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Here's a popular dessert I tried in Singapore — pineapple slices covered with fish paste. I let my gracious hosts finish it for me.

FABULOUS FIVE: What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten on the mission field?


Eat your vegetables. And trust me, those are vegetables … I think.

In 10-plus years of working for The Christian Chronicle, I’ve been blessed to visit more than 40 countries and see God working in far-flung regions of the globe.

I’ve also had a great number of international dining experiences. Some were mouth-watering. Some were so-so. And some were … interesting.

Following is a list of my top five culinary experiences while traveling abroad. Please feel free to share your own. What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten on the mission field?
 
1. Zimbabwe — barbecued warthog: After about a week of reporting from the Nhowe Mission Brian Lemons Memorial Hospital, I accompanied a mission team from the East Point Church of Christ in Wichita, Kan., for two days of sightseeing at scenic Victoria Falls, on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. If you’ve only seen the falls from the Zambia side, then you haven’t really seen it. Most of the majestic falls reside on the Zimbabwe side. You can bungee jump off a bridge in the international zone between the two countries, presumably so that neither nation can claim responsibility if you fall to your doom. I passed on the opportunity.

Pre-processed barbecued warthog (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

I didn’t pass up the buffet at The Boma Place of of Eating, a touristy restaurant that serves all sorts of unique cuisine. Among the water buffalo steaks and ostrich kebabs, I saw a sign that read “Barbecued warthog.” Being a fan of Tennessee pulled pork, I couldn’t resist. I don’t know what kind of sauce they used, but this pig was awesome — fall-off-the-bone succulence. I went back for thirds.
Emboldened by the experience, I scooped a bowl full of something called “Mopani worms” and dared my traveling buddies to dig in. I never will forget the look on a certain dentist’s face when his tongue hit the small, red, crunchy worm. Since I dared them, I had to partake as well, so I shoved the worm into the back of my mouth, chewed enthusiastically and swallowed.
When eating mopani worms, don’t take time to taste. Just chew and swallow. By no means savor.
Related story: Zimbabwe: Finding joy in a time of sorrow (A first-person piece I wrote about attending the funeral of a 12-year-old AIDS victim.)
 

My first reaction to durian (Photo by Dave Hogan)

2. Singapore — durian: You’ve probably heard about this notorious Southeast Asian fruit. It’s a favorite in the nation-state of Singapore, though its odor is so strong that it’s not allowed in many hotel lobbies or on some forms of public transportation. During a reporting trip to Singapore, missionary Dave Hogan found a roadside durian dealer so I could sample the fruit, just before I boarded a plane for Cambodia. The merchant split open the giant, spiny, green fruit, revealing the innards, which I can describe only as a giant insect larva. In fact, it was the edible part of the plant — a somewhat viscous, dark yellow goop wrapped around large, beige seeds.
Frankly, I think the one I got was kind of mild. I was bracing myself for a powerful hit of nastiness, but it wasn’t too bad — just a bit slimy. When I got to the Angkor of Faith conference in Cambodia, I asked some of the Southeast Asian Christians about the fruit. Some said they hated it. For others, it was ambrosia wrapped around giant seeds.
Related story: Singapore salvation, Life, death and rebirth in The Killing Fields
 
3. Brazil — giant, roadside churros: Brazil has — hands down — the best food of any country I’ve visited. Grilled steak, chicken, sausage, great salads, cheese bread and decadent pavês (“PAH-veys.”) And, of course, Guaraná Antarctica , the greatest soft drink known to mankind. Brazil has tons of “kilo places,” where you load up your plate with divine tastes and pay by weight.

A selection of produce at an open-air market in Vitoria, Brazil (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

I think my favorite dessert, though, came from a guy selling Mexican churros out of a roadside cart near a shopping mall in Niteroi, Brazil. I was on a short-term team working with a group of church-planters there. These churros were huge — the diameter of a Kennedy half-dollar. You picked your flavor and the guy would “inject” it into the churro, right in front of you. My wife, daughter and I got one with chocolate and one with dulce de leche. Divine de leche, more like.
And yes, we did eat at a genuine Brazilian churrascaria, or steakhouse, in Niteroi, where the waiters run at you with swords — swords full of delicious meat, that is. It was great, but my favorite churrascaria visit was a few years earlier in another South American nation — Guyana. I was on a mission team that traveled to the interior village of Paramakatoi and the city of Mabaruma before returning to the capital, Georgetown, for the trip home. After a week of eating military MRE’s, the trip to the Brazilian restaurant was pure joy on a skewer. Best sausage I’ve ever eaten.
Related stories: A tale of two church plants: In Brazil, native Christians and U.S. missionaries carry on a legacy of evangelism, Guyana revisited
 
4. Ethiopia — injera and yimser wot: Last year I was part of a mission team to South Sudan (actually, it was still part of Sudan at the time, but independence was just months away). We stayed at a hotel with no electricity or running water, but we did have room service.

