Are you going to eat that?!

An SN&R writer explores his hunger for strange eats, cultural delicacies and pig-brain dip

I think I just ate something extremely questionable.

The realization comes during a dinner with close friends in Rancho Cordova on a recent warm spring evening when I tell my friends I’m writing a story about different so-called “weird foods.” Soon, the conversation turns to sharing stories of eating delicacies from our different cultures—foods that others might find inedible, gross even, but that are considered perfectly normal or a great specialty in other cultures.

We’re the right group for such a topic. Ethnically, two in this group identify as Hmong-American, one as Cambodian-American, and I consider myself a Chinese-American Jew. Between the four of us, we’ve all sampled a wide range of unusual dishes and, eventually, it becomes clear that the whole concept of weird foods is, of course, highly subjective.

Late into the night, one of my Hmong friends mentions a particular stir-fry dish featuring an ingredient that most people usually think of as throwaway material.

OK, maybe not exactly throwaway.

“Actually, technically, it’s more like diarrhea,” he clarifies, smiling ominously. He further explains that the dish, quav iab, uses post-digestion, pre-excremental waste material gathered from cow intestines—all mixed into a beef stir-fry dish. I’m already stunned that he’d admit to consuming such an unsanitary meal when my fiancée (the Cambodian-American) breaks the news: She’s almost certain that I’ve eaten a similar dish during a recent family dinner.

OK, sure, I’ll admit to eating weird foods from time to time. But on this night, at this dinner table, I wonder how my habit progressed this far. Eating diarrhea? Without even knowing it? And with no one actually telling me what the dish was beforehand? Is that even safe? After all, there’s a real possibility such a dish could give me food poisoning.

Looking back at my dietary history, however, this news shouldn’t be much of a shocker. Watching such cable programs as Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations—shows whose hosts never back down from any dish, however questionable—often makes me hungry. I’ve even written about it for this paper before in a story, “Feed Me Weird Things” (SN&R Arts&Culture, February 24, 2011), which involved exploring weird Sacramento delicacies such as chicken feet, chicken fetuses and ostrich burgers. But now, knowing that I’ve probably eaten poop, could any other Sacramento food be more bizarre? What strange culinary territory could possibly exist beyond what I’ve already eaten?

Pig brain in hand, SN&R writer Jonathan Mendick goes in search of more weird food in a south Sacramento Asian supermarket.

Photo By Justin Short

So begins a bizarre and surprisingly tasty journey to find and eat some of Sacramento’s strangest foods.

Bad brains

Chinese Jews around the world must experience a fair share of cognitive dissonance at the dinner table. Pork is common in Chinese cooking, including my mom’s. But since she’s not even Jewish—which technically makes me not Jewish, if you’re a stickler to the Torah—I figured I could snack on swine flesh and God would let me get away with it. Besides, even my Jewish dad used to eat pepperoni pizza sometimes. Yet, when I ate any food that my peers deemed weird—or in the case of pork, banned for religious reasons—I still felt morally conflicted. My muscles and throat tightened, and I’d begin to ask myself questions such as, “Will this make me sick?” Or, “If I eat this, will people look at me like I’m crazy?” Or even, “Will I go to hell?” Eventually, however, I grew used to hearing—and promptly ignoring—these types of internal moral questions.

Pig brain certainly isn’t kosher, but moral dilemmas aside, I find myself facing another problem as I sit at the same Rancho Cordova dinner table some weeks following my “diarrhea” revelation—with the same group of friends, this time eating a Hmong dish made with pig brain.

Our chef explains that this brain comes from Shun Fat Supermarket, a popular Asian supermarket chain with two stores in Sacramento. Sitting in a small bowl in front of me, the dish seems to have the consistency of guacamole, and, like the green Mexican spread, it’s mixed into a goopy dip seasoned with garlic, chili peppers and salt.

