NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with Cecily Wong, one of the co-authors of a new book called Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide. It explores culinary delicacies from every continent.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Caramelized cheese, sea pineapples and tree tumors are just a few of the delicacies in the new book “Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide.” It’s from the folks at Atlas Obscura who’ve always been interested in taking people off the beaten path. And Cecily Wong is one of the co-authors. Good to have you here.
CECILY WONG: Awesome to be here.
SHAPIRO: This book has more than a thousand entries from every corner of the world, including Antarctica. How did you research and find the stories of all these foods?
WONG: It took three years. And we just kind of moved continent by continent and then within that, country by country. And we just started deep diving. But also, part of what makes “Gastro Obscura” really special is that we have this huge community of users who write in every day and tell us, I ate this really incredible food, you should check it out. I either grew up with it or I went and visited this place. And so half of the entries in this book came from that process, and the other half came from my co-author Dylan and I just going wild for about three years.
SHAPIRO: OK. You have sent me a few things that are delicious, and they’re right in front of me right now. And let’s talk about them. First, I’ve got this vacuum-packed container of dried fruit, kind of lumpy and mushy. What am I looking at here?
WONG: You are looking at something called hoshigaki.
SHAPIRO: What are hoshigaki?
WONG: It’s a persimmon from Japan. It’s a dried persimmon. In the book, we call it a pampered persimmon because it has just a very, very nice life.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. The book says these dried persimmons are massaged nearly every day. Do you think you can taste the difference?
WONG: I hope so. Every day for a month? I would love that.
SHAPIRO: Getting massaged every day for months, to be one of these perimmons?
WONG: Absolutely. They start as a fresh persimmon, and then they’re peeled by hand. But they leave the stem. And then the stem is strung up. And they’re dried in the open air for 30 days. And then they’re massaged every day.
SHAPIRO: Well, I feel very honored to have them in front of me. I’m going to open this vacuum-sealed package and give one a try. It smells like caramel and honey and tropical fruit and a little bit like pumpkin-y almost. OK. Give a taste. It tastes autumnal. I expect to see next to the pumpkin spice latte and the caramel apple mocha the hoshigaki persimmon drink at Starbucks.
WONG: It’s perfect.
SHAPIRO: OK. You’ve also sent a bottle that an adult had to sign for when it was delivered. I have been given permission to drink during work hours for this. This bottle – beautiful bottle – says it’s called King’s Ginger. What am I looking at here?
WONG: Truly regal. Yes, the bottle is beautiful and gives away a little bit of the history, which is that this is a royal liquor. It was created for King Edward VII. He had just taken the throne after his mother, Victoria, died. He loved going on these joy rides. He had a motor cart that didn’t have a top, but he would be exposed to all this weather. And the royal physician got super concerned that he was going to get sick. So his solution was to create the King’s Ginger, which is what we’re about to drink, in order to warm King Edward VII while he drove. He would put it in his driving flask. And it’s brandy, but it has honey and ginger and lemon, which have that revivifying property. And King Edward loved it. And this became a smash hit for the royals.
SHAPIRO: All right. Do you have a bottle of it there?
WONG: I sure do.
SHAPIRO: Shall we open up?
WONG: Absolutely. The cork pops very satisfyingly in, like, this old-school way.
SHAPIRO: We love that on the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF CORK POPPING)
SHAPIRO: OK, Cecily, bottoms up.
WONG: Let’s do it. Cheers.
SHAPIRO: Cheers. Oh, yeah.
WONG: Oh, yes.
SHAPIRO: Totally just like soda, ice, slice of lime. It’s almost got like a dark and stormy thing going on.
WONG: Absolutely. It smells very botanical, and then you taste it. It’s got this kind of velvety honey and lemon thing going on.
SHAPIRO: Why don’t more people know about this?
WONG: They really should. They haven’t actually been making it that long for non-royals. It’s been about 10 years, so…
SHAPIRO: Oh, lucky us.
WONG: Exactly. It’s a good time to be not royal.
SHAPIRO: All right. And now we have a treat that is almost magical. I’m so excited about this – little canister of berries. What are they?
WONG: This is the main event. These are miracle berries.
SHAPIRO: This is the main event. The other two are just like the opening acts.
WONG: A little warm up. These are fruits that are native to West Africa. Their miraculous properties is that if you eat them, it makes all sour things taste sweet.
SHAPIRO: Let’s give this a try it. The berry itself doesn’t have a lot of flavor.
WONG: Exactly. Super mild. The ones that we’re eating are freeze dried, so they have that kind of slight crunchiness.
SHAPIRO: Now, on the side of the container, it says chew for 30 seconds, tasting the pulp. Then it says swallow berry and enjoy new flavors.
WONG: I think it’s almost time to enjoy new flavors.
SHAPIRO: Well, what new flavors do you have in front of you, Cecily?
WONG: I have a pickle. And I have a lemon.
SHAPIRO: What a coincidence. I have a pickle, and I have a lemon, too.
WONG: That is great news.
SHAPIRO: I think this cucumber gave its life for a good cause. Should we see what it tastes like while we’re flavor tripping on miracle berries?
WONG: Yes. OK.
SHAPIRO: OK. It tastes like a sweet pickle.
WONG: Yeah. It tastes like we put a little too much sugar in our pickle.
SHAPIRO: Way too much sugar. You ready to try the lemon?
WONG: Yes, here we go.
SHAPIRO: OK. Oh, yeah. That is like a lemon candy. Oh my God, that is so good.
WONG: I feel like we could sell this.
SHAPIRO: Totally. Yum.
WONG: Wow. It’s like a juicy lemon head. Yes.
SHAPIRO: The way these things work is incredible, but beyond the kind of party trick aspect of it, what’s the story behind these berries?
WONG: So these have been used in West Africa for centuries. They would eat them exactly the way we’re doing, except for something that they wanted to taste better that was sour. So sour palm wine is an example. They would eat these barriers, then drink the wine. It would taste a whole lot better.
SHAPIRO: The idea of what makes a food weird or interesting is entirely subjective.
SHAPIRO: Dishes that seem normal to one person might seem strange to a foreigner. And so as you wrote this, how did you avoid the trap of exoticizing foods that are unusual to one person, but just a part of another’s daily life?
WONG: Absolutely. You know, we had our own rubric. I’m actually coming to this book as a fiction writer. I write mostly novels. And so I’m into the storytelling aspect of of all these. Some of the most delightful foods are not because they are objectively so strange, but because they have these incredible histories behind them that we don’t know about.
SHAPIRO: Were there any entries that as you were editing and going through this, you thought, this feels a bit too – look at that weird thing that those other people eat?
WONG: Absolutely. I always point to bugs. People are really squeamish about eating bugs and how weird that is. Everyone is eating bugs. We’re one of the few cultures that aren’t eating bugs. And so the bugs that are in the book, they’re in the book because they have something really fascinating about them. If we looked at a food and said it’s just unappetizing, that’s not what’s in this book. I think we’re celebrating the weirdness of food in this book because it’s all weird.
SHAPIRO: Cecily Wong. She is co-author with Dylan Thuras of “Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide.” Thank you for talking with us about it and for sending me these delicious things to try.
WONG: Thank you so much. That was super fun.
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