There's a memory floating around in my head from my volunteer time at a wildlife rehabilitation centre in South Africa. It involves being inside a dark, shed-like room with another volunteer or two, eating termites.
We were on aviary duty, shoving our hands nearly elbow deep into plastic bags filled with large, frozen, winged termites. We grabbed the insects by the fistful, cupping them in our hands like snow, applying pressure to defrost them to feed to the birds.
The delicate wings, and probably some legs, broke off and stuck to my fingers and palms; I was wearing defrosted termite gloves.
And then, the volunteer named Erin told me to eat one of the frozen bugs. I thought she was joking until she popped one in her mouth, smiling. She said it tasted like peanut butter. She was right.
Later, outside, as we threw our fully defrosted termites into the air to feed swooping birds, she dared me to eat another one.
"It tastes like butter," she said, as she tossed a couple in her mouth.
She was right. Who knew that the peanut flavour would dissipate once they hit room temperature? Or perhaps the better question - who would try them to find out?
I had expected the termites to taste acidic, or like the dry, crispy end of a french fry.
Instead, these little insects melted in my mouth with a delicate flavour that was actually kind of pleasant, like something you might spread and serve on toast. I spent some of my remaining time kind of hoping I'd get back on aviary duty so I could sneak a few termites without it being weird (or maybe it still is).
Looking back, this termite dare just might be responsible for the many different culinary experiences I've had while travelling - leading to some of the best souvenirs, stories, and meals under my belt.
Bring on the bugs, Thailand
I wouldn't say I'm a bug lover, but I may have a penchant for ants and antlike animals. That may be why I enthusiastically flagged down a man peddling buckets of bugs on a busy Thai street, and gleefully purchased a lemongrass and soy sauce ant medley (bright, light, and delicious).
Without Erin (still in South Africa) to dare me, I dared myself to try the cart's wok-fried crickets, a.k.a. Jing Leed, which turned out crunchy, salty - and pretty boring.
I was not yet brave enough to go into giant water bug (Maeng Da) or black scorpion territory. An unremembered amount of time later, though. I had no choice.
Here's the story: I'm on a rooftop, drinking a Beerlao. I observe a guy sit down next to us with a plate full of bug special: scorpion, water bug, grasshopper, grubs, crickets - and a tarantula. He's going to film himself eating the plate and send the video back home to his friends in Australia. I offer to film for him.
He makes it around the entire plate, struggling with the water bug - a meal you're supposed to take apart, ripping off it's head and wings, eating only the insides. He'd shoved the whole thing into his mouth before I realise I've not actually hit record. I offer to buy him a new round of bugs for a take two, but he insists, the next round is on him and as my punishment, I'll be co-starring.
I refuse to eat the water bug, but have no problem crunching my way through the cricket, grasshopper, and grubs. I nearly break my jaw on the impossibly hard, two-millimetre-thick exoskeleton of the scorpion.
I use my canines to break through the bulbous pinchers; I'm not sure this is meant to be edible. It tastes like absolutely nothing and I chew fast to get through the thorax, shoving the legs back into my mouth as they pop out. Some people say it tastes like popcorn or shellfish. I think it tastes like a big mistake.
Donkey burgers and ragu in China and Italy
Speaking of mistakes (and another culinary adventure), I felt immediate regret after waking up in China one morning only to find out that the absolutely delicious pita-looking sandwich I'd literally stumbled upon the night before was actually one of China's popular donkey burgers.
However delicious, this information was hard to swallow, so I vowed right then and there to never, ever eat the lamb-meets-beef-like meat of a donkey again, no matter how sweet, spicy, and seriously stupendous it was.
But honestly, between you and me - and everyone who has ever eaten donkey - it is so delicious that I made sure to eat it one more time before I left China - and then again when the opportunity arose in Italy.
Yes, in fact, donkey is not one of those "bizarre" meats only eaten in the East; it's a common find in places like France, Iceland, and Italy. Verona, specifically, is known for its exceptionally tasty Ragu d'asino, or Donkey Ragu.
And you know what? Turns out donkey is just as delicious in a gourmet Western ragu as it is stuffed inside a greasy pita on the streets of Beijing. But make no mistake; as divine as my tastebuds thought it was to be noshing on donkey again, my mind couldn't get over the fact - thereby constantly activating my gag reflex.
Italy's horse steak
Once you've eaten donkey, being asked by your Italian host family, "Would you be OK to eat horse for dinner?" doesn't seem like much of a stretch. So, in a small village just a few kilometres from Tirano, I had a thick, nonchalant horse steak cooked medium well, and served outside on a warm summer evening.
Like donkey, it was a little hard to reconcile what I was eating in my head. It tastes somewhere between beef and a large antelope (read: slightly gamier, though still a somewhat delicate red meat).
