Travel Tip: One of the delights of travel is experiencing the local cuisine. I know from experience that some of the food choices might be out of your comfort zone, but I encourage you to be bold! Try everything that is offered. It is both courteous to your hosts and advantageous to you. You may discover a new favorite flavor...and if it turns out that you don't enjoy a particular dish, you can still be proud of your adventurous spirit!
Central Thailand, 2015
Until now, a promise I had made to myself – to try any food offered to me in my travels – had not been a problem. After all, how can you go wrong with pasta in Italy or paella in Spain? But now, my husband Rob and I were about to venture into Southeast Asia for the first time. In spite of my love for Thai food at home in California, I was nervous about the unfamiliar or unsavory items I might find on a genuine Thai menu.
On the first few days of our trip, my fears seemed unjustified. Pad Thai tasted exactly like the dish at my favorite California Thai restaurant. I even found my favorite Thai treat, mee krob, a sweet and crunchy rice noodle laced with bits of meat or shrimp. The fiery chili sauce that accompanied many of the meals was intimidating, but my tolerance for the hot spices improved day by day.
Hundreds of food carts lined the streets of Bangkok, from little alleys to major thoroughfares. Our daily neighborhood walk included stops for tropical-fruit smoothies – mango, papaya, passionfruit, jackfruit, and starfruit. Another stand tempted us with salt encrusted fish, sizzling whole on a grill. Curries and chilies flavored the hot, humid air of Convent Street, beckoning passersby to a quick and tasty meal.
My only hint that more unsavory foods might be on the horizon came from an American traveler just finishing his tour of the country.
“You might not want to try the star meat,” he said.
I tried to pry out of him what star meat was. He smiled mysteriously and said, “You'll find out.”
My imagination went into overdrive. Could it be starfish? Or, maybe – oh, please, no – tarantulas?
After several days of enjoying Bangkok's restaurants and street food, our tour group set off to explore Thailand's interior. As we rode our bus through the central plains, our guide, Yo, an enthusiastic young woman, told us about the life of local rice farmers.
Suddenly, she stopped her lecture and leaned down to speak to our driver. Then she turned and grinned at us. “I found something special!”
Our driver did a U-turn and pulled up to a little wooden stand by the highway. We piled out of the bus.
“This farmer is selling star meat!” Yo said.
So the mystery would be solved. I remembered my promise to try any offered foods.
Laid out on a grill, over smoking coals, were several large rats, complete from the tip of their prominent front teeth to the end of their long skinny tails.
“Do NOT tell us we are going to be offered that,” I prayed.
The young farmer selling them demonstrated the homemade rat traps he had devised from rope, wire, and wood. He also showed off the large cobra he had trapped in his field, explaining that farmers tolerate the cobras because the rats eat the rice, but the cobras eat the rats.
You will not find star meat on a Thai restaurant menu, he said, but the farmers see no reason to have free protein go to waste.
Yo purchased two roasted rats. I steeled myself – but she didn't offer them to us. She put the paper bag of rats in her backpack. Crisis averted!
Or so I thought.
We moved on to a river cruise aboard a converted rice barge. As we gazed out over lush water plants and floating cottages, two chefs prepared a buffet lunch in the barge's kitchen. The last dish served was an attractive plate of finely shredded, dark-brown meat mixed with spices and bits of vegetables.
It was star meat.
Well, a promise is a promise – even if only to myself. I put a tiny spoonful on my plate and took a nibble.
Yo had taken pity on us. She had the chef cook the rat so thoroughly, it tasted more like burned barbequed ribs than anything else.
I congratulated myself on my culinary courage. Rob congratulated himself on being a vegetarian.
On our way to the bus, I told him, “That really wasn't too bad! I just hope she doesn't offer us bugs!”
The next day, Yo, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, passed around a tub of big fat deep-fried bamboo worms.
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