Whether it’s seeing the elusive northern lights, learning a new language or running a marathon, we all have those bucket list items we’d like to check off before we check out. But what about food? Is there something you’ve been dying to try?
Several local chefs say they’re willing to go the distance to sample some particular bit of exotica. But before getting into their wish lists, we asked what was the most unusual item they’d cooked with or tasted to date.
“It has some really interesting applications, and we currently use it for special sugar work. I have to order it directly from Japan and wire-transfer yen to make it happen. It’s worth the trouble.”
John Fleer, the owner and executive chef of Rhubarb, says that while he’s yet to cook with blowfish sperm, he did find himself face to face with it once.
“This happened during a sake-fueled haze while indulging in a multicourse tasting menu at Masa in New York City. It was used to season a risotto. I have not even been close to anything that exotic or unusual since,” he reports.
For Michelle Bailey, executive chef at the Smoky Park Supper Club, lamb testicles top the list.
“It’s fun and challenging to cook with underutilized cuts and then turn them into something that people would enjoy eating,” she notes.
Mike Moore, the founder and chef of Blind Pig Productions, recently traveled to the Lesser Antilles. He explored St. Lucia, which has many wild ingredients and tropical fruits as well as specialty items brought in from the Venezuelan coast.
“I shopped in Castries on the southern tip of the island, where French and Indian influences abounded,” says Moore. “Ghost crab and goat were prominent, cooked together in a stew over hardwood on the beaches. We also foraged tropical fruits such as star apple and Barbados cherry from the rain forest in the vicinity of an ancient French sugar plantation. Pawpaw fruit, which was once prominent in the American South, was abundant and delicious, along with fresh pigeon peas and cocoa, now farmed and grown within the plantations.”
Goose barnacles, anyone?
With those experiences behind them, however, both Button and Fleer say they’d like to head to Spain to try some percebes (goose barnacles).
“I’ve yet to be lucky enough to find them on a menu over there,” Button says. “They’re dangerous for fishermen to catch, so their spotty availability is completely understandable, but I’m dying to try them.”
Fleer, meanwhile, stresses the importance of getting them fresh.
From Italy to Japan
Ivan Candido, executive chef at The Admiral, says he really wants to try white truffles from Italy. Foraged by truffle hogs, they’re available only a couple of months of the year, and an ounce could run you about $1,000.
Candido would also like to visit Japan and indulge in some serious street food. There’s tamagoyaki, an omelet made by rolling together several layers of cooked egg; takoyaki, a ball-shaped snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and typically filled with minced or diced octopus, tempura scraps, pickled ginger and green onion; and mikan ame, a hard-to-find candied fruit.
Just a tingle
Bailey says she’s already sampled her share of unusual foods, including wood grubs and pigs’ eyes, but she’s not finished yet. Japanese chefs spend years learning how to safely prepare fugu (puffer fish). “They leave just enough of the toxins in the fish to give you a tingling sensation when you eat it,” she explains.
North meets South
For Moore, seeking out that one splashy ingredient is less enticing than experiencing a whole culturally diverse region that’s rich in wild game and foraged foods.
“I’d love to visit and work with the local provisions and cuisine from Canada,” he says. “I’ve always been impressed with Canadian cuisine. Canada shares many common roots with American cuisine, being a melting pot … specifically the French and Native American cultures that existed there. Wild game, foraged ingredients from the land and sea, and the unique, colder altitude and climate make this area appealing to me, and its ingredients very distinct.”
Their maple syrup, tapped from native trees, is analogous to how sorghum and molasses are used in southern Appalachia, notes Moore.
“French culture has been very prominent in melding Canadian cuisine, and I appreciate the foods for being wholesome and hearty, somewhat reminiscent of foods here in the American South.”
So much for the pros: What’s on your food bucket list?