If you really want to enjoy the nuance of horse, you should, firstly, not at all have an affinity for the animal, and secondly, head to Japan (where I still regret not giving the raw sashimi-style horse meat a go).
I imagine it tastes a bit like ostrich carpaccio, which, unlike the large bird's large gamey eggs, I absolutely love.
Even chicken can be 'sushi' in Japan
As I mentioned, I reluctantly passed on the raw horse meat in Japan, but I am proud to say that I didn't pass up trying the raw sliced chicken. While I would never try raw chicken off a menu in the United States (if that even existed), I trusted the quality and appreciated the uniqueness of this menu item at my local izakaya in Japan.
The dish arrived much like sushi, though instead of colourful sliced fish, I was about to tuck into the raw, light beige-pink flesh of a chicken. I'm not going to play it cool; I was nervous. I didn't want to spend the next few days vomiting from salmonella, but in the end, I felt the reward outweighed the risk and I tucked in.
If, like me, you've imagined raw chicken tasting a bit like the way it feels - slimy with little flavour or appeal - you'd be wrong. Hands down this was one of the best food gambles I've ever made.
I found raw chicken to be the ultimate sushi, meaty yet delicate, subtle yet full of flavour. I highly recommend the experience.
Fugu a.k.a blowfish, Japan
Possibly Japan's most notorious adventurous eat, fugu was on my must-try list from the second I knew I was heading to the country. However, I didn't want to taunt death alone, so I enlisted a friend from my hostel in Osaka.
If you aren't familiar with the risk of blowfish, it's simple: if the fish meat is sliced the wrong way, it releases a paralysing toxin into the flesh, where the best-case scenario is a numb mouth, and the worst - death.
Naturally, we spoke to the front desk and had them write "Could you please leave a little bit of poison in to make our lips numb?" on a note for us in Japanese. The sushi chef refused, stating that it was against the law.
With the majority of the thrill gone, we reluctantly ate our raw, thin-sliced blowfish, which tasted a lot like absolutely nothing - still hoping to feel a little something numbing our lips.
Brains, heart and all the other parts in the US
The first time I ever had tripe, or intestine, I was a child eating a can of Campbell's pepper pot soup at my grandparents' dining room table. I thought it was the best soup I'd ever had. And I looked for it relentlessly whenever we got back home to Florida.
This soup taught me three lessons: one, I learned that not all products are sold in all markets; two, I learned that eating "other" animal parts wasn't restrictive to "other" parts of the world; and three, I learned that I could actually really love something that other people thought was disgusting.
Like the termites in South Africa, it's now obvious that opening this can of soup actually opened up a whole new world for me, making me more confident and adventurous in my food choices.
It's no wonder that I've gone on to enjoy eating hearts (delicious), liver (it's basically pate, folks), raw oysters (yes, please), tendon (nomnomnom), and chicken feet (oh wait, I wasn't a fan of this so much).
More surprising to me is that I've found most of these "other" animal parts on menus in America. It's very convenient. In fact, a small breakfast diner in my hometown serves up super soft pork brain and egg scrambles (it's a bit too soft for me), and menus along the beaches are known to sport fried alligator bites (a little too tough for me - tastes like a cross between fish and chicken).
The most controversial: Dog in China
OK, I've saved, not the best, but certainly the most risque or controversial dish for last. There's no easy way to go into this, so I'm just going to say it: I've eaten dog. Yes, it was in Asia. No, I didn't like it at all. And no, let me be clear - I had no idea at the time that it was dog.
So, what does dog taste like? Well, first let me explain that it's not just any dog. In China, there is a specific breed of dog used for cooking. While I was in the ultra-spicy Sichuan province of China, my hostel hosts took me and another boarder to numb our faces off at a local hot pot restaurant.
They ordered everything. The broth was dark red, everyone was throwing everything in the boiling pot. In the free-for-all, I pulled out vegetables, I pulled out noodles, I pulled out meat.
Even though I couldn't feel the bottom half of my face, I had already decided this was one of the best meals I'd ever had in my life. I couldn't get enough. We dumped more and more food into the broth, and it all was spicy heaven. Until I tried the meat; it was greasy, tasted a bit dirty, and maybe spoiled.
"What is this?" I asked. They replied, "Meat."
I tried another piece. Something was still off. I asked again. They gave me the same reply, this time with a slight laugh. So, I turned to my hostel-mate, and she quietly said, "I think it's dog. They brought me here last week and ordered dog."
I snapped my head back toward the men from the hostel. "Was that dog? Was that meat dog meat?" I asked half-frantically. The two men from the hostel nodded.
"Well, whatever it was," I said, "it was disgusting."