A steaming plate of Ethiopian cuisine, including yimser wot. I think it’s the one in the middle. (Photo via wikimedia commons)

“You know this animal?” the hotel manager said as she planted a dead animal at our feet. She called it an “anyeri,” I think, and it looked like the head of a guinea pig on the body of a giant weasel. She said she would cook some for us. The next day, she showed up with steaming bowls of mashed root and anyeri meat, which looked like pot roast. I wasn’t brave enough to try it, so I went back to my packaged tuna. My teammates Jeremy Thompson and Mike Roman ate it, though, so maybe they’ll post something about the experience.
From Sudan, we flew to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, before returning to the U.S. One of the Ethiopian Christians, Bekele Gebru, drove us to a restaurant called “Face of Addis” on a hillside overlooking the city. We looked over Addis’ twinkling lights and could see planes land at the international airport as we dined on roasted goat meat and yimser wot, a spicy dish of split lentils. The waiters brought us plates full of what I at first thought were hot towels. It was, in fact, injera, a spongy, tangy bread made from a grain called teff. You tear off a piece, scoop up some yimser wot and enjoy. It’s incredibly good. We have a couple of Ethiopian restaurants here in the Oklahoma City area. I’m constantly on the lookout for new souls to acquaint with Ethiopia’s divine cuisine.
Related stories: The Gospel in South Sudan: In world’s newest nation, Africans plant churches, Signs of love: Churches of Christ in Ethiopia serve the hearing-impaired
 
5. Ukraine — banosh with bryndza and bacon: I’ve visited the Eastern European nation of Ukraine three times and found their food to be, well, disappointing. There’s a lot of bland soup and a lot of stuff cooked in dumplings. Starch city. It fills you up, but does little for your taste buds. (I did have a very good chicken dish at the home of a worker with Eastern European Mission in the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk.)

Helen Girshman, a Ukrainian Christian who translated for us during our trip, looks over the menu at a “stellar cellar” restaurant in Ivano-Frankivsk. I had a hard time getting a decent photo of the place. I was too busy eating. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

Then I visited the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk to see firsthand the work of Eastern European Mission, which has placed Bibles in all the public schools in the region there. Nickoli Plaksin, distribution manager for EEM, took us to a literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant, in the cellar of an ages-old building. The menu had a dish called “Derun ‘gladness of gipsy,'” so obviously I had to try it. It was a kind of cream of mushroom soup served on a warm potato pancake. Tastes much better than it sounds.
Nick insisted that we get an appetizer called “banosh with bryndza and bacon.” He described it as a kind of porridge made from corn and hominy, mixed with cheese and bacon, a signature dish of western Ukraine.
“That sounds like grits,” I joked. Then the dish arrived and I took a taste. Lo and behold, it was grits — homemade grits, bursting with cheesy goodness. I nearly teared up. A taste of my home state, thousands of miles away.
It makes sense, though. After all, Ukraine isn’t too far from a place called Georgia.
Related story: From Bible smugglers to suppliers: Eastern European Mission at 50
“Fabulous Five” is an occasional Christian Chronicle blog feature.
 
 

  • Feedback
    Hmm€ Brazil has the best food? You either haven’t been to Argentina or didn’t get to eat at the right places. When I was at a meat place in Brazil, the waiter told us one cut was the best: “It’s from Argentina,” he said. I just grinned at my Brazilian hosts.
    I’m glad to hear of your adventurous tastes. I encourage people who are going to travel to heed Paul’s advice: “Whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question.” (OK, maybe that’s slightly out of context.) My advice is: eat first, ask questions later.
    Tim Archer
    March, 8 2012

    Tim: Fair enough. I haven’t yet visited Argentina. I will say this, though. During the Pan American Lectureship last year in Costa Rica, a group of us from my home congregation tried to get into an Argentinian steakhouse, but it was jam-packed with patrons. So maybe you have a point.
    Erik Tryggestad
    March, 8 2012

    I ate an oyster once on a reporting trip to New Orleans. But generally, I stick with burgers and chicken. 🙂
    Bobby Ross Jr.
    March, 8 2012

