Grasshopper, Anyone? How About Jellyfish?

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By Justin Rude
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007

For adventurous and voyeuristic eaters like myself, the Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern" is must-watch television. Seeing the brave gourmand trek to the corners of the world to investigate local cuisines and customs makes me extremely hungry. But it isn't the kind of voracity that can be overcome with grilled tuna or a London broil. What builds is the kind of hunger that can be satisfied only with a huge travel budget and lots of free time.

Or perhaps not.

"When you begin to expand your horizons, there really is no such thing as a bizarre food," Zimmern says. "Thanks to this 24-7-365 world we live in -- and thanks to immigrant societies in the United States -- we have bizarre foods in our own back yard, from our own culinary traditions and from immigrant culinary traditions."

Our cosmopolitan area gave me a chance to expand my gastronomic comfort zone without a round-the-world plane ticket. So I decided to taste five of the many exotic eats available here. There were plenty of dishes I couldn't fit in -- the beef tongue tacos at Arlington's El Charrito Caminante, the duck foot soup at Chinatown's Tony Cheng's, the guinea pig at Gaithersburg's Mi Peru. But that just ensures that my culinary quest is far from over.

Cervelle de Veau (Calf's Brain)

One of the delights of French cuisine is that there isn't an organ to be found that an accomplished chef can't prepare with a well-chosen sauce. Cervelle de Veau au Beurre Noir (calf's brain in black butter, $17.25) at La Chaumiere, a classic and cozy Georgetown establishment, is no exception. The dish's buttery sauce is punctuated with zesty capers, and the brain's flavor is rich and the texture creamy and unctuous -- not unlike sweetbreads.

For the squeamish, it should be noted that cervelle isn't something to order if you don't like to know where your food comes from: It's presented on the plate in two halves, wrinkles and all.

La Chaumiere, 2813 M St. NW, 202-338-1784, http://www.lachaumieredc.com/.

Durian

Durian -- a large, thorny and hideously pungent tropical fruit -- is grown and enjoyed from southern China to northern Australia. The key for many durian newcomers is to taste it in a contemporary, cold preparation such as bubble tea, which I found in Falls Church at the Eden Center's Song Que, a busy little deli that specializes in banh mi, a type of Vietnamese sandwich.

The fruit's reputation is well-deserved. As soon as my straw punctured the lid of the drink, a definite odor seeped from the smoothie-like concoction ($3). It wasn't overwhelming (the cold helped with that), but I didn't find it exactly pleasant. The drink's oniony taste was a bit off-putting at first, but I was digging it soon enough. Unfortunately, the signature aroma lingered long after my cup was empty. It took a shower before my wife would escort me to dinner.

Later, feeling more confident about durian, I trekked to a Super H Mart, the Asian specialty grocery chain that sells whole durians ($1.49 per pound). The fruit's flesh was custardy and smooth, and its taste was surprisingly similar to the bubble tea's. As for the smell? Super H sells its durians cold, which effectively masks the odor. Just don't let the fruit hang around too long unrefrigerated.

Song Que, 6773 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church, 703-536-7900.

Super H Mart, 8103 Lee Hwy., Falls Church, 703-573-6300, http://www.hmart.com/.

Jellyfish Salad

I had heard wonderful things about the jellyfish salad ($3.95) at Joe's Noodle House, the homey, authentic Sichuan restaurant nestled in an unremarkable Rockville Pike strip mall. Sliced thin, the jellyfish flesh had the feel of a noodle of unfamiliar consistency: soft with a slight snap to it. But paired with the more familiar flavors of sesame, soy sauce and rice vinegar, the dish delighted even our table's biggest skeptic.

Jellyfish salads and soups are available throughout East and Southeast Asia, and they are something we all may soon be getting used to as ocean temperatures rise, causing jellyfish populations to boom.

Joe's Noodle House, 1488-C Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-881-5518, http://www.joesnoodlehouse.com/.

Pig's Feet

My past is filled with barbecue and soul food, yet somehow I'd never feasted upon pig's feet. A product of necessity, soul food is true snout-to-tail cooking; it doesn't waste any edible part of the animal. Florida Avenue Grill, the legendary D.C. greasy spoon whose walls are lined with the mugs of famous fans, is known for doing soul food right. The eatery doesn't turn away from the cuisine's traditional ingredients to assuage any namby-pamby dietary concerns.

But even understanding that, when those pig's feet were placed in front of me, I knew I was going to be spending some extra time on the exercise bike. Picking the very fatty flesh from the plentiful bones ended up being somewhat of a chore. The texture of skin took some getting used to, but the flesh was rather mild (a splash of hot sauce readily remedied that). The hefty platter of two pig's feet ($9.50) came with two sides.

Florida Avenue Grill, 1100 Florida Ave. NW, 202-265-1586.

Tacos de Chapulines (Grasshopper Tacos)

Because my tasting trip was inspired by "Bizarre Foods," it had to include at least one insect. Chapulines are a specialty of Mexico's Oaxaca region, where the dried grasshoppers, which are high in protein and low in fat, are eaten as finger food. I found them locally at Oyamel, the upscale, high-design Mexican restaurant that recently moved from Arlington to Penn Quarter.

A grasshopper taco from Penn Quarter's Oyamel.
A grasshopper taco from Penn Quarter's Oyamel.
Head chef Joe Raffa, 34, says the grasshopper tacos ($4.50) initially were served for the reopening. "We weren't expecting to keep them on the menu," he says. "But we sold a lot of them, and the sales have not slowed down."

It's easy to understand why: The dish is sweet and crunchy with a nice kick, thanks to a chipotle sauce and house guacamole. The soft taco, loaded with the immediately identifiable arthropods, is served in a smart individual taco holder. Raffa says second and third orders are common -- which is hardly surprising.

Oyamel, 401 Seventh St. NW, 202-628-1005, http://www.oyamel.com/.


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