I’m no gourmet.
I don’t have a particularly daring palate.
I grew up on a bland Celtic diet of minced meat and potatoes. And while I’ve since been around, gastronomically speaking — foie gras in Paris, Chianti in Chianti, caviar in Russia — my favourite food memory remains the sandwich — chunky cheddar cheese on white bread — my mom made me in high school.
Still, as Summerlicious rolls around again, I can’t help but ask: How much seared yellow fin tuna can a Toronto foodie eat?
Sure, the city’s annual culinary celebration, which launched its third season yesterday, offers diners on a budget the opportunity to sample the likes of North 44 and Canoe.
But your $35 prix-fixe will end, more often than not, in some buttoned-down variation of poisson or poultry.
Where’s the sense of adventure? Surely there’s more to the city than another square plate of panko-crusted chicken — a whole spectrum of blood, guts and innards, tongues, feet and hearts. I’m determined to find it and (gulp) try it.
Gastro challenge or Fear Factor?
Depends on your point of view.
Dish 1: dom balan
When I tell my husband we’re having testicles for dinner, he blanches and says he has a headache.
So I arrive alone at Banu, where the owners of the hip Queen West Persian restaurant, three siblings, want to ease me into my first sampling of dom balan — lamb’s testicles, marinated and grilled.
They feed me an appetizer of yoghurt sprinkled with rose petals, and then a shot of vodka — not to numb the pain but because this is the traditional way to eat “the little jewels,” according to co-owner Salome Mohyeddin.
But I’m not too drunk to notice how perky they look — spherical but also quirkily irregular.
Ms. Mohyeddin brings them to me on a platter, cut from the scrotum but still hot, and sprinkled with sea salt by her chef-brother, Amir.
I pick up a fork and plunge into the caramel-coloured mounds quivering before me. I inhale. It has the aroma of surf and sea and a Mediterranean tang. I spritz some lemon and gobble some more. Mmmm. Good! Tastes like sweetbreads. If you like sweetbreads, that is, and I do.
I’m pumped by the excitement. I want to challenge Ms. Mohyeddin to an arm wrestle. But she subdues me by telling me that testicles are for a refined palate.
Dish 2: kokorec
I mentioned kokorec to the mother of one of my son’s school friends and her eyes lit up — it’s the one food that reminds her of home. But her brow furrowed as she recalled the flap this Turkish delight raised overseas.
“The EU won’t let Turkey in unless we ban it,” she said. “And I think not. No one will give up kokorec. It’s part of our national identity.”
Indeed, there was talk a few years ago that Turkey’s application for membership in the European Union would be hamstrung by its most treasured street meal: crusty bread filled with ground-up sheep innards — stomach lining, intestines, colon, the whole thing. On the heels of mad-cow scares, some questioned the safety of the sandwich’s ingredients. Turks countered with accusations that frog legs and snails are dirtier by far. Ah, the politics of cooking.
The issue has since settled down, but I want to see for myself what all the fuss was about.
Luckily for me, Champions, which opened nine months ago on the Danforth near Donlands Avenue, has made the dish its mainstay. The restaurant is a franchise of the Sampiyon, the most famous kokorec establishment in Istanbul. In other words, this is the real deal.
After quaffing some fermented red carrot juice, I take my first bite of the sandwich. The meat is spicy, prepared with chopped tomatoes and red hot peppers and cooked on a large griddle with liberal dashes of oregano. I’ve died and gone to Mount Ararat.
The EU can keep its food critics: Champions is hereby granted full membership in Toronto’s culinary union. And there’s mutton you can do about it.
Dish 3: balut
The first bite into the yolk isn’t so bad.
But then I see it.
The little head with the little eyes, closed as if in prayer, the barely shaped wings crossed angelically across its chest.
There is little left to do but bite off its face.
My search for balut — an 18-day-old duck embryo served as a boiled egg — has led me straight to Mayette Morillo, chef-owner of Mayette’s Fine Foods at Danforth and Pharmacy. She’s Toronto’s doyenne of Filipino cuisine; her clients include the consul-general of the Philippines.
When she hears what I want to eat, she shrieks.
“I don’t eat that. Awful. I’ll make you something more appetizing.”
But I press on. I mean, what’s a little half-baked chick?
