Feed me weird things
Chicken fetuses, grilled squirrel, lion sliders—you really can eat it all in Sacramento
I’m at a friend’s house for dinner on a Saturday night. On the table, a dipping sauce of peppers, green onions and soy sauce. In the big pot on the stove, 30 eggs cook in boiling water. Everything’s fine—until a feather floats to the pot’s surface. It’s a reminder of something ominous and unwanted, that inside the hard-boiled eggs are chicken fetuses.
I hope they are not too feathery.
We purchased the eggs from a Cambodian grocer in south Sacramento not because they were weird, but instead to explore the assumption that Sacramento has a lot of diversity. Based on a Harvard University study, Time magazine named Sacramento “America’s Most Diverse City” in 2002. It makes sense: Sacramento definitely has culinary diversity. And you are what you eat, right?
Here in Sacramento, you can buy just about any exotic food—durian, pig brain, blood sausage—at ethnic markets or restaurants. Some of these foods are just plain bizarre. So exploring the weirdest of the weird foods might give a taste of the diverse local cultures.
Personally, I’ve built a somewhat high tolerance for eating strange foods. I grew up in a Chinese and Jewish household eating chicken feet, fermented tofu, pickled herring and carp. When I traveled to China at age 5, I witnessed a farmer uncle chop off a chicken’s head. It ran around spewing blood and, though traumatized and crying, I recall still eating it. It was all there was.
A few years later, on vacation in Maryland, I ordered what I thought were alligator-shaped chicken nuggets from a restaurant’s kids menu. It tasted like chicken, but I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t a playfully shaped chicken nugget. It was alligator. “Was it kosher?” I wondered.
So at my friend’s house for dinner, I’m unfazed by eating balut, or chicken fetuses. The term is a Filipino and Malay word that describes a nearly developed embryo inside an egg. It’s a delicacy in many East and Southeast Asian countries. But to me, it just tastes like an egg.
Luckily, these chicken balut from the Cambodian store aren’t too feathery. But duck balut, available at a number of other Asian grocery stores in south Sacramento, such as Vinh Phat Supermarket, S.F. Supermarket and A&A Supermarket, are much fluffier (not to mention that the embryos are much larger and beaks more developed).
Exploring south Sacramento for more fowl and offal, a stop to eat dim sum at Asian Pearl seems requisite. I pass on the frog rice porridge; not a favorite, even though I encountered some masterfully seasoned grilled frog during a recent Southeast Asia trip. I opt instead for chicken feet, a Chinese delicacy and a family favorite. The feet have a wonderful poultry flavor, mixed with garlic and pepper, but their consistency is like rubber and the bones are soft and difficult to chew. I spit out a few bones and decide that it still isn’t my favorite dish because of the texture.
At this point, time to really get outside my comfort zone. A Russian friend told me his uncle fishes for sturgeon and harvests the eggs to make caviar. And a Mien friend says she hunts for squirrels with her brothers—but that the fresh squirrel is too stinky for her to handle, so she declined to take me on a hunt. (She did share the recipe.)
A Mexican friend and her mother took me shopping for tacos de sesos, or brain tacos. But all three stores we visited were out of brains.
Surprisingly, none of these dishes come with a cultural explanation, back story or even a perceived significance. The friends explain that they are eaten merely because they are there.
Perhaps the good ol’ American culture had a unique and meaty tradition, a veritable socioculinary phenomenon. I eventually settled on Flaming Grill Cafe, an American restaurant known for its exotic meats. The meats aren’t local, but the restaurant serves burgers made of llama, ostrich, yak, kangaroo and even lion.
“A lion?” I asked owner Jose Silva. “Isn’t that illegal because they’re endangered?”
“That’s a misconception,” he replied. “We use African lion. It’s only illegal to hunt Asiatic and mountain lions.”
Silva then pulls a 5-pound bag of ground lion meat from the freezer, which has a shipping label from Chicago. He offers lion sliders if I come back for dinner, but I’m already feeling guilty about ordering a third-pound ostrich burger—which is tasty, though, like a lean turkey or beef burger with a brighter pinkish-red color.
But the ostrich got its revenge.
Several minutes after finishing, my stomach starts weeping. It emits a steady, high-pitched groan for a minute, then subsides. I contemplate going out to order tacos de sesos from a restaurant Silva had recommended, but eventually the desire to eat any more unusual stuff passes.
After all, it’s just food. And though it’s nice to bond with a friend of another culture over a favorite ethnic food, it’s hard to learn about a culture by exoticizing it, or focusing on one particularly bizarre aspect of it. At least I learned to not eat too many strange foods in too short a time.