I was outside of Owerri, Nigeria, in the backseat of my boyfriend’s father’s car, racing down a dirt road towards a restaurant that he was very excited about. His erratic driving made me almost as nervous as the meal we were about to sit down to – Grass Cutter, also known as a Great Cane Rat. This was considered a delicacy in Nigeria and I, the pale-skinned visitor from Washington, DC, was the guest of honor. “You don’t have to do it.” My boyfriend whispered in my ear as we neared our destination. “Just move it around and smile a lot and I will eat yours when they are not looking.” I nodded silently.
The restaurant turned out to be a little shack, with a covered porch and plastic tables and chairs. The proprietor was excited to see our group arrive, he shook my boyfriend’s father’s hand and greeted him enthusiastically in Ibo as we all sat down. He hastily plopped cold Star beers in front of us. After a few minutes of chit-chat in a mix of Ibo, English, and pigeon English, the meal was served. A huge bowl of grass-cutter soup was placed in front of me. The head was perched on the front of my bowl, looking right at me. The rest of the people seated at the table were also looking right at me, waiting for my reaction. I smiled and thanked them, hoping it came off as sincere, because it was. While this may not have been my first choice entree, I appreciated the pains that my boyfriend’s family was taking to share something special with me. So, I took a deep breath and dug in, hoping I would be able to keep at least a few bites down and then could stealthily pass the dish to my boyfriend.
Much to my surprise, the first bite was delicious. The broth was so peppery that it made my throat burn and my nose run a little bit. The meat was very tender and – not to be cliché – tasted a lot like chicken. Yum! I ate two bowls of the soup, which ended up being my favorite dish, and probably one of my favorite memories, of my three-week visit to Nigeria.
My travel mantra has always been, “Say Yes To The Food.” My favorite – and primary – travel activity is eating. When I am not eating, I am asking the locals about where to eat, wandering through food markets, photographing food, or writing about food. I have always been an adventurous eater. I think I owe this to my parents, who threw caution to the wind and offered me a raw oyster as my first solid food when I was just a few months old. (They claim that was an “accident,” probably to avoid prosecution, but I don’t buy it). I will eat any kind of seafood and, contrary to the preferences of many of my fellow Americans, I think it is even more delicious with the head on. I have eaten dishes so spicy that my insides burned for days. I have eaten kangaroo and ostrich and alligator and turtle and snake and pigs feet and goat’s head and snails and a wide assortment of organ meats. I don’t think there is anything that I won’t try once – I love the adventure of a new taste sensation.
Recently, I crossed paths with an acquaintance who wanted to travel with me for a week in Naples and Sicily. His travel mantra seemed to be, “Say No To The Food, Unless It’s A Pepperoni Pizza With a Coke That Can Be Ordered in English.” We only made it two days before we both decided it would be best for us to go our separate ways. The straw that broke the camel’s back was his insistence that we visit an “American Bar!” in Sicily. He wanted a burger and fries. I was appalled. Naples and Sicily were like my heaven. The pizza in Naples is the absolute best in the world, arriving covered in fresh, soft buffalo mozzarella that dissolves into the sweet, garlicky pizza sauce, soaking through the crust, necessitating the use of a fork and a knife. In both Naples and Sicily, there were gorgeous, bustling produce and fish markets and vendors on almost every corner offering arincini (fried risotto balls filled with cheese and meat) through street-facing windows. They were so good, I could not resist buying them even when I was already painfully full from dinner. The restaurants in Sicily offered a huge assortment of small plates, including a beautiful variety of vegetables and seafood and, of course, pastas.
I feel sorry for the, “No, Thanks” guy who wouldn’t even sample the strong Italian coffee I enjoyed with breakfast each morning. He has no idea what he missed out on. Most of all, I think he will never really understand the culture of Naples or Sicily, or any other place that he visits, for that matter.
When you are visiting a new place, trying the local food is a very easy way to say, “I want to know about you.” Almost all cultures have recipes passed down through many generations and, in my experience, people love to see you enjoying the foods that they grew up eating. You can sometimes even learn about a country’s history through its food; many places adopt and adapt dishes of conquerors and colonizers. (And, if you try something that you don’t like, so what? Politely decline a second helping and cross that item off of your list.)
Food, like love, is something that we all have in common. I don’t care where you’re from or what language you speak – whether you are in Manhattan or Nigeria or Singapore – when you take that first bite of warm, deliciousness and give the chef or your fellow diners a big smile, all of the language and cultural barriers that separate us disappear for that moment. We are all family at the dinner table. So go ahead. Eat the rat.
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