100 foods to eat before you die? Hmm, missing the point.

Yellow/red heirloom tomatoes, by Don Goldman (DoGoLaCa on Flickr)

Plain ol' red tomatoes from our 2011 garden.
Plain ol' red tomatoes from our 2011 garden. By Sandra Chung.

I’m a big advocate of foodventurousness, so I can’t resist commenting on this little food list game that’s making its rounds on Facebook.

Some people think of foodventurousness as a competition for bragging rights about which exotic dishes you have eaten, but I like to think that trying new ingredients is simply one of several ways to expand your experience, appreciation and enjoyment of food.

Below is the original list of 100 foods, of which I have eaten 70 something. I’m not particularly proud of that score. The list is biased toward fatty foods and exotic meats, a natural blend with my background. I’m pretty sure being the child of Asian immigrants helps me have a somewhat broader definition of edible protein than the average white American (My mom told me stories of eating earthworms [that was actually my Grandma who ate the worms] and ants as a child in postwar Korea, and I’ve had my fair share of grubs and ants as a curious eater). Living in the Southeast for much of my life means I appreciate the art and beauty of good biscuits and fried food.

I can see that a list like this might be intended to encourage more foodventurousness. But being open to novel foods is only one part of foodventurousness. And meats and fatty food are probably not the first genres in which Westerners need to focus on expanding their tastes.

In fact, I would not recommend the exotic-game checklist approach to foodventurousness. My most disappointing foodventures are almost all expensive land meats. I haven’t found much flavor or texture variety at all between goat, yak, bear, venison, elk, goose, wild boar, gator, Kobe beef, and supermarket beef, chicken and pork. Most red meats and white meats are nearly indistinguishable from each other when fried, curried, or sausage’d, and many are quite bland or downright disgusting as simple steaks.

Most cultures don’t have this relentless emphasis on slabs of land meat that we do here in the overfed States. I’ve found a much larger cornucopia of flavor and texture in seafood, grain and vegetable dishes. But there are few interesting vegetables or vegetable dishes and no grains on this list, and the seafood and fish on the list don’t go much beyond sashimi. No quinoa, wheat berries, pickled fiddlehead ferns or roasted beets and parsnips? No bouillebaise, kimchi or soon doo boo chigae (okay, I admit, I’m biased toward Korean food. But seriously, Hostess Fruit Pies and Moon Pies but no Korean or vegetarian food?)

Kimchi, by Craig Nagy. How can people go through their entire lives without eating this?
Kimchi, by Craig Nagy. How can people go through their entire lives without eating this?
A true foodventure is an actual departure from your food comfort zone. If you’re already a chicken and beef eater, a slab of alligator is not much of a stretch. Like many ‘exotic’ meats, it’s a familiar flavor paired with an equally familiar texture. “Tastes like chicken” is funny because it’s true.

A real foodventure for a meat-and-potatoes Westerner would be something like a new vegetable, a raw vegan restaurant, or insects. I want to try more insects. I’ve read that for shellfish fans, insects are not that big of a reach taste and texturewise. What remains is the psychological barrier. But I like to make a point of getting over those. I had an easier time eating pickled pig’s feet than insects. But the pig’s feet were not very good. I’d be open to trying them again, just in case the batch I snagged was a poor example.

Ah, yes. Poor examples are important. Whether it’s a simple tomato or a slab of whale meat, if it’s not fresh or well-prepared you will not get much out of eating it. Sure, caprese with a $4 heirloom tomato (#50) is great, but 90% of the heirloom tomato’s greatness comes from the fact that it is fresh. It has to be – you have to eat heirloom tomatoes within 48 hours or they’ll liquefy on you, unlike the pink mealy things you buy at the supermarket that can reasonably double as paperweights for a week or three. Now don’t get me wrong; I love me one of those yellow-and-red heirlooms, sliced and lightly salted and plated like a rare steak. But I regularly get my socks knocked off by plain old regular red tomatoes, good and ripe and straight off the plant.

The most magical dish I’ve had as of late is a simple raw zucchini salad with lemon and salt. I’d never had raw zucchini before my first taste of that salad. It costs next to nothing to make with super-fresh zucchini during our ridiculously prolific local zucchini season, and eating it makes me feel wonderful. That’s a food experience I’m glad I got to have in this lifetime.