Ms. Morillo sends her sister, Rose Cruz, to the table to walk me through it. Ms. Cruz first tells me the baby duck’s story. That the egg was likely plucked from a nest just on the eve of reaching maturity and buried first in sand to stunt its development . That it was boiled, for at least 45 minutes, to ensure freshness. That in the Philippines, it’s prized like caviar.
Ms. Cruz gingerly peels back the egg shell before slurping back the tea-coloured embryonic fluid, which she swears tastes exactly like chicken soup. (True.)
My knees are shaking beneath the table. “It will make you more beautiful, more sexy,” Ms. Cruz says with a wink.
“Makes you horny,” chimes in Ms. Morillo, underscoring balut’s reputation as an aphrodisiac.
“So you won’t be discouraged to eat it,” suggests Ms. Cruz, offering me a rope of moral support. “Don’t look at it.”
Crunch, munch, spit, spat. “Is that down between your teeth or are you just glad to eat me?”
I cough and realize my grimace has just been caught on camera. Ms. Morillo and her husband and brother-in-law are all snapping photos of me to send to the folks back home.
At least balut comes with its own built-in toothpick. The tiny talons cleanse the mouth before clawing the throat.
Dish 4: duck tongues
I can’t get away from the quackers.
Chef Susur Lee recommended Taste of China on Spadina Avenue, which, he says, serves some of the best Chinese food in town. He calls in advance to order for me. Most of the dishes, I am later told, won’t be found on the menu — they’re available only by request.
I wade through seven dishes, from breaded eel (a lot like Cajun-style chicken nuggets) to fish stomach in a soup in which also float fish roe, bean curd and an unusual underwater animal euphemistically called sea cucumber.
But back to the tongues. Small and pecan-coloured, they’re served cold as an appetizer accompanied by shaved jellyfish and de-boned duck feet. I think of Daffy Duck and his lisp.
I pick up a set of chopsticks. Down one slithers. I’m intrigued.
This is food as a philosophical conundrum.
Am I tasting it or is it tasting me?
Yes, Virginia, there are bones in a duck’s tongue. But at Taste of China, chef-owner Ping Cham Yeung says, they have been meticulously sliced away for a dish that’s smooth, soft, slippery and slightly gelatinous — a taste sensation not unlike that of cold rice noodles. Lightly seasoned with sesame oil, it is global gastronomy at its finest.
I can’t think of what else to say because, for once, I am tongue-tied.
Dish 5: black pudding
All this wandering through other people’s cuisines has made me nostalgic for my own comfort food.
Some call it blood sausage, some call it black pudding — your choice of words is dependent on how hoity-toity, as my Irish grandmother would say, you are.
Me, I say black pudding, and growing up, I ate it regularly for breakfast. I guess I thought most everyone did.
I admit I haven’t eaten it much of late, and when I go looking for it, it is hard to find. I eventually find it at the Irish Embassy Pub and Grill on Yonge Street. There I am shocked to learn that the reason it is so scarce these days is because many actually consider this bit of offal to be truly awful. For me, it is as benign as beans on toast.
Rory Kowdrysh, the pub’s co-owner, tells me that when he serves black pudding as part of his $12 hungry-man-sized Irish breakfast at weekend brunch, it is usually left untouched.
“It’s the one thing people are hesitant to eat,” he says. “They hear the words, pig blood, and that’s it. They’re turned off. Some can’t even bear to look at it.”
But ’tis so harmless. Pretty, even.
There, on the plate before me, settled comfortably on a bed of greens, are several half-moon slices of ebonized joy.
The texture is rich and velvety. Pan-seared before serving, it is crunchy on the outside and smooth on the inside. The taste is both savoury and sweet, as a result of the addition of onions and oatmeal that bind the blood together. But it isn’t subtle in taste.
I eat with gusto, but also in desultory silence.
Blood and guts. I have been eating them all week. When I was thinking other people’s food was weird, weirder still was my own. But le freak, c’est chic. And Rory tells me that blood pudding is now all the rage in posh eateries in Dublin and across Europe where it is variously known as boudin noir (France), morcilla (Spain), blutwurst (Germany) and sanguinaccio (Italy).
I take comfort in that.
Then I ask for a doggy bag.