I’ve dealt with some weird foods throughout the history of this blog. Finding and trying weird foods is a hobby of mine – in a new restaurant, I look for the oddest thing on the menu and order it. Sometimes the chef pokes his head out of the kitchen to look at me. On a recent trip through the astoundingly beautiful New Zealand, I found two more that I would like to share with you, one because it is good, and the other strictly for the horror-and-disgust factor. Consider yourself warned.
New Zealanders like whitebait, the immature fry of fish of many species. Every year, in a very limited and strictly enforced season, Kiwis compete for the chance to stand in a river with a net, scooping up shoals of the things as they migrate, rather like we do here in the Pacific Northwest when the salmon are running (except, of course, for a notable size difference in the prey. Whitebait are an inch or two long, and salmon a big enough to dent a car). The classic preparation of whitebait is fried in a “patty” (which is traditionally just a pure egg batter, like an omelet), which is then sometimes placed between two slices of bread. The end result is a fatty, greasy, protein-heavy snack full of tiny little fish, complete with head and guts and little eyes that stare at you as you raise them to your mouth. You can also eat them in more elegant preparations, such as sautéed in white wine, if you’re a tourist. I’d known about the Kiwi craze for whitebait since my young days reading Footrot Flats, so it was a given that I would sample them as soon as I could on my first trip to New Zealand.
First taste of whitebait: “Huh. Okay. It’s just tiny fish.” Second taste: “Okay. They’re not bad.” Third: “Are there any more?” That’s the mark of a true delicacy – initial uncertainty, followed by lifelong devotion. This is absolutely my favourite kind of food.
That was the good one.
Annnnnnd speaking of delicacies, here’s one I absolutely did not expect to see on a menu, ever: muttonbird, a.k.a. sooty shearwater. If you’ve never seen a shearwater, think of a dark brown seagull, which is essentially what they are. Now seagulls flock in great numbers to the rooftops around my apartment building, and sometimes, after being woken once again by their furious arguments at four in the morning, it has occurred to me to wonder how they would taste, had I a rifle handy. I always came to the conclusion that, were seagulls any good to eat, people would already be eating them, as with pigeons and squirrels in other cuisines. But now at last I had a chance to find out!
Muttonbirds are another species with a very limited and strictly enforced hunting season. In this case the strictures go further: muttonbird, or “titi” in the local language, can only be harvested by the Rakiura Maori people and their descendants, and as such is a key part of Southern Maori culture and heritage. How could I pass up a chance at this beast when I saw it on the menu of a fish and chip cart!
Here’s my advice to you: should you ever find yourself in Southern New Zealand, and you see muttonbird on the menu of a fish and chip cart, pass up the chance at it.
I pride myself on having an experienced and daring palate, but over the years I have found two foods I absolutely do not like: raw sea urchin, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Muttonbird is exactly like a cross between these two foods. It’s an incredibly fatty and greasy bird that tastes like a tidepool smells. Now when I put it like that it sounds it might be alright, and as these “culture and heritage” meals sometimes tend to be, it must have been better than slow starvation. But I sadly cannot recommend it.
To be fair, deep fried muttonbird from a fish and chip cart may not be the best preparation. A Kiwi friend of mine provided the following recipe from the enigmatic “Maori Cookbook.” (I say enigmatic because this rare paperback, which you can still find on Amazon for $188, contains no author, date or printing info, making it hard for me to credit.)
To Cook Mutton Birds:
Remove the feathers of the mutton bird (if any). The mutton bird may be treated in the same way as wild duck, i.e. roasted with a savoury stuffing of breadcrumbs, or, for a change, apples and onions. Bake for 1 hour. Alternatively, boil it briefly and pour off the water. It is really a matter of taste. If you don’t like the bird’s salty taste, boil it again, or rather simmer it until softish and then grill the bird until brown and sizzling. Garnish with a white sauce made with white wine. Pour it into the sauce as many Stewart Island oysters as it can comfortably accommodate.
That doesn’t sound so bad.
On the subject of this trip to visit the family Downunder, I must include a couple of pictures here from the Mecca of the produce world, Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne. If it’s not at the Queen Vic, it’s not edible (you can’t get muttonbird, for example).
And just to finish with a recipe, here’s a salad my mother makes.
Quinoa, herb and pomegranate salad
½ vegetable stock cube
75g pine nuts
A small handful chopped mint
A small handful chopped coriander
1 lime, juiced
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Cook the quinoa according to pack instructions and add the vegetable stock cube to the cooking water.
Leave to cool, then break up with a fork.
Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan until like golden.
Mix the pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, herbs, lime juice and olive oil through the quinoa.