The original list of 100 foods to eat before you die, with the ones I’ve eaten highlighted in bold and a few comments on the less common dishes:

1. Abalone – Like a huge oyster/clam. At its best, the meat is tender with a pleasantly smooth texture and savory seafood flavor. It’s usually improperly cooked and chewy. Great in sauces and soups.
2. Absinthe – is quite a show. You get it with an elaborate setup (basically an ice water jar) that slowly drips ice water through a sugar cube into the glass of clear green absinthe, which turns white and clouds up. Lovely licorice aroma and flavor and sadly, no psychotropic compounds in the U.S.
3. Alligator – batter-dipped and fried, it’s like chewy chicken fingers.
4. Baba Ghanoush
5. Bagel and lox
6. Baklava
7. Barbecue ribs
8. Bellini – never heard of it, but from what I read it’s a popular Italian cocktail of peach puree and sparkling wine. Sounds lovely.
9. Bird’s Nest Soup – have seen it but not eaten it. it looked goopy.
10. Biscuits and gravy
11. Black Pudding – this and all other dark, bloody dishes I have tried have been unappealing in texture and liver-y in taste. I like liverwurst, but not much more concentrated liver flavor than that.
12. Black Truffle – no occasion to try this yet.
13. Borscht – mmm. Beautiful beet soup.
14. Calamari
15. Carp – one of the least pleasant fish I’ve had the displeasure of eating. My dad, brother and I caught a lot of it fishing in upstate New York.
16. Caviar
17. Cheese fondue
18. Chicken and waffles
19. Chicken Tikka Masala – Come now. Vindaloo and tandoori are the way to go.
20. Chile Relleno – yes to the roasted poblanos, no to the massive quantities of cheese that these are usually stuffed with. As I’ve come to grips with adult lactose intolerance, I’ve realized that cheese is a lazy way to make things taste good. In the States, finding inexpensive restaurant food that tastes good is very difficult if you’re not eating cheese.
21. Chitterlings/Chitlins – crispy and terrible.
22. Churros – yet another variation on fried dough with sugar. Best eaten dipped in thick hot chocolate at a Madrid chocolateria open till 2 am
23. Clam Chowder
24. Cognac
25. Crabcake
26. Crickets – on the to-do list.
27. Currywurst – pork sausage with curry ketchup? I’ve had curry slaw, mustard and ketchup on a brat. It’s hard to go wrong with pork sausage.
28. Dandelion wine – Thought this was just the title of a Ray Bradbury book. I imagine it’s quite bitter and that the main ingredient is not actually dandelions.
29. Dulce de leche – somewhere I found a brilliant method for making this in a glass bowl in the microwave, rather than the incredibly dangerous traditional method that involves boiling an unopened can of condensed milk.
30. Durian – I see this in the Asian market all the time. I will eventually try it.
31. Eel – delicious, savory fish with a delicate texture. I remember reading about eel stew in the Chronicles of Narnia.
32. Eggs benedict
33. Fish Tacos
34. Foie Gras – tasty, but not worth the price or force-feeding.
35. Fresh Spring Rolls
36. Fried Catfish – not my favorite fish, but hey, fried whitefish is fried whitefish.
37. Fried Green Tomatoes
38. Fried Plaintain – like thick, slightly sweet potato chips
39. Frito Pie – yeah, this one’s real exotic. Graduate to 7-layer dip.
40. Frog’s Legs – never had to occasion to try them, but I would like to. I hear they taste like chicken.
41. Fugu (pufferfish) – haven’t eaten it, but I have used tetrodotoxin in the lab. The food version of Russian roulette. You might as well try eating a live octopus instead; it makes for much better video.
42. Funnel Cake
43. Gazpacho – Cold tomato soup. The red stuff is not that exciting unless you have really good tomatoes. White gazpacho, made with almonds and grapes and garlic, is very nice.
44. Goat – A cross between pork and beef in texture and flavor, not very gamey at all. Extremely lean and requires careful handling not to make it incredibly tough to chew. Of course, that’s true of almost all land meat.
45. Goat’s milk – very white in color, a little less fatty and milder-tasting than whole cow’s milk.
46. Goulash –  one of a million variations on livestock stew, which exists in any culture that ever herded anything. This one has lots of paprika – sweet red pepper that’s often dried and used for color and mild flavor. Not too hard to sell to anyone who likes meat.
47. Gumbo – mmm. Okra put to devastatingly good use. Okra, seafood and stew – sign me up!
48. Haggis
49. Head Cheese
50. Heirloom Tomatoes
51. Honeycomb
52. Hostess Fruit Pie – should not be on anyone’s must-eat list. wtf.
53. Huevos Rancheros – eggs on a corn tortilla with salsa, beans, avocado. Simple and delicious. Like foie gras, the native language version of the name makes it sound a lot more exotic and interesting than it really is.
54. Jerk Chicken – a seasoned grilled chicken variation that will introduce you to the wonderful flavor of allspice, which will remind you of nutmeg and other pumpkin pie spices. Only in this case it’s paired with chicken, thyme, and hot hot hot pepper (usually jalapenos or scotch bonnet).
55. Kangaroo
56. Key Lime Pie
57. Kobe Beef
58. Lassi – Yogurt smoothie, usually with mango. Lovely after spicy food.
59. Lobster
60. Mimosa 
61. MoonPie
62. Morel Mushrooms – not that special unless you’re a mushroom connoisseur
63. Nettle Tea
64. Octopus – meatier and not as stinky as squid, really wonderful grilled. Can be rubbery if not cooked well.
65. Oxtail Soup – beef soup. Oxtails are just the tails of cattle and a frugal source of stock.
66. Paella – savory rice and seafood. Mmm.
67. Paneer (a cheese) – Mild in flavor, satisfying texture. Reminds me of Mexican queso.
68. Pastrami on Rye 
69. Pavlova (meringue cake)
70. Phaal (curry dish)
71. Philly Cheesesteak
72. Pho – the most wonderful beef broth you’ve ever had, with goodies like rice noodles, steak slices and aromatic herbs in the mix.
73. Pineapple and cottage cheese
74. Pistachio Ice Cream
75. Po’ boy – fried something sandwich on fluffy white bread.
76. Pocky – a less salty variation chocolate-dipped pretzels
77. Polenta – gotta love a fancy name for cornmeal mush
78. Prickly Pear – delicate flavor. Translation: bland.
79. Rabbit Stew
80. Raw Oysters – Texture is key here. All raw oysters have a creamy, liquid texture and variably briny flavor that you can obscure with cocktail sauce and lemon if you don’t like it.
81. Root Beer Float
82. S’mores
83. Sauerkraut – replace this with kimchi. kimchi is better.
84. Sea Urchin – an acquired taste that I haven’t acquired yet. Very expensive and a little stinky to me.
85. Shark
86. Snail – lovely, as is anything that’s usually served dripping in garlic butter. Like a softer, meatier and less salty clam. Avoid the canned kind.
87. Snake
88. Soft Shell Crab
89. Som Tam (spicy salad made from shredded unripened papaya)