    Mondongo … cow stomach soup. This is a delicacy in Honduras!
    Steven Dale White
    March, 8 2012

    On an academic exchange trip € chicken feet and pigeon head
    Marty Farrar Highfield
    March, 8 2012

    Steven: Do they serve mondongo at El Corral in Tegucigalpa?
    Erik Tryggestad
    March, 8 2012

    In Japan – <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natt%C5%8D” rel=”nofollow”>natto</a>!
    Ryan D
    March, 8 2012

    Grubs! In Wuhan China, circa 1995
    Mike Watters
    March, 8 2012

    Erik,
    Great article. On a survey trip with Stanley Shipp we had duck foot soup, fried guinea pig, and durian fruit. By far the durian fruit is the worst thing that has ever crossed my lips. Bring on the mondongo, but forget the durian!
    Brad Cox
    March, 8 2012

    I understand that was a good year for grubs, Mike.
    Erik Tryggestad
    March, 8 2012

    Big fat beef tongue at camp in Lithuania
    Danny D
    March, 8 2012

    Very interesting!! I would love to try some of these “delicacies!” But desert and dessert are two different things…..
    Shelley
    March, 8 2012

    I ate sheep’s brain in Albania….one of the highest honors they can pay someone, so I made sure I cleaned my plate. 🙂 Also, head cheese/aspic in Russia…didn’t care for that gelatinous specialty at all.
    Pam Richards
    March, 8 2012

    Shelley: Grrrr … I can’t keep my deserts (dry, sandy wastelands) separate from my desserts (sweet, after-meal treats). I fixed the post. Thanks.
    Erik Tryggestad
    March, 8 2012

    Baked Carp…a traditional Christmas dinner in Slovakia!
    Craig Prince
    March, 8 2012

    You’re welcome, Erik. Sorry, but that’s the former English teacher (and proofreader) in me. And Craig, isn’t carp just a big goldfish??? YUK!!!
    Shelley
    March, 8 2012

    Let’s see…
    1. Pigeon in Philipines.
    2. Beaver in Canada
    3. Horse in Canada
    4. Bannock and Lard, and bannock with spam and strawberry jam, in Canada. (Bannock is a biscuit-like heavy bread, common among the First Nations people) Bannock with Spam &amp; Jam is one of my personal favorites.
    5. Sala (pig fat) in Ukraine.
    6. Nutria in Ukraine
    7. Fish Holodits (A gelled dish, made by boiling fish or meat, and then refrigerating… think tomato aspic, but grey and fishy) in Ukraine
    8. Fresh caviar in Ukriane. Loved it!!!
    9. Durian, but not on a mission trip… in USA
    LOVE Ethiopian food!
    Ralph Williams
    March, 8 2012

    The head of a fish in Fiji and Sheep Eyeballs in the middle east.
    Jeff White
    March, 8 2012

    Korean live octopus;
    Korean makolee;
    Korean fermented azalea root juice as cold medicine;
    Chinese sea slugs;
    Chinese malti;
    Kazakh’s ceremonial carving up by the guest &amp; eating the sheep head;
    Kazakhstan &amp; Mongolian fermented mare’s milk;
    Ulgur horse blood pudding;
    Saharan roasted locusts;
    African amarula juice;
    Japanese natto (rotten soybeans);
    Tennessee chitlins &amp; Rocky Mountain Oysters;
    Texas rattle snake
    Dave Goolsby
    March, 8 2012

    Along with Pam, I was given the honor of dining over a lamb’s head in Albania as a guest of Orthodox friends; the tongue seemed to be the preferred delicacy. However, the father of another Albanian family had a hobby of searching for tortises in the forests and then serving them for dinner. The little meat balls were tasty, the soup great, the little round eggs unique, &amp; the livers tasted like—liver. My Albanian students were as surprised about such a meal as I was.
    Art Hitt
    March, 9 2012

    I LOVE durian!! Many Asians are very surprised that I love it &amp; tell me I am totally Asian 😉 I had some amazing durian in Singapore last summer!!
    I have eaten scorpion in China, emu in Australia &amp; pig’s tail last night in Malaysia. I am sure I have had other strange things…but I have gotten used to some of it now 😉 I love trying new things-that is all part of the adventure!!
    Katherine
    March, 9 2012

