I was in a hostel in Cordoba, Argentina – a chilled out place with a pretty casual vibe. I was in the lounge working on some travel writing work when one of the staff approached me.
Talkative and enthusiastic, he was from the USA but had fully embraced his Argentinian roots. He started the conversation with the eagerness of a sales pitch, which is exactly what it was.
“Hey! Are you interested in trying some local food? I’m going to be cooking up a traditional Argentinian stew later on, would you like to take part?” he asked me.
Now of course, trying new food is one of my favourite aspects of travel. I’ve loved everything about Argentinian food so far, from the juicy chorizo to the succulent steak to the rich and full bodied red wine. So, I figure “why not?” and nod in agreement.
“Ok cool, well I’m gonna need everyone to chip in a little bit for the ingredients before I make it. It’s 70 pesos each if you want to have a bowl of the stew when it’s done.”
Ok, that’s fair enough. He’s not offering everyone free stew; he’s suggesting we all split the cost. I sign up for the stew and hand over my pesos. Several other people in the hostel do the same.
“What is this traditional recipe anyway?” I ask, “what’s in it?”
“Oh you know, meat, vegetables, chorizo, spices, lots of things! It’s delicious! You’ll see!”
It all sounds good to me. I am imagining a lovely evening where travelers from all over the world gather in the hostel dining room and feast on delicious stew together while sharing stories and getting to know each other.
Dinnertime finally comes around and there are about 5 or 6 of us gathered around the table, drinking local wine out of chipped plastic cups. The aromas coming from the hostel kitchen smell wonderful and my stomach starts to grumble in anticipation.
Finally, the stew is ready and our grinning host places a steaming bowl in front of me. It smells great, but it looks weird.
I poke around with my spoon and amidst the vegetables and chorizo I find my bowl filled with long thick rubbery tubes. I try biting into one and find it chewy – like undercooked pasta or overcooked calamari.
“Ummm… What is this?” I ask.
“Just try it!” says our overly perky host.
“Can you please tell me what it is I am eating?” I ask, my patience with his eager smile growing thin.
“It’s some sort of intestine I think,” says one of the other guys at the table.
Our host beams. “Yup!” he confirms. “It’s a traditional local recipe!”
He is the only one smiling.
The face of the girl across from me twists with dismay and disgust as she pushes the bowl away from her. “Eugh, sorry I can’t eat it.” Her friend sitting next to her makes the same conclusion.
Everyone else joylessly picks around the stew, either chewing their way through the intestines or digging out only the vegetables and slurping up the broth. I eat as much as I can, leaving a pile of soggy intestines at the bottom of the bowl. I try to swallow down a few pieces of the entrails, but the texture is too off-putting.
I’m annoyed because I spent money on this meal and I can’t eat most of it. I feel even worse for the other girls who completely lost their appetites at just the thought of intestine. The atmosphere around the table is grim, more like prisoners choking down their rations than backpackers happily sharing a meal.
“Hey, just a question.” I say to the guy who cooked us the stew. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Well, if I had told you there were intestines in the stew you might not have wanted to try it.”
Yup. That is actually what he said.
Now, there are a few things wrong with what happened here.
First and most frustrating of all, we were sold something in a dishonest way. By failing to mention that the stew contained intestine, the hostel staffer was in a way lying by omission.
The truth is that intestines, entrails, organs and offal of most types is not something most people I know eat on a daily basis. I know that people do eat these things in a lot of cultures, but in mainstream Western cuisine they are not common and many people are not used to them.
So, if someone gives you a dish and it contains something that unusual you would reasonably expect them to mention this. It was obvious that at least half of the people at the table were going to be a little bit grossed out by this meal.
Secondly, this was no misunderstanding or lost-in-translation situation. The staff member who sold it to us was fluent in English and knew that intestine stew would be weird to us. He admits that he was deliberately vague about the ingredient because he knew that if he was honest, he would collect less money. This lie for profit is what bothers me the most.
This incident struck me as one of the strangest things that happened in South America – I just can’t wrap my head around what the guy was thinking. Did he really think people would be totally cool with the nasty surprise of slimy, rubbery intestines for dinner?
The sad thing is that if he had been honest from the beginning, I think many people might have chosen to try offal stew voluntarily without having to be tricked into it.
I’ve tried a lot of weird foods on my travels. I’ve eaten Guinea Pig in Peru, maggots in the Brazilian Amazon, snake in Laos, fried crickets in Thailand. If trying the stew had been my choice I might have gotten a bowl out of curiosity’s sake. In that case, if I didn’t like it then that was on me. It would have been my decision.
However, being tricked into paying for it felt like a scam and left me with a very bad taste in my mouth.
What do you think? What would you do in this situation? What’s the weirdest food you’ve eaten on your travels? Share your stories in the comments below.