Regular readers of this blog will know two things. First, thanks to recent political events that make no fucking sense whatsoever, I have decided to get back to writing about slightly more benign, travel-related subjects.
And second, when it comes to travel, I like food. In particular, I love it when I get to experience weird and whacky edibles. Nothing is off limits to my stomach, thus explaining prior blog posts dealing with oddities such as crispy tarantulas and flash-fried seahorse (China), conch salad (Bahamas) or puffin burgers and rotted fermented shark (Iceland).
But here’s the thing: weird food encounters usually involve travelling well off the beaten path. That is, in order to eat like Andrew Zimmern, I normally need to spend long hours on planes, trains and buses, to get to those faraway places where they consume stuff like batter-fried cow anus rings (a real thing I had in China once. I swear).
How ironic then that possibly the most extraordinary bizarre food experience of my life happened not in Mongolia or some backwater of Burundi, but in central London. On a quiet street, five minutes’ walk from Goodge Street tube station. In the heart of a city that until not so long ago was known as the capital of the most boring, bland cuisine on the planet.
Some context: I was in London on a whistle-stop visit, for a grand total of 36 hours, to attend to some work meetings. I had an evening free, and an old friend invited me to dinner, at a Restaurant called Archipelago. The email invitation included the following sign-off: “I promise you, it’ll be something different”.
Given the name of the restaurant, I guess my expectation was of a place that would serve up some mildly spicy, faintly exotic ‘pan-Asian’ fare. An expectation reinforced on my arrival, the restaurant’s décor being an eclectic mishmash of Asian, African and Colonial influences. Think old globes, wooden carvings, Buddha statues, peacock feathers, palm leaf print wallpaper, and dim lighting.
This was further reinforced by the written blurb at the top of the menu, which said: “At Archipelago Restaurant we seek out the finest culinary influences from around the world and fuse them, bringing together the exotic, the exciting and the unexpected right here in the center of London.”
But then I read on, and I got the first hint of what I was in for. “Until now, many of our globally inspired ingredients have remained undiscovered by the Western European palate … We take pride in our exotic ingredients”.
And after I had perused the rest of the menu – once, twice and then a third time – I leaned back and sighed with delight. Immediately I knew that I wanted to try everything on offer. This was indeed going to be ‘interesting’.
So for the record, here is what I ate that night (and a few of the things that didn’t find their way into my belly. Sadly, tough choices had to be made so I didn’t look like a complete pig …..).
Warning for vegetarian or squeamish readers, you should stop now.
Crispy zebra jerky and biltong soil – this opening salvo was a nod of sorts to my South African upbringing, so I really couldn’t say no. Super meaty flavors, with the biltong soil reminding me of the scraps I used to dig out from the bottom of a paper bag of biltong I’d buy on my walk home from primary school in Johannesburg. Exotic fare perhaps for Londoners, but as an opener goes this one was actually pretty tame.
Crocodile wrapped in vine leaves – now we were talking. Basically a crocodile spring roll with dipping sauces, that was sweet and tart, moist and crunchy, all at the same time. First time I’ve ever had croc, and what can I say: it tasted like chicken…..
Pan fried chermoula crickets, quinoa and Asian leaves – chermoula is a Moroccan spice marinade I grew up on, so I was tempted. But I hate bok choy, so in the end we skipped this one (I know, I know, it sounds odd that of all the things in this dish to object to, it was the Asian leaves that got me, but still). That said, the folks at the table alongside ours had ordered this dish, and it did look truly weird – like French fries with legs. It was all I could do to hold back from reaching over and picking one of the crickets off of their plate.
Sweet-chili smoked python carpaccio – of all of the things I wish I had ordered but didn’t, this is the one. I mean seriously, I am still kicking myself that I passed up on the chance to eat thin slices of barely cooked snake. An excuse to go back there one day, I guess.
Zhug marinated Kangaroo fillets – I’m an Aussie, so this one was kind of blah – nothing at all exotic about eating ‘roo. That said, kangaroo meat is lean and tasty, and packed full of goodness. And this one was really well spiced and cooked, and altogether rather delicious.
Ostrich steak – yet another subtle nod to my South African upbringing, and another really flavorful dish, sitting somewhere on the spectrum between red meat and the brown bits of a turkey. Although like with kangaroo, ostrich is well outside of the range of things I’d consider strange to eat.
Jerked alpaca – safely back into weird food territory, although it felt like it would be kind of wrong to be chowing down on these Andean cuties. Although, as my dinner companion pointed out, if we were prepared to eat Skippy the kangaroo and his ostrich friend, why on earth would munching on some roast alpaca be any different? I didn’t have a ready answer to that one, I confess.
Love-bug salad –my favorite thing of the whole night was this unassuming little side dish. It consisted of a wooden board, on which was placed a mound of mixed leaves, tossed in a simple vinaigrette dressing. And alongside the greenery another little mound, of assorted worms and insects. They were crunchy from having been fried, and tangy from being lightly coated in a tamarind-based marinade. Bug croutons for the salad, if you will, and I for one couldn’t get enough of them.
Brown butter ice cream, honey & baby bee – if you’re going to eat honey, may as well go straight to the source, right? But in the end a bit of a let-down, because the star attraction of this dish – bee – was a single insect, stinger removed, that had been cooked down into a flavorless black nugget, and buried in a pile of sickly sweet syrup. Apart from knowing I was eating bee, it was totally indistinguishable from eating anything else. The buttery ice-cream was pretty damn good though.
Caramel mealworms, coconut cream and vodka jelly – nothing more to say on this one – real blow your mind out stuff. Worms and caramel – who knew?
Chocolate covered critters – choc-dipped locusts are a regular feature on the menu at Archipelago. Although our waitress told us that they also had chocolate covered scorpion available as a special. She made sure to tell us that it was only a little scorpion, and not at all poisonous. Still, by this stage I’d had my fill of food oddities for the night. Another one to leave until the next time, I thought…
So that was my crazy dining experience in London, chowing my way through a global menagerie: zebra, crocodile, bugs and bees.
Although it wasn’t just novelty cuisine– the flavors were great, and the cooking was really, really solid. If I hadn’t been told I was eating weird shit, I wouldn’t have known the difference from stuff I’d order on a more conventional menu.
And which, I think, was the whole point of it. The folks at Archipelago were quick to note that their aim was not to shock, but rather to broaden the culinary horizon of their guests. Our Anglo-Saxon inspired beef and chicken centered diet means we may not normally eat alpaca or locusts as a source of protein (both of these being also lean, low-calorie, and low-cholesterol, apparently). But plenty of other people around the world do, and there is nothing at all weird about that.
The moral of the story: don’t be a food snob. Just because something seems strange to our Western palates doesn’t mean it can’t be nutritious, and tasty.
All up, Archipelago was a one-of-a-kind dining experience. And if like me you’d relish the chance to try python or scorpion, cooked real well, this one is definitely worth adding to your London bucket-list.