Beef brain tacos and Haggis – eating the foods that scare you

The past week has been an interesting one for me, food-wise. Last Monday I had a chance to sample a Mexican “beef brain” taco (de cabeza) and this weekend I found myself unexpectedly eating a plate of Haggis. You know – the Scottish dish made with a stomach-churning mixture of sheep’s lungs, heart and liver mixed with spices and boiled in the casing of a sheep stomach? Yeah, that Haggis.

While I would never go so far as to describe myself as the next Andrew Zimmern or Anthony Bourdain, I have become significantly more adventurous in my eating habits in the past five years. It’s perhaps an inevitable consequence for any frequent traveler. The more time you spend abroad, the easier it becomes to adjust to the rhythm of life and customs of places unlike your home. But even for many self-proclaimed “adventurous” travelers like myself, certain foods are the equivalent of a culinary no-fly zone. Phrases like “It’s unsafe” or “I might gag if I eat that” are often provided as rationalizations.

While I can empathize with these excuses, I think all of us (barring dietary restrictions) should try every food at least once. A lot of what we fear about certain foods is mental – a perception we’ve gained from anecdotes and popular culture that’s often not grounded in reality. More often than not you’ll find yourself enjoying the supposedly forbidden food, wondering what had you all worked up in the first place. And if you don’t like it? So what…the worst that happens is you spit it out and have a fun story to tell your friends.

Take Haggis – a food that has become the punchline to a bad joke. When I tried it recently, I found the taste and texture to be fantastic. It was like eating a spicy version of ground beef – I had myself wondering what all the fuss was about. And those beef brain tacos? I wasn’t a big fan – the meat was relatively tasteless and I found them to be too chewy. But you know what? I’m happy I tried both of them. Even if I don’t plan to snack on Haggis and beef brains every day, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation of each of these unique cultures – and that to me makes it worthwhile.

New season of No Reservations kicks off tonight

The holidays are inevitably a time of excess. LIke many of you, I spent the last two weeks eating and drinking my way through way too many parties and get-togethers, and I’m feeling a bit of a holiday-induced hangover at the moment. Thankfully, starting today, I can now redirect my guilt at overindulgence away from myself and project it onto somebody else – Anthony Bourdain. Everyone’s favorite badboy chef is back starting tonight with all-new episodes of No Reservations, kicking off what is sure to be another season consuming copious amounts of booze, street food and local culture along the way.

No Reservations enters its 5th Season coming off a watermark year for the show in 2008. The past season’s top-notch content featured culinary hot spots such as Spain and Tokyo as well as some unexpected gems such as Colombia and Laos. This season offers an interesting mix as well. Tonight kicks off with a journey to Mexico, where Tony dines on some of “the best tortillas ever” before making a visit to a Lucha Libre training center to pay his respects. Season 5 will also feature episodes on such far flung locales as the Azores and Sri Lanka as well as more traditional U.S. destinations like Chicago and New York City.

The curious can stop by the Travel Channel site where Bourdain will be posting new insights into season 5 on his blog. And if you’re looking to catch up on previous seasons of No Reservations, make sure to check out Gadling’s summaries in our archives. Keep your eyes peeled for some great No Reservations giveaways courtesy of Gadling and the Travel Channel, coming soon.

Dining with Iron Chef Michael Symon at Lolita in Cleveland

Until last Sunday, I wasn’t sure who Iron Chef Michael Symon is. Now, I do. My first introduction came with tickets to the Fabulous Food Show in Cleveland–my friend’s pick.

Symon, who is from Cleveland, was one of the featured chefs who put on a show to an audience filled with foodies. While we stood in line like some sort of sheep waiting to claim our reserved seats, I still wasn’t clear about why I should care about him.

That’s changed. Symon is a Clevelander through and through. Celebrity chef or not, he knows how to talk to his people. Plus, the guy can cook, talk at the same time, and give tips about how to crush garlic and which part should be taken out to keep from being bitter. (You take out the green sliver in each clove. He called it the germ.)

Although we didn’t get one of those scrumptious looking date appetizers at the show, afterward we ate at Lolita, one of Symon’s restaurants. The dates were on the menu.

Lordy! Manna from heaven, pure and simple. Lolita is the companion restaurant to Lola–the high end eatery that Anthony Bourdain visited in the Cleveland episode of ” No Reservations.

Lolita, in the Tremont district of Cleveland–a historic, once gritty neighborhood that is on the rise–is a bistro type place that may have been a neighborhood bar years and years ago.

The exterior reflects its time period, but the inside has been transformed into an upscale edgy, artsy environment. The lighting is intimate and low, and the tables are far enough apart to add to the ambiance. Both my friend and I loved the decor, although I could barely read the menu since I was the one tucked next to the wall. The candle helped.