Ground pig brains are usually eaten, explain my Hmong friends, because Hmong families tend to use every part of a pig. In fact, several families purchase and divvy up a freshly slaughtered pig, and the family that receives the head usually mashes up the fresh brain for this dip.

For this night’s meal, the brain serves to spruce up a lightly seasoned stir-fried pork dish. With copious amounts of garlic, pepper and seasoning mashed in, we almost forget what we’re actually eating. In fact, the dish resembles pureed headcheese, the same brown paste found on Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches. But then, after imagining the raw brain in its whole form and replaying that image in my head, my throat closes up, I experience that same sense of cognitive dissonance, and I wonder: Is this going to make me sick?

Still, I continue to eat.

“It’s really good,” I finally admit, after taking the first few bites. “It’d be great on a sandwich.”

This pork brain, from Shun Fat Supermarket, serves as the main ingredient for a Hmong dip that looks and tastes a little like guacamole.

Photo By Justin Short

All the while, I’m still trying to suppress the involuntary gag reflex that comes from overthinking it. Yet, I manage to gulp down half my bowl of brains by applying it in small dabs onto the rice, pork and bok choy that accompany the dip—and then washing it down with wine.

Actually, after finishing the meal, I realize that I would eat brain again, should the opportunity arise. Sure, the dish boasts a bizarre texture and powerful taste, but I already eat banh mi sandwiches on a regular basis, and I certainly don’t have a problem with eating the similar-tasting headcheese. Clearly, eating deliciously seasoned pig brain doesn’t surpass eating quav iab, that special but questionable stir-fry, on the weird scale.

Feel the fear and eat it anyway

Some fear it, but many different cultures eat some form of it. And now—especially after having dated a Cambodian-American for more than seven years—I’ve come to love fermented fish. Cambodia’s take on fermented fish (and de facto national dish) is called prahok, but there’s also an Eskimo version (igunoc), a Nordic version (lutefisk), and a Laotian version (padaek)—among others. At first, the odor and taste are off-putting—rotting flesh is hardly appetizing to the uninitiated. But once you can get beyond the smell and taste of its fermented salty flesh—and with the help of a few other ingredients—prahok becomes palatable, delicious even.

Such is the case with Mitapheap Restaurant’s prahok. Located in Stockton (where there’s a larger Cambodian-American population than in Sacramento), Mitapheap serves a spicy prahok ktis, a type of fried prahok mixed with minced pork. I discovered this recently, while eating at the small hole-in-the-wall with a large group of friends.

It’s our first visit, and we order a variety of food to test the waters. The prahok is particularly exciting, because you can’t find it in any Sacramento restaurant.

It’s brought out, served with a small layer of reddish oil on top and a plateful of veggies which we’re supposed to dip into the prahok. We submerge eggplant, cucumber and cabbage into the dip and decide that it’s no weirder than a mere anchovy paste. The fermented-fish taste and smell are all but indecipherable after the rest of the ingredients—spices, pork, chili oil—have been added. In fact, it’s delicious, and we polish it off, cherishing its intense but complex flavors.

Psychologically—just like the thought of eating animal waste or brain—prahok seems weird if you get a whiff or glance of it uncooked, but it really doesn’t seem weird once it gets to your plate.

I ate all types of prahok during a month-long visit to Cambodia where I regularly took in the smell of raw prahok in a swelteringly hot and humid open-air market, with flies buzzing around, and the odor of stale and rotting flesh filling my nose. Back then, I remember thinking, “If I continue to eat this, will people look at me like I’m crazy?”

No need to raid your garden for dinner. These snails, which come from the sea, come served in a coconut broth and are found in the frozen-food section in some area markets.

Photo By Justin Short

The answer: Who cares? Besides, Mitapheap serves about as authentic (and delicious) a prahok dish as you’ll find anywhere in the region. And while eating it now gives me flashbacks to the unsanitary smell of Cambodia’s open-air markets, it’s still not as mind-boggling as the thought of eating post-digestion pre-excremental waste.