    It isn’t exotic, it is plenteous here in the states. But I learned in 2009 to love <i>buttermilk</i> while working in Summer camps in Ukraine! I hated the stuff as a kid and adult. But, I felt it important to eat what my hosts served and after three weeks, I discovered I had developed quite the taste for it! (Much to the chagrin of my wife and kids).
    And Eric, you’re right, Ukraine is not the place to go if you want to lower your cholesterol count! But now, I will say in Ivano-Frankivsk I had a wonderful cheese soup with bacon and apple slices cut into it. It sounds weird, but it was quite delicious! (And Nick Plaksin makes some incredible omelets!)
    Darryl Willis
    March, 9 2012

    Erik,
    I made this mistake for years until someone told me: desserts spelled backwards is “stressed”. If I don’t get my desserts, I feel stressed.
    molly dawidow
    March, 9 2012

    Oh – we were in Romania making a relief delivery and this poor lady brought us some cake that she must have been saving forever. It was totally infested with ants. We looked at my husband Mike – our fearless leader – who was wolfing it down and he said out of the corner of his mouth, “EAT IT!” I had some on my fork and two ants were making their way up either side of the fork and up my arm. As I pinched them off and flicked them under the table, several of their comrades came looking for them. Mike was eating it so heartily that the dear lady packed up the left overs and sent them off with us
    molly dawidow
    March, 9 2012

    Best food in a true mission field? Harold’s Barbecue in Abilene, TX. (Okay, I’ll be getting me hat and coat and leaving now…) 😉
    Paul Smith
    March, 9 2012

    Oh and I have to agree: Banosh is <i>wonderful</i>! I will point out that in Ukraine two years ago in one week I ate at a Chinese restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a Mexican restaurant (<i>Tequila Boom</i> serves the best <i>chimichangas</i> ever), and an English establishment. I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever get any Ukraine cuisine!
    Darryl Willis
    March, 9 2012

    After working 12 years (off and on) in a city near Russian border, east of Donetsk, Ukraine, I am surprised you did not try the pickled fish. It was a small, minnow fish pickled whole in vodka. When served in the home of those you are trying to teach about Christ, you eat first and ask questions later.
    The same happened when we were enticed to eat some tomatoes. My wife and did not know they had also been pickled in vodka. My wife refused the fish but ate the tomatoes. We had a big laugh while walking two miles back to our flat.
    LLOYD OVERBY
    March, 9 2012

    Similar ant experience – only they were in a glass of milk in the home of a Honduran family in Tegucigalpa. You have to eat what you are offered so not as to offend your hosts, so I drank every drop.
    Renee Crawford
    March, 9 2012

    When I was teaching in Pasto, Colombia, near the border with Ecuador the local minister and his family wanted to take me sightseeing. We had two options: go to a lagoon that was absolutely beautiful but notorious for being under the control of the FARC or go to a famous restaurant that served roasted guinea pigs. Since I didn’t feel like getting kidnapped, I choose “cuy.” But I chickened out once I got to the restaurant! 😛 They roasted the whole guinea pig and then put it on the plate, all of it . . . absolutely all of it! The worst part is, you could go to the back and pick which cuy you wanted! It might not have been so bad if I had not had a few as pets when I was little! I had fried chicken instead! Bad missionary!
    Jonathan H
    March, 9 2012

    Fried termites (1 inch long size), sucking out the periwinkle in egusi soup, and chicken feet in Nigeria; impala in Swaziland.
    Roger Kondrup
    March, 9 2012

    I really enjoyed what all of you have had to say about your eating experiences. I have only been to two missions fields–Guyana and Ghana. I have worked in the bush of the Brong Ahafo Region of Ghana, West Africa for 17 years. If I ate most of the things offered me by the wonderful people of this region, I wouldn’t be working, for I would be squatted over hole in the ground with a group of kids looking on, or hopefully in a room with a toilet.
    joe connell
    March, 9 2012

    Had five bowls of hot pepper soup with stomach in it. Don’t know if it was cow, sheep or goat. I finished my bowl and every time I finished either my wife or one of my three kids would trade the empty one for theirs. It was pretty good but my mouth was on fire. This was in Nigeria where I, like Roger, also tried the termites and sucked the periwinkle snails out of their shells in Egusi soup. I am also an honored member of the Python club of NCBC where, to enter you must eat some cooked over an open fire Python. It was tough and had too many bones. Here in Honduras I’ve had a dish of Mondongo (cow stomach) but prefer cow tongue. The worst thing I’ve ever tasted – chitlins from my home state of Alabama.
    Lowell White
    March, 14 2012

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