I'm a white girl writing about the scariest foods I could find at Ranch 99, the Asian supermarket in Richmond. Prepare yourself: what follows is not politically correct.
But before we get into the nitty gritty, let me make myself clear: I think of myself as an equal opportunity eater, someone whose palate is endlessly expandable--I took on sushi at age 20 and haven't since met a piece of unagi I didn't like, and kimchee and I became fast friends in my thirties. And as for what other people eat, well, I tell myself that given the opportunity to develop a taste for it, I'm sure I too would develop a hankering for buffalo placenta soup when it's in season, as do a few of my Thai friends, or the crunch and instant protein fix of deep fried bugs, as does a British friend of mine who has lived in southeast Asia for twenty years.
And I'm conscious that my distaste for unfamiliar food is a luxury, in part the birthmark of someone who has grown up in a society that can afford to throw away guts and organs, tongues, ears and snouts.
The irrational wincing of the tongue, the squinching of the brow when faced with threatening food must surely be conquerable. In the context of food, "scary" is just another word for "unfamiliar."
I've long been a fan of Ranch 99, purveyor of fine pea shoots, crustaceans, galangal, kecap manis (a thick Indonesian soy sauce), and pastel-colored rice flour pastries that I grew so fond of when I lived in Thailand, and I delight in even seeing the packaging for "chicken paws" (feet), "free run chicken" and Confucious Family Liquor.
But this visit, the Sunday before Halloween, I was shopping differently: I was on a hunt for the six scariest food items I could find. And dammit, I was going to face my fears and eat them. And so was my friend Tristan who was visiting, who brought with him his usual penchant for talking about disgusting things he'd eaten and how disgusting the gas was that they gave him. We thought we were sooooooo sturdy. Nothing could possibly be as disgusting as our worst imaginings made them, right?
And so, dear reader, here you are, in reverse order, the top six scariest foods to be had at Ranch 99, including reasons for deeming them scary and taste-based assessments:
Reasoning: As a native Vermonter, I've long wondered about the absurd pairing of the words "Vermont" and "curry" every time I see this ubiquitous item in an Asian market. But I've been willing to keep an open mind about it given that Vermont is actually known for some surprisingly tasty weird combinations, like the tuna sandwiches dipped in egg, fried like French toast, and topped with maple syrup, that I scarfed up as a child. So it made it into my shopping basket in the spirit of supporting Vermont quirkiness in all its permutations.
Verdict: Vermont Curry surprised me by emerging from the box in dung-colored blocks, sort of like a large chocolate bar. I broke off a few and tossed them in with carrots and onions, as directed by the package. After I cooked it, I let it cool for a few minutes, and a dark brown sludge had gathered across the top--far thicker and more ominous looking than the skin the develops on hot Jello chocolate pudding. ("It's okay," Tristan said with hope in his voice, "My mom's gravy does that, too.")
But by the time Tristan and I sampled the pleasures of Vermont Curry, I was already in high gag mode from a few other items listed below. My tongue was contorted in anguish, and poor Vermont Curry got the short end of the stick. Were I offered a plate of Vermont Curry under different circumstances--like after release from a concentration camp or tempted with the reward of a million dollars--I would eat it.
Reasoning: I found this in the deli section, and while it did look a bit like goose, complete with goose-pimpled skin, it looked like goose that had spent a few centuries in a catacomb and then been rehydrated with pond water.
Verdict: One would think that mere wheat and soy sauce pattied to resemble meat would be innocent of culinary crime. Tristan noted, "It's a shame when you recreate meat you have to include the skin" and then took a bite. Then I took a bite. After a few minutes of debate, we arrived at an apt description: smoked veggie goose tasted like rotten chalk with a hint of imported barnyard.
Number 4: Fried Gluten with Peanuts in Soy Sauce, from Taiwan
Reasoning: There's nothing in the name to indicate that this would be offensive (aside from the word gluten), but a mere glance at the scrambled-egg like globs floating in dishwater-colored salt water with peanuts that looked like they'd suffered from elephantiasis was enough to earn them a place in my shopping basket.
