Ranjani is an adventure junkie who set out on her (as she calls it) “Great South America and the rest of the world” adventure in November 2013. After reading about her travels on her blog, I feel like throwing everything down and buy a plane ticket to Latin America.
Text by Ranjani Rajandran
Edited by: Desirae Tan
In Singapore, we may be used to eating pig intestines (think delicious kway chap) and fish head curry, but some of the foods on this list may make you think twice before saying Singapore has weird cuisine!
1. Cuy (Guinea Pig) – Peru, Ecuador
What most of us would consider a fluffy household pet, Peruvians are fond of roasting, grilling and preparing in a stew. The guinea pig, also known as cuy, is a local delicacy in Peru and in some parts of Ecuador. Being a rather small animal, a single serving of cuy is usually a whole guinea pig, head and toes included. Guinea pig meat is surprisingly tasty, and does not taste like chicken, beef or pork, having only a distinctly guinea pig flavor. More tender than other game meats, there is precious little meat that only fingers do a good enough job of picking away from the bones. Rest assured, if you have a Peruvian friend, he won’t be frying up your pet guinea pig for lunch while you’re out – guinea pigs in Peru are a slightly different breed and are bred especially for consumption.
If I had been in Singapore on my 25th birthday, I would have gone out for a luxurious meal with my family. As it was, I was in Arequipa, Peru instead of being surrounded by my family, but I still decided to treat myself, by trying some cuy! A very good Peruvian friend of mine treated me to lunch at a local picanteria, a traditional restaurant, and we both enjoyed the delicious lunch of guinea pig, rounded off with a nice jar of chichi morada, a fermented corn drink!
2. Piranha – Peru, Brazil
Freshly Fished Piranha and Piranha soup
These ferocious critters that only appear in the average Joe’s nightmares about being eaten alive in the Amazon river appear with relative frequency on dinner menus in Peru, Brazil and other parts of South America. Piranhas are not very fleshy, but their white meat is firm, juicy and flavorful. Fried, grilled over an open flame, or simmered to perfection in a clear soup, piranhas are a delectable fish that makes you wish we had more of them around Singapore. Or maybe not.
I had to work very hard to get my taste of piranha – I was on a 5 day tour of the Amazon Rainforest, and my guide had declared that I would be fishing for my lunch. We sat in our little canoe in a quiet section of one of the tributaries of the Amazon river, and got to fishing. Within five minutes, my guide had caught a small piranha, but I had no luck. Piranhas are incredibly difficult to catch! They are sneaky little fish that swim very fast, so they are very good at picking the bait off the hook and swimming away before you can catch them. I lost about half my bait before I finally managed to land my first piranha!
3. Caiman – Brazil, Bolivia
The lesser known relative of alligators and crocodiles, the caiman is an animal that regularly finds its way to the dinner table in the northern parts of South America. Preparation style varies across the region, with grilled or fried caiman being quite popular in Brazil, while Bolivians prefer their caiman in mildly spicy stew. Whichever way it is prepared, caiman meat is delicious. The meat has the texture of a meaty fish (think: shark, or stingray) but tastes like very flavourful chicken, with a good amount of fat to boot. Definitely a must-try for lovers of fish and chicken!
Initially, I wanted to try caiman in the Pantanal region of Brazil, an area quite commonly known for serving caiman at its restaurants. However, when I was searching for it in a town called Bonito, I was repeatedly told that there was a caiman shortage! Apparently, the caiman had migrated to a different region because of the dry season and the restaurants had not received their regular supply of caiman! Thankfully, caiman was still available in Bolivia and I got to try it there!
Spicy Caiman Stew, Fried Caiman
4. Beetle Larvae – Peru
Raw Beetle Larvae
The stuff Fear Factor contestants dread is a real delicacy and oftentimes a mid-afternoon snack for the locals living in the Loreto region of Peru, close to the Amazon rainforest. A variety of beetle larvae can be found, both cooked and raw, depending on your preferences (and how lost in the rainforest you may be). Beetle larvae is also incredibly good for your diet – just 6 beetle larvae has the same amount of protein as a sizeable beef steak, and almost none of the fat. Eating beetle larvae is not for the faint of heart though – biting into one causes an explosion of juices in your mouth, while the skin of the beetle slightly leathery and requites some amount of chewing to get through. Despite the rather squeamish experience of eating them, beetle larvae tastes remarkably like nuts. As Simba from The Lion King would say, “Slimy…but satisfying.” Hakuna matata!
My first experience trying bugs was quite an interesting one! I was in the Amazon rainforest, on a guided tour. We were walking through the forest and our guide was pointing out some interesting plants when he suddenly stopped and picked up what looked like a rotten fruit and chopped it open with his machete. To our surprise, there was a tiny white bug inside, and our guide picked it out and ate it quite happily! He offered everyone a chance to taste it, and although I tried it as an once-in-a-lifetime experience, I don’t think I want to eat any more beetle larvae, ever!
Cooked Beetle Larvae
Beetle Larvae Emerging
5. Termites – Peru
These tiny animals aren’t just good for making holes in your wooden furniture, they are also quite the tasty snack. The Amazon rainforest is home to over 40 species of termites. Although not all of them may be edible (do check with your local guide!), the ones that are, are delicious! Because of their diet of tree bark, termites have a nice spice to them and taste exactly like cinnamon. Perhaps the next time you’re making cinnamon rolls and run out of cinnamon, termites could be a good substitute!
I actually have a huge dislike (it used to be a phobia) of ants and termites, so this was quite a terrifying experience for me. As a kid, I was playing by some trees and accidentally stepped on a nest of red ants which promptly bit my legs quite thoroughly. I suffered a very painful allergic reaction, and since then have been extremely afraid of ants and termites, by association. Although I initially didn’t want to try these termites, in the end I was coaxed into it by my guide and I am glad I managed to overcome my fear of termites (by eating them)!
Termites (Lick to Eat)
6. Bull Testicles – Peru
It is a commonly accepted fact that beef is delicious, but what about…the other parts of the cow? Its testicles for instance? In Peru, bull testicles are a traditional delicacy that is popular especially amongst the more elderly. Preparation is simple, with the testicles being boiled and sliced up, before being served along with onions, beans and tomatoes. The testicles themselves do not have a very distinct taste, but their rubbery, rather chewy texture is not particularly pleasant. It’s not very surprising that this dish is not gaining fans as the years go by.
I was sort of conned into eating these bull testicles, as my Peruvian friend (who knows about my desire to try weird food) brought me to this restaurant and ordered this dish for me, in Spanish. The waiter was rather surprised that my friend had ordered this dish for me, but brought me the dish anyway. I took a few bites, and although I didn’t like it very much, I continued eating. When I was done, my friend called out the waiter to explain what I had eaten and I must have looked quite horrified and/or disgusted because he (and the rest of the restaurant) burst out laughing. It must have been the highlight of their day – silly Singaporean girl eating bull testicles without realizing it!
Bull Testicle Salad