I’ve always considered myself to be a food adventurer. My motto is this: I will try anything once.
Of course, that’s a much easier motto to live by when I’m in the United States. It really gets tested when I travel overseas. That’s where my palate has been challenged with a whole host of “maybe I better not ask what’s in this” food adventures.
In the process I’ve discovered some incredible dishes, and I’ve identified a few that will forever go on my “Do not order” list, but there was one meal that affected me more than any other. It was a meal I ate in June of 2010 when I was in South Africa for the World Cup.
My siblings and I went there together, and though we went primarily to see soccer games, we had our daytime hours free to explore. One day we decided to check out Soweto, the heartbreakingly poor neighborhood in Johannesburg. We drove by an endless array of three-foot huts crammed side by side (each of which housed entire families). We walked through the square where the anti-Apartheid demonstrations took place a generation ago. And then, when we told him we were hungry, our guide took us to a local one-room dining establishment.
The “restaurant” was serving lunch buffet style. None of the food was labeled, and most of it was unidentifiable. There was one dish that came in a shade of yellowish-green that I hadn’t really seen in food before. My brother and I exchanged perplexed expressions, but we were careful not to offend our hosts.
As I always do, I tried a little bit of everything. The yellowish-green dish tasted a bit strong (lots of spices masking whatever the main ingredient was), but I choked it down. I figured the beef dish would help me get the taste out of my mouth, so I saved that for last. When I started chewing it, I realized it wasn’t like any beef dish I had eaten before. The texture was almost indescribable. It was a bit rubbery, but that’s not quite it. It was softer than that. It was more like a soggy brown chunk of un-chewable matter.
After one bite I knew I was in trouble. It was all I could do to hold it down, but I forced a smile on my face after I swallowed it, because our hosts were proudly watching us.
“Mmm, beef?” I asked.
The woman nodded.
“I wish I could eat more, but I’m absolutely stuffed.”
We effusively praised our hosts as we left the restaurant, got back into our van, and headed back toward the hotel. As we were rumbling out of the neighborhood, I saw a sight that will never leave my mind. A man was standing under a tent. He was holding a gigantic butcher knife in one hand, and swatting away flies with his other hand. On the table in front of him was a cow’s head.
Just the head.
“What’s he doing?” my sister asked.
“He’s butchering the meat,” our guide told us. “This is the only kind of meat we can afford here, and we are so lucky when we get it. The local butchers don’t think it’s edible so they sell it to us for almost nothing, but as you know, it is quite delicious if it’s prepared correctly.”
None of us said a word.
We knew we had just eaten cow’s brain, or eyes, or snout, but that wasn’t at all what we were thinking about. Until that moment, we hadn’t really grasped the reality of daily life in a place like this. We had heard about extreme poverty, and we had seen it, but until our lunch in Soweto, we had never tasted it.
That’s a meal you can’t possibly forget.