Ham and embryonic eggs

Some of Sacramento’s strangest foods come in relatively small and unassuming packages. Sitting in unmarked cases in supermarket fridges and in cans adorned with Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai shipping labels, Sacramento’s egg selection is as diverse and elusive as the “secret menu” at In-N-Out Burger—only much weirder. In the past, I’ve eaten fermented soy-sauce-flavored eggs called pidan, fetal-chicken eggs called balut and quail eggs. Now it’s time to step up my game for this piece—and go with fetal-duck eggs.

Chicken fetus is a delicacy in many Southeast Asian countries; “balut” is both a Filipino and Malaysian word that describes a nearly developed embryo inside an unhatched egg. And while eating chicken balut can be a bit hairy at times, a fetal-duck egg is even larger, more hairy and sometimes features developed bone. So began the hunt for these especially gross embryonic eggs.

But alas, as these are a revered pan-Asian delicacy, they’re sold out at their usual spots: Shun Fat Supermarket and Vinh Phat Supermarket. Not one left, even at the somewhat expensive sale price of 99 cents each. And the guy who usually sets up shop selling these fetal-duck eggs from the back of a white van that’s parked outside of Shun Fat is nowhere in sight.

Eventually, I find and purchase two dozen of the eggs at a smaller grocery store called People Supermarket. At 40 cents per egg, these appear to be a steal for the time being. I drive them over to a friend’s house in south Sacramento. He’s an experienced Vietnamese chef who promises to boil them perfectly for dinner this night.

But as he fires up the burner, something isn’t right. The eggs sink to the bottom of the pot. They don’t float on the surface of the water like they should. Once they boil, we crack them open, and no fetuses emerge. Just regular duck-egg flesh—slightly richer than a chicken egg, and without feathers, bones or beak. I’ve purchased the wrong eggs—and a group of Vietnamese friends sitting around the dinner table promptly laughs at my error.

I’m a bit relieved we won’t be eating duck fetus this time around, but then, an older Vietnamese man pulls out his homemade bag of nem chua. Here’s an unplanned opportunity to eat a weird food I’ve never even heard of until now: raw fermented pork, wrapped into a dumpling-size ball, and seasoned with raw garlic and Thai chili.

I dig in, even though the fermented raw flesh is a bit off-putting—clear, spongy and sour smelling. Five older Vietnamese men glare at me for my response. I smile and nervously acknowledge that it’s good. The garlic and pepper essentially offset the sour, chewy flesh taste, and one of the Vietnamese guys tells me that it’s an aphrodisiac. Not sure if he’s joking, but now I’ve got major garlic breath and the immense spice makes me sweaty—both don’t exactly scream aphrodisiac. Still, at least I didn’t have to eat a hairy duck embryo, nor does my mouth reek of questionable cow “meat.”

More snails! These ones are really fresh—i.e., alive—not frozen.

Photo By Justin Short

A craving for kava

Tropical fruits and veggies don’t seem particularly weird, at first. But traditional medicine practitioners have used them for centuries to produce certain effects in the body. For example, the tropical fruit mangosteen has been used to fight infection and pineapple for its anti-inflammatory properties. And then there are the claims that kava root has calming properties—curing social anxiety and bringing about peace between people.

I first tried a kava drink on Hawaii’s Big Island last summer. Back then, it just seemed like an extremely strange and bitter cocktail that trendy nonlocals drank from coconut shells while listening to the Grateful Dead. But according to information from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “Kava has been used as a ceremonial beverage in the South Pacific for centuries.” In addition to its pain-relieving qualities, it also reportedly curbs anxiety and relaxes muscles.

Of course, I was on vacation and already relaxed—in fact, I’d probably already consumed a few mai tais—when I first drank it, but it never appeared to have any effect. So I decided to find it now and give it a second chance.

My Fijian friend says he used to drink it back in Fiji, but stopped once he moved to Sacramento; now he tells me that kava powder is available at several local Indian markets.