Spaetzle cooking. By adactio
90. Spaetzle – these are fat little wheat flour noodles with a flavor quite similar to gnocchi. Boiled and served in butter. You never see them in restaurants because they’re laborious to make and really meh in texture and flavor. Maybe you have sentimental attachment to spaetzle because your grandmother made them … but mine didn’t, and I don’t.
91. Spam – salty, savory, fatty, non-perishable. It’s sausage that comes in a can. What’s not to love?
92. Squirrel
93. Steak Tartare
94. Sweet Potato Fries
95. Sweetbreads
96. Tom Yum – clear, tart, spicy lemongrass-shrimp-mushroom soup. Yum.
97. Umeboshi (pickled ume fruits common in Japan, similar to a plum) – very salty, uniquely aromatic flavor unlike anything else you’ve ever tried.
98. Venison – light beefy flavor, lean and chewy texture, usually gamey.
99. Wasabi Peas
100. Zucchini Flowers – not much flavor, but a nice tender wrapper for lightly seasoned filling

Representatives from recent and ancient Earth

I’m not really doing first dates anymore, but if you are trying to sweep a girl like me off her feet, you’ll do well to take her to your nearest excellent natural history museum. The CU Boulder Museum of Natural History qualifies. A few weeks ago, NEON crew got a behind-the-scenes look at loads of amaaaaazing preserved creatures in the collections there. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to tag along with a camera and an audio recorder and throw together a slideshow about the experience for the NEON blog. I’ve seen some creepy giant blind worms in jars as well as some humble but beautiful birds that became extinct almost 100 years ago. And I know way more about preserving rodents than I ever thought I would. Enough talk; time to look and listen. Some audio and photo highlights from the tour: