Thursday, February 27, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Kombucha

     About a month ago, I found myself in Canton, Ohio—the city with the name inspired by the famous Chinese city, which houses the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  While there I decided to check out an organic supermarket.  I felt a little out of place there (as readers may have guessed, my typical diet is staunchly omnivorous, and chock full of non-local, heavily processed, highly preserved, artificially colored and flavored, and decidedly non-organic foods).  But I bought a few items here and there, including a couple of vegetarian sandwiches (sadly dry and mostly tasteless) and some seaweed snacks (delicious).
     I washed these down with a beverage that was new to me—kombucha.  I didn’t know anything about it, but the store had many different choices, so I took a representative sample of three, and took them back to my hotel.  Once there I did my usual superficial research, and learned what it was I planned to imbibe.
     Kombucha is made with sweetened black tea which has been lightly fermented in various symbiotic bacteria and yeasts.  Other types of tea are sometimes used, but black tea appears to be the most common.  This beverage began in China, and spread from there to Russia, and then to the rest of the globe.  But otherwise many aspects of kombucha are controversial.  Starting with its development—some historians claim it’s an ancient beverage, thousands of years old, while others maintain it’s only one or two hundred years old at the most.  Then there’s the perceived health benefits.  Some, especially those who advocate traditional and alternative medicines, say kombucha boosts the immune system, offers relief for PMS, joint pain, and arthritis, prevents or lessens the affects of aging, prevents disease in general, or even treats or cures cancer and AIDS.  Science, meanwhile, disputes these claims pretty much across the board, at least based on what studies have been done so far.  The American Cancer Society, for example, contends that there is no evidence for kombucha as a treatment or cure for any type of cancer.  It’s also pointed out that the drink can actually be hazardous, for those with certain allergies or conditions (such as those undergoing hormone replacement).  Additionally, the bacteria in it are evidently tricky to get right, sometimes leading to contamination, especially during home brewing.
     But, clearly these disputes are bigger in scope for my little blog, so let’s get to my impressions.  As usual, I’ll go worst to first for these carbonated libations.  First up is Millennium Products GT’s organic, raw kombucha, citrus flavor.  It listed various probiotics, B vitamins, and antioxidants among its ingredients.  It tasted very lemon-y, but decidedly too strong.  It was also kind of astringent.  Overall, pretty unpleasant—I won’t be buying this one again.
     Next was Live Soda’s organic raw kombucha, Dr. Better flavor.  This one was yellow in color.  Again, rather disappointing.  I assumed from the name that it would have a “Dr. Pepper” type flavor to it, but it didn’t at all.  Instead it was citrus-y.  Better than the first one, but not by much.  Not good enough for a revisit, anyway.
     Finally, there was Reed’s organic live cranberry ginger kombucha.  Again, didn’t detect the advertised flavors much.  I perceived a little ginger tinge, but not the cranberry (except for the reddish color).  It was mostly citrus-y yet again.  On the plus side, this was the best of the bunch by far, and I might consider purchasing it again, every once in a while.
     Just for the record, I didn’t notice any health effects, good or bad.  Obviously this was not a scientific, double blind test of any sort, and it was an incredibly small sample size, etc., but still, just to throw it out there.  I didn’t even notice any stomach/digestive discomfort.  But whatever the real story is about kombucha, healthwise, it certainly seems that you should know what you’re doing before you try making it yourself.  Also, kombucha does have a small amount of alcohol in it, since it is fermented.  This varies upon how long the drink is left to ferment, but usually ranges between .5 to 3%.  My store-bought ones were .5%, meaning a person my size (or really, pretty much any adult) would probably burst their bladder before they even got so much as a buzz.
     Finally, I’m intrigued by the “probiotic” listing on kombucha’s ingredients.  I’m tempted to buy another, and drop in an antibiotic pill, and see what happens.  Who would win this Biotic Battle?  And would the resulting clash cause a fountain to erupt out of the bottle, like Mentos in Diet Coke?  I’d like to think so.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Pummelo

