Food Critic Richard McComb talks to gastro adventurer Stefan Gates about the joys of extreme cuisine.
It’s not everyone’s idea of haute cuisine, but getting his teeth into a stew of yak’s penis is all in day’s work for Stefan Gates.
The hardcore food adventurer was served the memorable dish on a tour of China. It’s not a meal you easily forget. The penis was, he says, a “whopper” – about two-and-a-half foot long.
“They cut it in half and then they make tiny little cuts all along one side of each half and chopped that into two-inch sections. When you drop it in water it curls up like a little flower. It’s lovely and takes away the strangeness of chomping on yak penis,” says Stefan.
The meat was “relatively gristly.” “Beefy is as near as you could say,” he recalls. It took on the flavour of the cooking liquid, including soy sauce, which must have been a relief.
However, the food as such isn’t the main event, as far as Stefan is concerned. It’s the story behind the food that captures his imagination.
“The taste experience is consumed in the psychological experience of eating,” he says. “Everything that is going through your mind is not ‘Umm, that’s reminiscent of lamb, or camel or beef.’ It’s, ‘I’m eating a penis!’
“It’s almost this sense of food consumed by drama. It’s the situation you are tasting. You are doing something you are only going to do once in your life.
“The actual taste and flavour is almost the least important component of the eating experience. My life is about trying to understand the stories behind food and the greater meaning and the effect food has beyond just the taste and flavour. In China, penis is an incredibly expensive food. Here, it is thrown away as a scrap of meat.”
Stefan’s quest has led to a number of television series, including Cooking In The Danger Zone, Feasts and Gastronuts, the latter aimed at six to 14-year-olds. Stefan himself as two young daughters and has a natural empathy with children, one of the few things he doesn’t eat.
He will be recounting tales of his nerve-shredding global food adventure – he was once smuggled into Burma, not the world’s most welcoming nation – when he visits the Destinations Holiday and Travel Show at the NEC next week. His presentation is not for the squeamish, or vegetarians, but it does promise to be fascinating and thought-provoking.
Stefan once tasted a north Canadian Inuit delicacy, year-old rotten walrus meat, but he won’t be bringing any along to Birmingham. Instead there will be some foods inspired by a trip to Japan. So expect seaweed and jelly fish salad. It’s tame stuff for Mr Gates.
It was in Japan, as a child, that he experienced something for a food epiphany, although he actual dates his love affair with food from the time he plastered two attractive girls with floury handprints during a home economics class as a 13-year-old. (“It quickly dawned on me that great things could be achieved through food,” he says.)
When he was a boy, he admits he ate “rubbish.” “I was the classic kid who was always told not to play with their food and keep their elbows off the table. We ate cheap, nasty food. I grew up on margarine and economy burgers but somehow we got to go on a family holiday to Japan,” recalls Stefan.
Rather than the formal attitude to food and eating at home, Stefan says he was overjoyed to be asked to sit on the floor in Japan; and he was bowled over when the hosts brought out dinner: raw fish and meat that was handled with fingers and dipped into sauces and raw egg.
Stefan, who is 42, says: “I remember this being the most exciting thing I’d ever experienced, partly because I had been told never to play with my food, that you shouldn’t explore it and find out what the texture was. Suddenly, there were these Japanese people saying, ‘Go on, pick it up.’ And you can eat it raw! That’s so exciting.
“This inspired me to think that food is more than the sum of its parts. Food has stories. It has emotional power. It can be dramatic, it can be theatrical, it can be sexy, it can be rude and it can make you fart and it can make you scared.
“The twist is that this is also part of everyday life. You don’t have to climb a mountain to go on this adventure.”
Stefan, who is preparing for another BBC show, this time food science based and exploring the benefits, rather than just the dangers, of E numbers, insists food adventurers can make sensational discoveries without leaving home.
“I think you can have an adventure in your kitchen on a daily basis,” says Stefan. “You can go into you kitchen and cook a pig’s head and go on this amazing journey for 50p’s worth of pork. You might scare yourself and you might not want to do it again. It might be wonderful and it might be disgusting. But these things stack up as amazing experiences.
“You could just have another cauliflower cheese, or some pasta. But just in the food you eat every day you can take yourself on an adventure and I think that’s what really inspires me. At home, you can do something extraordinary and create something you will remember and your friends will remember for the rest of their lives. I find that unbelievably exciting.”
The other advice is to start challenging children’s palates when they are young. Stefan’s daughters, six-year-old Daisy and Poppy, who is four, are on course to eat “every known foodstuff” by the end of the decade. They like oysters, fly eggs and roasted cricket. Stefan thinks it is important for his girls to know what they are eating. The only thing he fudges is chicken hearts, which he cooks at home in soy sauce and honey. “I call them chicken nuggets. That’s kind of what they are,” he says.
* Destinations, The Holiday and Travel Show, is at NEC Birmingham 5-7 March. Tickets: £8 in advance, £10 on the door. Telephone: 0871 230 7141. www.destinations show.com