Ew. Yuck. Really? These are the typical responses I get when I tell people about some of the stranger foods I've eaten. I know that on the eligible-edibles scale, the notion of what's considered food can vary greatly. Some views are narrow, while some, like mine, are panoramic.
It's not because I get some kind of thrill from shocking you (and my editors) with the crazy stuff I'll eat. If anything, it's because of the way I grew up. I learned that the nugget of cheek meat is the sweetest part of a fish and not to be fazed when my aunt ate fish lips. And pig ears? My friends thought they were only good for making dog chews, but I knew them to be tasty snacks when braised with soy sauce. One culture's idea of waste food might be another's culinary heritage and there is no place for judgment on my table.
The bottom line on why I will pretty much try anything is that I'm genuinely afraid that I'll miss out on something really delicious. And for someone so enraptured with food, this is a big fear. An open mind—and mouth—is an admirable quality, so I am grateful to all my friends who continue to be up for any kind of food adventure, no matter what's on the plate.
And while I'm not eating these dishes with the frequency of, say, sandwiches, some of them have real potential to become regular eats. Have a taste: If you have texture issues, then chicken feet may not be for you, but they have long been one of my favorite snacks on the planet. You may think it sounds ridiculous, but there are great feet and bad feet; this dish is how I gauge a dim sum restaurant. If the feet aren't any good, chances are the rest isn't, either. Ideal feet are fried until golden, simmered with ginger and star anise and then marinated in a flavorful mix of soy, chili pepper, sugar and savory black bean sauce. A final steam makes them succulently tender and a little slippery. Eating them requires deft tongue work to coax bits of velvety skin and gelatinous tendon from the bones. Jasmine Restaurant, 4609 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa. Have I lost you yet? Maybe this will do it. That scarf you're wearing started out as a cocoon of raw silk, enclosed around the larva of a silkworm moth, which are often boiled before they emerge as moths to preserve the long strands of silk. So, what to do about all those now-cooked silkworm pupae? Why, eat them, of course! In Korea and other cultures with high silk production, silkworm pupae, called bondegi, are fried up for snacks or boiled in soups. The soup broth itself is amazing, spicy with jalapeños and chili paste and loaded with enoki mushrooms, but the larvae themselves are not a taste treat. They smell funky and musty and have an odd, nutty taste. My friend Kirk brought me a can of these just in case I wanted to recreate the dish at home; I'd love to make the soup, but I think I'll hold the larvae. Korean Homestyle Restaurant, 4690 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa. Continuing on the insect tip, a choice delicacy in Oaxaca is a grasshopper, or chapuline. And why not? Insects are a protein-rich food and affordable, too. And if we're talking about ecologically minded eating, which has a larger carbon footprint, a bug or a cow? These bugs are dry-toasted with a heavy dose of lemon, chili powder and lots of salt until they're crisp. Served with half-moons of raw onion that provide sweet and crunchy contrast, they are the ideal beer snack. El Tejate, 205 West Mission Ave. in Escondido. If you've seen the Korean movie Oldboy and can't forget the visceral scene in which the main character bites and swallows a still-squirming octopus, there's a local restaurant where you can see, and eat, your own live octopus. Obviously, the act was included in the film for shock value, but there's a very popular tradition of raw, live seafood in Korean cuisine. The tentacles, dressed lightly with sesame oil and salt, wriggle as you chew, occasionally suctioning themselves to your tongue or the roof of your mouth. The experience is honestly more peculiar than delicious. Wal Mi Do, 4367 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa.The live sea creature that I do find amazingly delectable is the sea urchin, whose prehistoric-looking spiny shell protects five lobes of gonads—yes, the sex organs. Sea otters and humans alike are attracted to their sweet, creamy flavor and delicate texture that melts on your tongue; it kind of feels and tastes like you're making out with the ocean. It just so happens that some of the most delicious sea urchins in the world can be harvested right off San Diego's shores. Have them at your favorite sushi restaurant, or whole and freshly cracked at Sea Rocket Bistro, 3382 30th St. in North Park, or pick them up live at the Saturday morning Mercato, the farmers market in Little Italy. Lest vegetarians be left off the list, there's a challenging edible for them, too. Natto, a traditional Japanese food, are soybeans, cooked and fermented until they become a single sticky mass, bound together by web-like strings that coat your mouth and teeth after every bite. The smell of natto is one that I usually don't associate with Japanese cuisine; the soybeans give off a seriously pungent odor, with a taste that's a little reminiscent of mushrooms and cheese, maybe a blue or Camembert. But once you wrap your mind around it, natto's actually kind of tasty. It's also super nutritious, full of vitamins and anti-oxidants, no doubt one of the contributors to the Japanese long life expectancy. I like natto mixed with chopped sashimi and served over rice with green onion and strips of nori. Sakura, 3904 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa.But if you're going to eat meat, why not enjoy the whole hog, or any animal for that matter? We've become so detached from the source of our food that the thought of eating anything beyond the familiar supermarket cuts seems, probably to many, like an absurdity. So when I suggest that you're missing out if you don't try lamb's head tacos, warm corn tortillas filled with hand-harvested bits of tender cheek, tongue and beyond, at Aqui es Texcoco (1043 Broadway in Chula Vista), juicy beef heart kebabs at The Latin Chef (1142 Garnet Ave. in Pacific Beach) or my beloved pig's ears in a salad with bacon at The Linkery, (3794 30th St. in North Park), I hope you'll think twice about writing me hate mail. All of the above is considered good food to a lot of people, maybe one day even to you, too.