Regional cuisine: Best of times, wurst of times
Living overseas during two military tours of duty in Europe provided our family with unique opportunities to learn about various cultures firsthand. We didn’t have to imagine what it would be like to be European, we simply lived it. Although some Americans shy away from sampling local foods, regional cuisine was an integral part of our overseas adventure.
Some will leave their flavor comfort zone only for safe regional dishes such as Italian pizza margherita, French crepes filled with Nutella, chocolate-drizzled Belgian waffles, Spanish churros and German deep-fried schnitzel. Also, the pervasiveness of McDonald’s provides a safe haven for those whose taste buds are even less daring.
Our family certainly ducked into many McDonald’s bathrooms during our time overseas, but my husband and I always encouraged (forced) our kids to taste the foods of the Old World. This philosophy was not without its drawbacks, however, and we now have a host of interesting (nauseating) tales to tell from our experiences.
While living in the base hotel awaiting housing in Stuttgart back in 2008, my meat-loving husband ordered the “wurst salat” for dinner at a nearby restaurant. Envisioning a chef salad with tasty sausage pieces over fresh mixed greens, what he got was devoid of vegetables, unless you count the copious sliced raw onions, which were tossed with cold julienned mystery meat that looked similar to baloney.
The following spring off the coast of Spain’s Costa Brava, I ordered fresh fish at a restaurant overlooking the azure blue Mediterranean Sea. As the waiter set the dish before me, I could almost hear Billy the Big Mouth Bass singing “Take Me to the River” as the creature stared at me from the plate — eyeballs, teeth, slippery skin and all.
On fall trip to Berchtesgaden, one of our guests ordered the “Leberknodelsuppe” because it was so fun to say. We all giggled and repeated the tongue-twisting word until a bowl of the stuff was presented to the table. A grayish-brown dumpling sat in a hot broth bath, and although the color looked a bit off, we kept an open mind. Cutting into the doughy ball, its uniquely pungent aroma clued us in on what should have been obvious from the start — “leber” is liver, and this little dumpling was full of that particularly bloody organ meat.
No matter how touristy, one cannot escape getting caught up in the festive atmosphere at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, and part of the experience is ordering a hefty liter of beer and a heaping helping of hearty Bavarian food. Swinging my stein to and fro, I thought nothing of ordering “Schweinshaxe,” a local specialty. Not realizing I had selected a roasted pig’s knuckle, I had to put forth significant effort to extract the tiny, albeit delicious, morsels of pork that were tangled among cartilage, skin and bone.
On a day trip to Strasbourg, France, our family stopped at an outdoor restaurant on a lovely cobblestone square. Interested in the mix of German and French cultures, I ordered “Surkrut Royale,” an Alsatian sauerkraut dish. Twenty minutes later, I was presented with a steaming heap of sauerkraut, with at least seven different varieties of pork, potatoes, onions and dumplings nested among its pickled strands. Wursts and slices of pork loin were among the few meats I could recognize, but the rest were unidentifiable slabs intertwined with fat and sinew. Despite my initial squeamishness over the gelatinous hunks of greasy flesh, the scent of bacon and white wine gave me the courage to give it a try, and as long as my eyes were closed, I found it to be quite a delectable treat.
The list goes on, and despite the queasiness that sprang forth when we recalled these culinary tales to our friends, we kept trying. Whether it was Belgian-style mussels in creamy beer broth, spicy Croatian cevapi, Roman-Jewish carciofi alla giudia, or hearty Portuguese sopas, every delicious regional dish we stumbled upon made it worth every fish head, hunk of fat and organ meat that made its way to our table.
So, Buen Provecho, Smacznego, and Bon Appetit! But don’t forget to pack the Alka Seltzer, just in case.