We had already ordered three appetizers and an entree to share, plus a glass of wine each, when Michael Symon appeared to eat dinner with his wife and friends. Like any good restaurateur, he stopped to chat with customers and laughed heartily at their conversations.

He didn’t notice me tucked in the dimly lit corner, however–or my friend who was about an inch from him when he visited with the folks at the table closest to us. She’s one of his ardent fans.

Being that he was in the middle of hobnobbing in between ordering and eating, we didn’t interrupt him–not even when we left after splitting our bill–about $26 or so a piece. I would have told him how much I loved those dates.

From what I remember from his show, they were baked for 10 or 15 minutes and covered with almonds that had been sauted along with chopped up panchetta. He promised to put the recipe on his blog, but it’s not there yet.

The dates weren’t the most creative item we ordered. That distinction goes to the Crispy Chicken Livers with “soft polenta, wild mushrooms and panchetta.” My friend wasn’t too fond of them. She’s not a liver gal after all, but I thought they were brilliant and felt sort of Andrew Zimmern-like eating them.

We also had the Fried Brussel Sprouts. They were chopped and fried up with anchovies, capers, walnuts and chilies. Quite wonderful. My friend adores brussel sprouts. Generally, I’ll eat them, but they’re not my fave. Symon’s version were a different story. Yum!

For an entree, I was saved from the pizza with pork belly by the waiter who said that he liked another sausage version of the pizza choices better. My friend, who was angling for the pork belly since she said everyone is cooking up dishes with pork belly these days, settled for the waiter’s recommendation.

My response to eating pork belly is this. “If everyone is jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?”

By the way, we had two slices of pizza each and took the rest away with us. The starters were filling enough, and I made my $6.50 glass of wine last the whole meal. An interesting touch to the wine service was that the waiter poured each serving from small cruet like pitchers into our glasses at the table. My friend had white and I had red. Mine was the cheapest and was quite good. Cheapest or not, it felt classy.

[The food photos by edseloh are from Flickr under Michael Symon. The food is not exactly what we ordered but has a certain similarity. There are other gorgeous shots that will make you hungry.]

“No Reservations” season 4, episode 18: Egypt

Location: This week Tony finds himself in Egypt, home to the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx and plenty of other tourist stereotypes. Egypt is one of the world’s great cradles of civilization as well as a crossroads of many cultures (and great cuisine) from all points north, south, east and west.

Episode Rating: Three bloody meat cleavers out of five. Bourdain indeed delivers the unexpected when it comes to Egypt. Some interesting culinary discoveries but also some “snoozefest” segments that could have been left on the editing table. Also, I must say…you came all that way and didn’t go to the Great Pyramids? I don’t care how jaded you are towards tourists – how do you skip that?

Summary: Egypt is the kind of place most of us know at least a little something about. Whether you’ve already been, or it’s the trip of your dreams. most of us with an urge for exploration and discovery reasonably know what to expect. Ancient pharaohs, the Nile, papyrus, mummies. But then again, we are talking about Anthony Bourdain here…

Bourdain sets a manifesto from this episode’s outset – he’s going to skip the prototypical Egyptian tourist spots. Why you might ask? He doesn’t want the view to be cluttered by all of those tourists. But still, one has to admit the man has a unique method to his madness. Much like a Egyptologist cracking open a pharaoh’s tomb for the very first time, Tony’s urge to push his boundaries leads us into some interesting culinary crevices. Was Tony attacked by mummies? Does he eat more camel like in the Saudi Arabia episode? Read on to get the full story.There seems no more obvious place to start an Egyptian visit than in Cairo, the country’s largest city and one of the biggest of any across the Middle East. Of course, upon getting off the aircraft in a foreign country, my usual first instinct is to find something to eat. And Tony is no different. He heads straight to his element – the backstreets of Cairo for a breakfast of the local favorite, fuul. Basically a mix of mashed fava beans, simmered slowly with oil, garlic, chili pepper and a few other spices, fuul is typically served with the ubiquitous flatbread. It’s a filling meal, especially for the many poor Egyptians who will not have another meal until dinnertime.

Having satiated his post-deplaning hunger, Tony heads to the famous Khan el-Khalili marketplace. It is just as you might picture the many vast bazaars that dot the cities of the Muslim world – tiny shops selling all manner of handicrafts, tiny curios, antiques, clothing and of course, spices.

It is precisely these spices that have brought Tony here, and he meets up with Dr. Sayeed of the American University of Cairo to tell him more about this ancient and venerable industry. Egypt was conveniently placed at the crossroads of the ancient world, between medieval Europe and the spice plantations of India and Far East. As these many spices came through Egypt, they revolutionized the country’s cuisine. Dishes like stuffed pigeon are a direct outgrowth of this fact. Tony takes his history lesson to heart and sits down for a stuffed pigeon lunch with his teacher. The bird is stuffed with (what else?) spices then simmered until tender, rolled in more spices and then seared in a pan until carmelized. Is pigeon good? Absolutely yes, says Tony. All you city dwellers, go grab that bag of feathers sitting on your windowsill and throw it in the broiler. Tony says it’s good!

Ok, we’re “stuffed” now with pigeon. Is it too soon to mention dinner? Why no in fact, and Tony has linked up a with a local Egyptian businessman to make sure the gluttony train keeps on moving. They visit fast food chain Abou Tarek to get a taste of local specialty kushari. Kushari is practically the Egyptian national dish – as Tony points out, to not try it while in Egypt would be like going to New York and not eating at a deli. The simple meal is composed of a starchy mix of rice, spaghetti, black lentils, chickpeas and then topped with fried onions. The choice of topping sauce is a matter of personal taste – a tomato-cumin, vinegar-garlic and hot sauce are all on offer.

To wrap up his night, Bourdain and his Egyptian companion go to a traditional Egyptian cafe to drink tea and smoke from hookahs. Though Tony has given up smoking, he can’t resist a pull off the old hookah pipe. The editors got a little too cute here – was the Bob Marley-style reggae music in this scene really necessary? He’s smoking flavored tobacco, not ganja!

Too much urban living can make anybody anxious, so Tony takes his cue to get outta town for some Egyptian-style R&R. The Bourdain crew stops at a small farming village along the Nile River Valley. The town is emblematic of the narrow slice of land which runs along this fabled body of water – the fertile silt of the river provides the perfect soil for all manner of agricultural products.

Tony visits the home of a local family to eat. To get the meal ready, they head to the roof, where they keep their livestock. Tonight’s menu includes duck, freshly made bread, freshly made cheese and freshly made butter and a local soup made with a plant called Melokhia. It is a warm and friendly outing – the food delicious, the people friendly, the setting – majestic. All is right with the world in Anthony-Bourdainland.

The final portion of Tony’s Egypt trip is a visit with a group of Bedouins. Though the word “bedouin” frequently conjures visions of robe-clad peoples riding on camels, modern-day bedouins defy easy categorization. For one, their transportation of choice is now Toyota Land Cruisers. To celebrate his visit (when isn’t a visit by Anthony Bourdain cause for celebration???) the bedouins prepare a feast of lamb.

The animal is killed according to proper principles – they dispatch it with the head facing southeast towards Mecca and all blood is drained before dressing the carcass. While the animal cooks, Tony spends an inordinate amount of time waxing philosophical about the desert – its emptiness and solitude and stark beauty and blah blah blah. If he didn’t have so many tattoos, I think I might have mistaken him for a desert-bound version of Thoreau. Tony, it’s quiet, empty and picturesque, we get it! When it’s time to eat the lamb, they accompany it with rice and some “sun bread” – hardened bread that travels well a
nd is softened in water for consumption. Mmmm mmmm!

That’s it. No visit to the Pyramids. No visit to the Sphinx. For some tourists, that’s a failure. But then again, for Anthony Bourdain, famous landmarks are not really his narrative and a famous place like Egypt was really no exception. Instead, we find an unexpected side of Egypt. A place where cuisine is dictated as much by thousands of years of precedent as it is by the country’s remarkable crossroads of cultures and influences.

“No Reservations” season 4, episode 17: Spain

Location: It’s about time, Mr. Bourdain. Tony makes a culinary pilgrimage to one of Europe’s, and arguably the world’s, most famous culinary destinations of the moment: Spain. It is a country that is thoroughly grounded in the cuisine of tradition yet remarkably forward-thinking in its gastronomic outlook.

Episode Rating: Four and a half bloody meat cleavers (out of five). I’m sorry, perhaps I’m biased, but it’s hard to characterize an episode that features such fascinating, delicious, forward-thinking food as anything but awesome. If you’ve seen any episodes of Bourdain’s previous show, A Cook’s Tour, then you’ll know why this works so well. It’s enjoyable without trying too hard.

Summary: Spain is a country with a cooking style that is thoroughly traditional – we are talking after all about an area of culture that dates all the way back to the ancient Romans, Greeks and beyond. Yet recent years have seen the rise of a very different and highly original brand of cuisine that defies easy convention. Famous chefs like Ferran Adria have pushed what was once one of Europe’s best-kept culinary secrets into the pantheon of global “foodie hotspots.” in much the same way that people have long romanticized France or Italy, Spain is now arguably just as well-known for its local and delcious food culture. Tony comes to Spain expecting to be wowed and rediscovers a country that does not disappoint.Bourdain kicks off the Spain episode by describing Spain as “the best place in the world to eat,” and for anyone that has ever visited, its hard to argue with him. Particularly observant Spain travelers might have noticed this is a bit of generalization. The regions where Bourdain spends his “Spain” trip – Catalonia and the Basque Country are hardly representative of an entire country – but nevertheless, it would not be unfair to describe this region as among the most fertile and innovative culinary “zones” of anywhere on earth.

Fittingly, Tony begins his Spanish culinary odyssey in Vilassar de Mar, a small coastal town just northeast of Barcelona. Not surprisingly this town on the sea is well known for its seafood. Tony joins his friend for a snack at Ca l’espinaler, one of the region’s most famous tapas bars. The bar serves an assortment of some of the freshest ocean creatures on earth – razor clams, cockles, mussels, and toro-quality tuna. The most surprising perhaps, is that it all comes from cans. Though canned food is regarded as less fresh, Tony points out that seafood if canned at the height of its freshness can actually enhance the food’s flavor. And considering a 6 ounce can of seafood at the bar will set you back 156 euros (!!!) it better be damn good.

Finding himself satisfied with his main course, Bourdain returns to Barcelona to satiate his sweet tooth with some dessert. He meets up with the famous brother of Ferran Adria, Albert, to sample some of his famous dessert creations. Albert is working to “reimagine what is possible with food,” using combinations like flavored sorbet and gelatin to recreate strawberries that are then paired with a light fluffy sponge cake. It is not much of a leap from Albert then to understand Enric Rovira, a food artist who creates uniquely sculptural works crafted entirely out of chocolate. Not content to construct his creations by hand, Rovira makes his sculptures by hand and then sets them out in the sun to melt, resulting in a uniquely organic and artistic edible creation. An edible work of art.

To set a sharp contrast with the sweet chocolate and sponge cake, Tony heads to a field southwest of Barcelona to learn more about onions. In the spring, the nearby residents gather to feast on Calcotadas, a unique local onion that is roasted and grilled and then served with a healthy serving of romesco sauce and some flagons of red wine. It looked disturbingly like eating a blooming onion at Outback Steakhouse, but in a much more appetizing way.

However fun his Spanish eating experiences to date, Bourdain is ready to move on to more “serious” culinary experiences and heads north towards San Sebastian. He meets up with the Arzak family at Bar Haizea, one of the city’s better known tapas spots. Despite its simplicity, Tony finds the meal a revelation. Pickled peppers with anchovies, tortilla espanola, salmon mousse, and stuffed eggs are firmly grounded favorites of Spanish cuisine yet foods that are uniquely complex and surprising with their contrasting flavors and textures.

Tony then heads to the renowned restaurant Mugaritz to dine with head chef Andoni Aduriz. Bourdain is given the choice between two cards for his meal – 150 minutes “submit” and 120 minutes “revel.” Not one to back down, Tony chooses “submit” and is not disappointed. The courses of his meal, stretching from potato baked in an edible clay shell, to charcoal foie gras with sea urchin (blackout good), to beef served over cinders and crispy radishes, are exquisitely prepared yet still manage to be fantastically surprising and somehow still “traditional.” This is a theme that Tony returns to time and again here and it seems especially true of the unique food on offer at Mugaritz.

As if this one life-changing meal was not enough, Bourdain then proceeds to Asador Etxebarri, a restaurant named after the town where it is located that specializes in grilled foods. Despite the essential simpicity of the grilling technique, restaurant owner and chef Victor Arguinzoniz manages to create food that is at once creative, complex and delicious. Foods like beluga caviar and tiny eels are grilled quickly over an open flame, searing in a unique smoky set of flavors. We know Bourdain has a weak spot for grilling – it’s not a surprise he’s so enchanted with this place. He looks like he wants to be adopted by the owner as his next of kin.

Tony returns to San Sebastian for a final meal with his friends the Arzaks. It’s not even worth describing the mind-bending combination of flavors they consume. Instead, it is instead evidence of a larger truth about Spain. For a country with such fantastic local ingredients – produce this ripe, seafood this fresh, meat this flavorful – it’s a wonder the citizens of this diverse country didn’t just stop there. Why mess with a good thing? But an impulse persists in the Spanish psyche – something that pushes them forward, forcing innovation and experimentation, yet never quite
leaving behind the traditions of the past. An inspiring, delicious and simply awesome place to eat.