocently assumed it was a fish soup, and the name was a charming typo for whitefish. How bad could it be?
Whitebait are tiny dried fish, white, eel-like, with little black eyes. They’re served whole, floating around in the clear soup like an overcrowded pail of, well, bait. It’s about the most unappetizing thing you can imagine after traveling for two days.
Japan is one of the only countries that still whales commercially. They eat it too; it’s called kujira. In 1998 I finally managed to track a kujira-ya (a whale restaurant) down, and dragged Karen along. We ordered it both raw and cooked.
What can I say? It’s oily, it’s strong. It’s definitely not fish. It’s not bad, but it wasn’t worth the search. And the restaurant had a stack of English-language pro-whaling propaganda available.
Vilnius, Lithuania (written in 1993)
I ate dinner in a Soviet-style restaurant, at a state-run hotel. The dining room was bleak, with tables scattered around an empty dance floor. Most of the lights were unlit, presumably in an attempt to save electricity. The staff was all elegantly dressed, surly, and with no conception of service. It took ten minutes for a waiter to bring me what looked like the only menu in the place: in Lithuanian, Russian, English, German and French. It was the same uniform-pre-printed-menu-for-all-restaurants deal I had seen in so many other Baltic restaurants. There were pages of dishes on the menu, but only a few of them had prices printed next to them: these were the only ones available. “There is no soup,” the waiter warned me. I ordered a plate of black caviar (where else could I get an entire plate of caviar for $5?) and a veal dish. What I got was some very good caviar and a rolled piece of veal with a vaguely Middle-Eastern cream sauce, fried potato wedges, cold beets and cold peas. And dark bread. And mineral water. It tasted like it was made during the last five-year plan and shipped from Central Restaurant Headquarters in Moscow. I skipped dessert.
Krakow, Poland, same trip
We found a hotel room, and had dinner at what both our travel guides called the best restaurant in Poland: Wierznek. It was in a beautiful old building; all the walls were decorated with medieval weapons. Our table was on the third floor. According to our waiter, both Bush and Gorbachev ate there (at separate times). I had cold herring, roast duck with apples, potatoes, and asparagus, and chocolate cake for dessert. Hania had a similar menu. When the bill came it translated to $24, for the two of us. We both laughed out loud, and decided to come back the next night.
Nepal, on the way from Katmandu to Pokara (written in 1991)
We stopped in a one-street town called Mugling, which only exists because it is halfway between Katmandu and Pokara. All the buses stop there; they have no choice.
The town looked like something out of the American Old West. There was one wide, unpaved street with sand blowing this way and that. It was hot. It was uncomfortable. “This town doesn’t even rate a horse,” I said to the person standing next to me. He nodded.
I walked into one of the dilapidated restaurants. It was filled with Nepalese men shoveling food into their mouths with their right hand. I sat down at the only free table in the place, across from a Nepalese man.
He smiled at me and pointed at his food. I nodded, and he called out to one of the servers. She brought me a large sectioned metal plate. The double-sized section held rice, and the other three sections had curried potatoes and cabbage, chopped greens, and cold stewed tomatoes. I also got a bowl full of dhal, and a glass of water that I didn’t touch. Another server brought me a spoon, but that was for sissies.
Actually, it was a lot of work getting used to shoveling food into my mouth by hand. The man across from me thought it was all pretty funny — me attempting some decorum by picking things up with only my fingers while everyone else had rice and stuff covering their entire hands. To make matters worse, since I am left-handed the only way I could force myself to use my right hand was to sit on my left hand.
Even better, it was all you could eat. The serving women would ply the aisles with large bowls of everything, slopping more on your plate if you wanted. The food was delicious, the atmosphere was enjoyable, and I had a great time — best fifty-cent meal I have ever eaten.
In Burma, on the same trip, I ate barbecued sparrow. I can’t remember anything about how it tasted, but I do remember that there’s not much meat on a sparrow. Cicadas are another Burmese delicacy. Paul Theroux has a wonderful story about eating them in The Great Railway Bazaar. I was never able to find any.
1997, that China trip
For one reason or another, our Chinese hosts took Karen and me to a Dai restaurant for a traditional ethnic meal of snake. “Snake served five ways,” we were told.
The Dai are very up-front about their snakes. They bring it to the table, alive and wiggling. Then, using scissors, they cut the head off right there (presumably so you’re sure you’re getting a fresh snake), and drain the blood into a glass. A few more cuts, and they drain the bile into another glass. Then back to the kitchen with the snake.
After we recovered from the spectacle, we were served snake meat in a mild sauce with vegetables, fried snake skin (delicious), and snake-bone soup (very good). And a cup of the blood and a cup of the bile.
Both the blood and bile were mixed with some nasty alcohol, and the whole thing tasted terrible. Thankfully, the glasses were tiny. Karen and I both drank it. I finally erased the decade-old black mark from not ordering the turtle blood.