“I’m just a regular guy,” says Sisavath. “I’m not a food critic, I’m not a food blogger, I just like good food. Chicago is a city of incredible diversity, and I don’t want to lose that. I want the Strange Food Festival to celebrate diversity.”
Here’s some of the “strange food” we chowed down upon:
Silk worms from Bites. Americans, as a rule, are not insectivores. In many parts of the world, however, especially in areas where food options are limited, insects are just another source of protein. We’ve eaten chapulines (grasshoppers) in Oaxaca, Mexico, and cicadas harvested from River Forest, Illinois, and one must say: they are only conceptually icky; when cooked, they become quite dry and dusty inside. These silk worms had good crunch, slightly tart from being cooked with kaffir lime leaves.
Gizzards from a Place by Damao. The last time we had gizzards was probably at the long-gone Brown’s Fried Chicken on Madison in Forest Park, and they were tough and chewy. You can still get them locally at Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles. The gizzards at the Strange Food Festival were game-changers: they were slow cooked with some very delicious Asian spices, including chilies, so they were more tender and flavorful. We had seconds. These gizzards are a perfect example of an off-center – perhaps even disdained and avoided – food that, with the right preparation, can be quite good.
Balut from Kubo Chicago. Balut, a Filipino snack food (usually accompanied by much drinking) is traditionally a fertilized duck egg that contains a fully formed, though very small, duck that you can eat, bones, little feathers and all. A Filipina friend of ours served us some years ago; it was odd, tasted like shrimp. Eating a little baby bird whole was, um, unnerving. At the Strange Food Festival, chicken – not duck — eggs were served because, the nice lady at the table told us, “the organizer thought people would be scared of duck eggs.” Maybe. But here’s the thing, the somewhat less grotesque fertilized chicken eggs were all gone within about an hour: they served 90 of them. “Some people came back for seconds,” the nice lady told us.
Fermented rice from Sweet Rice. This is a dessert-type dish, somewhat savory and perked up with a splash of alcohol. The fermented rice is served in a clear water gelatin. It was fascinating to taste what a little controlled rot can do. In Asia, where rice is the most common, it’s not surprising that people would come up with many ways to serve this grain.
Tripe Italian-style from Animale. Tripe, the inner lining of (usually) a cow’s stomach, was prepared by Chef Cameron Grant at Animale in what was undoubtedly the most delicious preparation we’ve ever had of this offal. Too often, the ferocious funkiness of this fifth quarter “meat” is almost overwhelming; in this preparation, the flavor came through clearly, balanced by Italianate seasonings. Memorable.
Before leaving the event, we stopped by to chat with Suriyawan, who was serving ant larvae and pig brains. “I can’t eat this stuff,” admitted Suriyawan, “I just taste it for the flavors and spit it out.” Clearly, there’s no reason to feel the slightest bit guilty about not loving all these organs and other strange edibles. And as Carolyn used to tell her Brownie troop: “Just give it a taste; if you don’t like it, spit it out.”