From toes to tarantulas, Paul Rush finds travel brings unexpected culinary challenges.

Growing up in Wellington on traditional Kiwi cuisine of roast lamb and vegetables made me a most unlikely candidate for feats of culinary daring.

In my teenage naivety, I relished Old Joe's delectable "chicken" in Smith Creek Hut in the Tararua Ranges, only to learn that the venerable bushman hermit lived on a staple diet of possum meat.

My first overseas experience was a trip to Australia in the halcyon pre-European Union days when the Kiwi dollar bought A$1.20 and kangaroo meat was dog tucker. The humble marsupial has since bounced his way up in the world as I learned more recently in Alice Springs. Samphire's Restaurant offers kangaroo as a premier dish and tourists love it. While Big Red is hopping on to gourmet menus, pesky possums can't board the bush-tucker gravy train as they are protected. Should this ever change, the furry fellas should be very, very afraid.

I've discovered most of the wild fauna of the Outback with a knife and fork. Wayne Kraft of the Overlanders Steakhouse has popularised Aussie bush tucker as "nouveau cuisine sauvage". His Drover's Blowout is a gargantuan feast, which includes an entree of buffalo, crocodile, camel, emu and kangaroo medallions.


Don't think for a moment that I'm developing a wild-foods binge to satiate my feral taste buds. It's just that in some parts of the world, the imperative of relieving hunger pangs can bring out latent hunting instincts.

For example, the night markets of Beijing are a veritable foodie heaven - a takeaway zoo offering fast foods that call for intestinal fortitude. I hand over 30 yuan ($6) for a pair of crusty centipedes on kebab sticks. The tiny portion of flesh tastes like chicken. The legs crunch up like a packet of pretzels. By contrast, the fried silkworms slide down like a flavourless smoothie.

I abandon all inhibitions and attack a skewered scorpion. It's a malodorous black specimen of incalculable antiquity. I crunch my way purposefully along the skewer, realising too late that it is potently spiced with chilli pepper. My eyes stream like a sprinkler head. I've crossed the fine line between gastronomic and ghastly.

I'm still hungry and it's the pig offal offerings that save my bacon. I eat my fill only to discover that hawks' breasts are bestsellers at the next stall. The sharp-clawed morsels are flying off the shelves like hot cakes. I deny myself a host of other culinary delights like carefully skewered grasshoppers, crickets and cicadas.

In Cambodia, I visit the town of Skuon, which has a reputation for exotic foods - especially deep-fried tarantula. The black, hairy giants taste quite bland, akin to chewing salty rice paper but the toxins in the spider's body are purported to relax weary muscles. I fail to discern any such benefits and decide that arachnid body parts don't sit well on the palate.

In the high-spirited saloons of Dawson City, Canada, I become an Honorary Sourdough, sharing the title with all the wizened old-timers who wrested gold from the Klondike. You may have heard of the Mexican Worm tequila, Newfoundland's Kiss the Cod Lips and Thailand's Bat Brain shooter.

But somehow I fall under the spell of the Yukon the night I swallow my fear and imbibe the famous fiery Sourtoe Cocktail; two shots of whisky in a glass containing a pickled human toe. It's the ultimate test for daredevil gourmands who think they've swallowed it all. Courtesy of this odd drink, the Yukon will forever be one of my greatest travel memories.