When I was little, I built this little toy settlement with animal figurines that I collected over the years. One of my ladies, an inch-tall cat with apron and yellow dress, was a baker, and I would gather water droplets on the garden leaves each morning so that she could bake cakes for the village. Apparently the best thing my imagination could come up with was a “soil cake”. Yep, I said my baker would collect the best dirt in her backyard, wash and knead it with morning dew, then make pastry out of it. Crazy, you say? Well, apparently a group of Indonesian villagers agree with my cat patisseur. Have you heard of ampo cake? I did just last night.
The ampo snack, made entirely of clean, gravel-free earth from paddy fields, can be eaten like crème roulée. I’m not sure what they mean by “clean” in the context of dirt. Regardless, Tuban villagers also believe that these supposedly cool, creamy baked rolls of soil are an effective pain-killer and skin-nourishing product. (From Reuters)
Why do the Tuban villagers eat soil? Some of us may quickly reason that they are poor, uneducated, or have malnutrition. Fair enough, since this ancient town of East Java preserves its land and culture rather than going industrialized, even if it hosts Indonesia’s largest cement factory, a petrochemical plant, two universities, and frequent Western tourists.
But what about Pearls of the Undergrowth (la Perle des sous-bois) from De Jaeger snail farm? If simple soil snacks are sold for cheap among villagers of the Far East, snail eggs are considered a delicacy with black truffle and fine wine among new French restaurateurs. Each 30 grams costs a whopping $109 base value.
“It has a sensation of fresh dew, beaming pearls. Your mouth will experience the sensation of a walk in the forest after the rain, mushrooms and oak leaf flavours, a journey through autumn aromas.”
– Quote from The Snail Caviar Company, London, UK
Though I don’t understand French, the lady’s expression in this video confirms it all.
Think about it, the snail eggs are slimy babies of slimy parents. Go ahead, say ew. My mom did. She has a morbid fear of land snails and slimy things. Of course, snail caviar is pasteurized and no longer slimy, just like the ampo snack is baked and no longer muddy. But somehow we instinctively slip out an “ew” or two upon hearing of some food we have not yet associated with food.
I’ve heard people say “ew” to food items many times, especially in America. Liver? Ew. Chicken gizzard? Ew. Bone marrow? Ew. Rabbit? Ew. Duck egg? Ew. Soy milk? Ew. Then I’ve heard sympathetic comments such as “I guess it’s good not to waste anything”. I’m afraid to disappoint you, but the point isn’t to waste or not to waste. Soup stock doesn’t taste good without the sweetness from the bones, unless you add MSG. Offals have unique textures and flavors irreplaceable by meat, just like cheese cannot be replaced by bread. How is soy milk gross when peanut butter is yummy? We eat mushroom, sometimes raw, without thinking about it as fungus, and yogurt without thinking about the bacterial fermentation, so why do we think about the slime when we are offered escargot?
The answer is simple: we are content with the taste we’ve grown up with, and believe that the other things must be gross. The first part is understandable, the latter is a huge mistake. Matthew Amster-Burton, author of Hungry Monkey, talks about his toddler daughter’s pickiness with food and how all children would say “ew” to food even before trying them, just because they’ve formed some preconception of that food in mind. Then one day the kids see their friends eat those things, and come home to question their parents about not feeding them those things earlier. Toddlers’ eating preferences are inexplicable, and we sometimes have reverted to the toddler stage when presented with new food.
So I’m not going to touch the subject of respecting cultures and whatnot, because we all (should) know how you make someone feel when you express disgust about their food to their face. But Everything deserves at least one try before you say ew, or, like a toddler I know who refused meatball when she had spaghetti, you’d miss out on some serious good eats.