Thankfully, I don’t have to find one, because the owner of a soon-to-be-open kava bar in Rancho Cordova happens to bring samples into SN&R’s office. He prepares a mixture of ground kava-root powder with almond milk and stirs it around in a clear-plastic cup. I gulp down about 8 ounces and my throat goes numb—which, as my friend informs me, is the body’s first physiological response to the plant.

It certainly takes the edge off of a hectic workday, keeping me mellow under the pressure of deadlines and allowing me a particularly anxiety-free day. But that’s where the fun stops. Later that day, I have to drink a second cup of coffee just to keep my eyes open. Driving home after drinking kava isn’t a great idea, either. I feel like I’ve pulled an all-nighter driving up Interstate 5 from Tijuana, Mexico.

According to a Tongan-American friend I consult after my kava experience, this particularly strong psychoactive property of the root is also why it’s abused by some youth in Sacramento’s Tongan-American community. And even though there aren’t any conclusive studies that prove it’s addicting, my friend tells me that some young men have started to mix it with alcohol and, as a result, often neglect their obligations—much to the dismay of their families.

“They figure their fathers and grandfathers and uncles did it; now it is their turn,” she says. “They also use the fact that its tradition [to] twist it into some kind of excuse that it is OK to be wasted on Kava Sunday.”

Tiny quail eggs are one of the tamest “alternative” eggs available for purchase in Sacramento.

Photo By Justin Short

Conclusion: Kava isn’t weirder than eating waste, but it has the potential to get you wasted.

Put it in your mouth and ask questions later

All this weird food, and yet, one question still remained: Did I really eat stir-fried cow dung?

Searching for the answer, I find myself at a Vietnamese restaurant in south Sacramento’s Little Saigon area. According to my Hmong friend, this restaurant’s goat stir-fry tastes a lot like the bizarre stir-fry dish he used to eat in his parents’ kitchen.

I arrive at the restaurant where I meet a Vietnamese friend who knows the owner and can order for us. We ask for the goat dish which, when served, features a subtle hint of curry, a nice spicy kick to it, and stir-fried onions. But it lacks any discernible poop taste, and I can’t remember ever eating something like this before. Throughout the meal, scantily clad servers stroll by the table to replenish our beers, which pair nicely with the goat.

All in all, it’s a pretty good meal.

“If there’s actually any diarrhea in here, it’s certainly delicious,” I think. I also feel safe eating it—certainly, if there was any danger for transmitting a bacteria such as E. coli, the restaurant would have already been flagged by the health inspector. In short: There’s no way this is the mystery stir-fry.

I tell my friend that I’m here to write an article about weird food, and that I’m specifically looking for a stir-fry with intestinal waste. He’s never heard of the dish, but he does offer a suggestion.

“Weird foods, huh?” he says. “How about snails? You’ll have to suck them out of their shells.”

“Yeah! Of course!”

I’m game, and in a few minutes, a plate of sea snails arrives at the table. Simmered in a spicy broth, they’re hot and tasty—especially once you realize that they’re not the large slimy snails that invade your garden. Rather, these are the kind found on the side of an aquarium wall.

This isn’t my first time eating sea snails. I had them with fried lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime in Cambodia. And, at this point in my journey, in fact, it’s actually comforting to eat something I’m familiar with. Though we have to suck them out of their shells, they taste like stir-fried clams to me.

Not bizarre by my standards. Not bizarre at all, really, because weirdness is purely subjective. People eat this dish all the time in local Chinese restaurants, too.

I realized that it doesn’t take being multicultural, or having a particularly adventurous palate to learn that every person thinks someone else’s food is weird at some point. Over the years, my mind has opened to a greater range of possibilities while my idea of what is edible expanded.

Finally, my journey taught me that certain foods will always seem intimidating—especially if you know what they are—and think too hard about it—before you eat them. The trick is to just put it in your mouth, and ask questions later.