Verdict: Like Vermont Curry, fried gluten with peanuts in soy sauce was a victim of lineup--the smell of Scariest Food Number 1 (keep reading, you're almost there) was wafting through the kitchen, and had the gluten been chunks of perfectly ripe honeydew decked with proscuitto, I probably would have gagged. I took a bite, gagged, and staggered toward the garbage, only to remember that that was exactly where Scariest Food Number 1 was lurking, so my gag volcanoed into a hefty spit into my palm. I closed my eyes and tossed the gluten in the direction of the garbage pail and Scariest Food Number 1.
Poor little gluten. It probably isn't so bad.
Reasoning: Like the smoked veggie goose, I found pig ears in the deli aisle, but thinly sliced and looking quite harmless in a clear plastic deli container. "It could be brown chewy ginger/soy/wine-infused coleslaw," I thought. I've eaten cracklings, and I love scrapple and hot dogs, both of which surely have fragments of pig ear. Dogs highly recommend pig ears. Maybe I'm missing something.
Tristan tried it first. "I just thought about what it is," he said as a swallow turned into a gulp and look around for grapefruit soda. A slice of pig ear--I looked for a bite that looked like it was more meat than cartilage--made it into my gullet.
I discovered there's a reason I don't like dogs. Dogs like pig ears.
Reasoning: I'm a fan of fish sauce in general--a tablespoon or two adds a lovely piquant je ne sais quoi to spaghetti sauce, and of course it's a staple in sanitized western-style Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. But this, with its tightly packed filets of clearly aptly named mudfish, intrigued me. In comparison, it made the pigs ears look like a pulled pork sandwich from Everett and Jones.
Verdict: We opened the jar to be mystified by a plastic strainer installed on top of the fish. At first I thought that it might be so that cooks would use the liquid that drained from the fish, not the fish itself. But no, that didn't make sense because only about a tablespoon of liquid dribbled out, and the jar said it contained a whopping 22 servings.
I pried off the plastic strainer, holding my face as far away as possible for fear of flying fermented fish juice. I stuck a fork in and pried up one filet and took a sniff. This was beyond piquant: was this mudfish fermented in a public toilet?
"Please don't make me eat this," Tristan pleaded. "I don't want to be yacking up mudfish."
And mudfish is where we both drew the line. They say smell is an integral part of taste, in which case both of us were surely off the hook.
Reasoning: Pig's uterus faced some stiff competition from the pre-packaged meat section from the likes of black-skinned chickens with the heads on, pork bung (intestine), pork snout, pork brain, and liquid or solid pork blood, but if my mission was to find the scariest items I could find in Ranch 99, pig's uterus could hardly be overlooked. It lay pinky grey behind the shiny plastic wrap, and I was drawn by its uneven, scalloped, might I even say Baroque tubes.
Verdict: I looked on line for pigs uterus recipes, to no avail, so I decided that maybe stir frying it, with oyster sauce, might work. The oil heated in the wok and I peered at the package. The oil just started to smoke, and I plunged my fingers into the pink labyrinth and dumped it in the oil.
And it began to cook.
And it began to smell.
"Jesus Christ, there is NO WAY, I'm tasting that," Tristan shouted. The smell got worse, perhaps mixing with eau de fermented mudfish. "It smells just the way a cooked [uterus] probably should smell," he cried above the hiss of the oil and the mass of sizzling pink-grey tubes.
It was already unspoken that the uterus was going to bypass oyster sauce and go directly into the trash. I dumped it in and thought, good God, I'm taking that trash out this instant.
But I stupidly waited, thinking I'd wait until the end of this dreadful experiment. And before long, Elizabeth, one of my two cats, was sniffing with determination around the garbage. Bear in mind that she has never shown any interest thus far in either the garbage or anything other than kibble, but apparently pig uterus lightly seared in peanut oil was enough to drive her wild. I slapped her away and went to enjoy the tangy splash of a beer and an escape from the stench in a better-ventilated living room.
And then I heard a rustle from the kitchen and slid back my chair to see Geraldine, my other cat--who has also never been interested in garbage or anything other than kibble--lapping delicately at a chunky string of uterus she'd lugged out of the garbage onto the linoleum.
I'll tell you I have never, ever been so happy to take out the garbage, an everything-must-go excursion that won't even spare the not-so-scary things. It's all ruined, contaminated by association with pig uterus and my own defeat--a girl who likes tuna sandwiches fried with maple syrup on top, foie gras, uni, and lima beans but isn't necessarily an open-minded eater.