     When my great grandfather, Thomas Stansfield, was a boy, in about 1900, he heard about a new fruit that had recently become available in his Philadelphia neighborhood.  Excited, he and his brother Joe saved up enough money and bought this new “grapefruit.”  They brought it home, cut it open, and ate it eagerly.  And were sorely disappointed.  Instead of a pleasing, sweet, grape-like taste, they had a fruit which was bitter and repugnant.  So a good lesson that names are sometimes misleading. *
     Why did I start with a story about grapefruit, you may ask?  Because today I’m talking about a relative, pummelo.  In fact, pummelos, crossed with a type of orange, are thought by scientists to be grapefruit’s parents.  Staying with names, it gets more complicated.  Throughout the past couple of hundred years, “pummelo” actually referred to grapefruit.  It’s only been in the past 30-40 years or so that the distinction has been drawn.  Other names for pummelos are shaddock and lusho fruit.  (For the record, shaddock was the name of the East India Company captain who introduced the fruit to Jamaica in 1696.  Don’t know the derivation of lusho, but I’d like to think it’s some snide joke about drunks.)
     Thankfully, the actual pummelo itself is very noticeably different from grapefruit, or anything else.  It’s huge—the diameter of a mature fruit is between 15-25 centimeters (or about 6-10 inches), and its weight ranges between 2-4 pounds (or 1-2 kilos).  The skin is yellowish-green, and otherwise is similar looking to that of its alleged child.  It is actually the biggest citrus fruit, which is why its scientific name is Citrus maxima (which should definitely be a featured character’s name if they do an all-fruit version of the HBO series “Rome”).  Like a lot of fruit, pummelos originated in Southeast Asia, but are now grown in various other tropical areas.  They’re usually eaten plain (sometimes, oddly, sprinkled with salt) or as parts of salads.  Their peel is sometimes used for marmalade.  Nutritionally, like the other citrus fruits they’re loaded with enough Vitamin C to even satisfy Linus Pauling.
     I went into this one with some reservations.  Because I loathe grapefruit.  Intensely.  When I was a child I occasionally choked some down after I’d poured sugar on the pulp, until I realized, why bother?  Why bother putting lipstick on this pig, as it were, when there are plenty of fruits that taste good, all by themselves?  Fruit shouldn’t be bitter.  And don’t bring up lemons as another example—sour can have its charms.  But grapefruit is, to me, useless.  I’d only eat another if I was stranded on the proverbial deserted isle, and it was the only thing standing in the way of me and cannibalism.  (And even then I’d consider the decision for a LONG time.)
     The pummelo I chose from my local grocery store was the smallest one.  It was “only” about 13-14 centimeters in diameter, and weighed a little over 2 pounds (or about a kilo).  Although it was labeled a red pummelo, its rind was the standard yellowish-green.  When I skinned it I saw why—the pulp was reddish-pink.  The taste was decent.  I’d heard that pummelo is like a mild grapefruit, and I agree with that.  Unlike grapefruit, where the bitterness is overwhelming and nasty, pummelos just had a hint of it.  Also, I realized even this tinge was mostly from any remaining whitish rind still sticking to the pulp.  Completing the family circuit, I shared some with my great grandfather’s grandson, and he agreed with my assessment of it.  Pummelo is okay.  Evidently the variant with whitish colored flesh is even sweeter, too.  Alas, after I’d eaten it, I realized I probably shouldn’t have.  Some medication I take warns not to consume grapefruit while taking it.  I can only assume this also applies to grapefruit’s kin.  So I probably won’t have pummelo again, but only because of this medication interference—otherwise I certainly would.
*  In case you were wondering, the name “grapefruit” came about probably due to the fruits on the tree looking similar to a bunch of grapes.  I know.  Kind of stupid.  I would have gone with something more honest, like “bitter crapfruit.”

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Crickets

     So the other day I ate Jiminy Cricket, and a few dozen of his closest friends and family.  Well, okay—not really.  But I did consume a whole bunch of the beloved fictional Disney character’s kin.
     Actually, this was the second time I’ve had crickets.  The first was from the same company (Hot Lix) which produced the scorpion-in-the-lollipop, that I posted about on December 30th, 2012.  As with the scorpion, the cricket was embedded in an apple flavored lollipop.  I didn’t really count this as a fair trial of the cricket’s taste, though, as the cricket just had a crunch, but otherwise was lost in the fake apple flavor.
     But this more recent time was different.  I ordered these crickets from ThinkGeek (, and they came with five other exotics, in the Edible Bugs Gift Pack ($19.99).  Thanks once more to Emily, for bringing this link to my attention.  The crickets were canned, of course, and came all the way from Thailand.  Evidently in Thailand eating bugs isn’t that unusual.  The breed I had was the house cricket (Acheta domesticus), and they were advertised as being flavored with wasabi, the very potent Asian horseradish-like condiment.
     Crickets are, obviously, a tremendously common type of insect, found all over the world.  Their diet is omnivorous, as they’ll happily scavenge plants (decayed or alive), fungi, and meat.  In a pinch, they’ll even attack and cannibalize weakened or wounded cohorts.  They’re best known, though, for their distinctive chirping sound, which is produced when they rub their wings together (and not, as is often thought, their legs).  It’s usually only the males that chirp, with some exceptions.  I was surprised to learn that they have four types of “songs.”  The first is a “calling” song, designed to lure females closer, and simultaneously repel other males.  The second is a softer “courting” song, done to entice a female that’s approached nearby.  The third is an “aggressive” song, designed to scare away any males that might have gotten too close.  And finally, there’s the fourth kind, the “copulatory” song, blared out after mating has been concluded.  I guess people could learn these nuances, and so know when to introduce single lady cricket friends to the singer, or to be a good “wingman” and help chase away horny guy competitors, or give the sated crickets tiny cigarettes, all based on what song was being sung.
     The chirping is also prevalent in many cultures’ folklore, usually as a harbinger of news.  To an extremely diverse degree.  Depending on where you live, the chirping may be interpreted as predicting rain, that a woman in the house is pregnant, that the hearers will come into money, or, more depressingly, that someone is about to die (so a tiny insect version of the traditional Irish/Scottish female ghost, the banshee).  One animal uses the chirping in a particularly nasty way.  The tachinid fly (Ormia ochracea) tracks a cricket using the song, and then deposits a larva on or near the poor male.  The larva then burrows into the unfortunate guy, and eats him from the inside, until death finally releases the cricket.  So, in effect, a weird type of pseudo venereal disease for crickets, one for which condoms won’t help.
     In addition to eating them, people in the Far East also sometimes make pets of crickets.  They’re even occasionally kept in cages, which, given the size of the creature, must have the tiniest, most close-set bars.  In China people sometimes even fight males against each other, and gamble on the proceedings.  (Note:  In case Michael Vick is reading this—don’t get any ideas!)
     When I opened the can, I beheld dozens of small, brownish-black crickets (less than an inch long, with body diameters smaller than a pencil).  Their separate body parts were easy to see—head, thorax, legs, wings, etc.  They didn’t have much of a taste.  It was mostly just a dry crunch, again.  Which was somewhat shocking, as wasabi is not known for being subtle.  I made a point to try the various body parts separately, but couldn’t tell much of a difference.  I next tried putting ketchup on them, which improved the experience significantly.  I finished the can (20 grams) without much trouble, but also without much enthusiasm.  There was a vaguely unpleasant aftertaste.  And to be frank, seeing tiny wing and leg parts in the sink after I brushed my teeth was kind of off-putting.  Throughout the rest of the day, whenever I burped I could review the crickets’ taste in a negative way.  Overall then, I don’t regret sampling them once more, but I don’t think I’ll try crickets again.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Heart of Palm

     This is the second time I've talked about palms, as I previously expounded upon their delicious fruit--dates.  But, I've sampled pig parts literally from their heads to their toes, so why not from a plant?  Palm trees don't actually have hearts, of course--in this case the term refers to the centers of their stems.
     Consuming palm hearts is an ancient practice, and is typically done in all places where palm trees grow.  Given palm's delicate temperature sensitivities, this means, essentially, tropical areas.  The ones I tried were from Ecuador, but they're also avidly eaten throughout South America, Hawaii, and Africa, among other countries.
     I was surprised to learn that palm hearts are a matter of controversy, as some folks don't support the consumption of them, as harvesting the hearts often leads to the death of the entire plant.  Happily, there is a compromise, as certain species produce multiple stems, and so can produce the product and still survive.  One of these is commonly known as the peach palm.  In addition to its numerous stems, it's been bred to not grow the nasty thorns that often impede heart of palm harvesting.  Peach palms are abundantly used in Ecuador for canning.  Since my palm hearts came from there presumably they're the kind I tried.
     Heart palms can be sides, but it appears they're usually eaten as parts of salads.  As per my typical routine, I just opened the can and had them plain.  They are stalks about an inch in diameter, are as long as the can itself (maybe 5-6 inches) and are an off-white/light yellowish color.  They have a firm texture.  And the taste is very pleasant--it's a somewhat subtle, tangy flavor.  Definitely tasty--I bought multiple cans after my initial culinary experiment.
     Really the only downside with palm hearts was their price.  A regular sized can (about 14-15 ounces) was $5-6 each.  The fact that they're usually imported and sometimes difficult to harvest surely causes this.  But I would say they're worth it.
     One final note--hearts of palm, like many other food items, have several common names.  Most notably, one of these is "swamp cabbage."  I'm guessing this one isn't used on many can labels.  As good as they are, I think this particular name would put off a significant percentage of potential customers.