One of the most rewarding aspects of full-time missionary service is experiencing new cultures. And nothing embodies culture quite like food specifically, fish heads, raw octopus and broiled eel.
Actually, I never ate the fish head, and the eel didn't quite match the hype. The octopus, however, became one of my favorites.
But when the subject of missionary food adventures arises, I feel like I've got a trump card.
That would be the Japanese word for horse meat. And I ate it raw.
My final area in the Japan Fukuoka Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the beautiful town of Kumamoto. The city is a peaceful mix of neat neighborhoods surrounding a modest but vibrant city center. In the middle of it all is a towering castle that emanates a sense of history.
And then there's the basashi.
Kumamoto is famous for raw horse meat. Throughout my mission, I'd heard the stories. When I came to Kumamoto, I wondered if I'd ever look down at a plate of thin red slices of an animal I would never consider a food source.
The occasion did come at the home of the Yatsuhashi family in 1996.
This kind couple had experienced some heavy trials, but not to the extent that it weighed them down. They accepted the gospel after two of their daughters joined the church, and eventually the entire family was baptized.
Their home was a welcome place to be, especially for a worn-out elder about to eat his farewell dinner.
Brother Yatsuhashi invited us into the kitchen, and I could immediately sense his anticipation. His short frame fidgeted as he announced that we would be eating sashimi (usually raw fish). It was his attempt at a practical joke, and he wasn't pulling it off very well.
I looked at the plates on the table and immediately knew it was a four-legged animal, rather than a finned one. I told him that his attempt at deception had failed, but that I would give basashi a try.
It was a memorable evening, and not because of the main dish, which with a little soy sauce was actually tolerable. What I'll remember is the sense of extended-family comfort that I felt in the home, despite the fact that I was speaking a different language and dining on something that two years earlier would have dropped my appetite like a Ronnie Lott open-field hit.
It was a microcosm of the mission experience one that is certainly not unique to me.When we asked readers to send us their missionary-food stories, our e-mail box filled up. Below is a sample of responses we received. Enjoy reading, and make sure your stomach is settled in for these stories, shared in the spirit of good fun but also with a sense of reverence and respect for different cultures. E-mail: email@example.com
On the southern tip of the South Island of New Zealand is a city known as Invercargill. There, on the watery edge of the Faveaux Strait, I was challenged by some Maori church members to eat what they considered to be a delicacy sea eggs. They look like small coconuts brown, about the size of your fist, with long sinewy fibers and dripping with sea water. A good brother cracked one open for me and said: "Try it. It's delicious."
The inside looked exactly like an egg with a large yellow yolk cuddled in a clear, slimy, jellylike goo. I hesitated, thinking that I was being set up. But what the heck. I knew I would only be here once, and since my mission was nearly over, it would be the last time I could ever try such a "delicacy."
So I went for it, lifted it to my mouth and swallowed the whole thing in one gulp. It tasted like spoiled moss. Not that I have ever tasted spoiled moss, but if I had I'm sure that's what it would taste like. Everyone was laughing and guffawing, roaring and slapping their thighs and holding their sides because they hurt from too much frivolity.
I gagged it down barely. In spite of the embarrassment of nearly throwing up, I felt a very small measure of satisfaction for the enjoyment I brought them because of my facial contortions while swallowing the slimy egg.
But who gets the last laugh? Poetic justice raised its hoary head the next day when three or four Maori brethren became very sick because they ate sea eggs that had been sitting in a 50-gallon drum for too many days.
I served my mission in the beautiful country of Holland in the early 1970s. Before leaving for Holland, the missionaries were told of all of the wonderful Dutch pastries, cakes and cookies that we could look forward to eating.
Upon my arrival, I was assigned to serve in the beautiful city of Haarlem in the north part of Holland.
Two or three days later, my companion and I were invited one evening by our landlord to come and have a special "Dutch treat." As I walked by the kitchen I could see a pan full of sliced apples in a frying pan on the stove and my mouth began to water.
When my companion and I arrived back at the kitchen, the landlord was slicing a "blood sausage" and mixing it with the apples that had been frying. This blood sausage was made of beef blood and just enough fat or lard to harden the blood, and then shaped into a sausage. It was absolutely a terrible dish, and I did my best to pick out the apple slices and eat them. I smiled pleasantly and tried to show my enthusiasm of how good the dish was with my limited Dutch language skills.
I was never served this dish again, and I am happy to report that the pastries, cakes and cookies lived up to their pre-mission fame.
I served in the Central America Mission, which comprised the countries of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. In three of those countries (Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica), it was typical for the missionaries to live with native families and pay for room and board so we pretty much ate what the family ate.
In Honduras, in San Pedro Sula, during the winter months, we were served cornflakes with hot milk. Yes, the flakes got soggy pretty quick, but it actually tasted good and helped warm us up from our cold showers every morning (the house did not have hot water).
We were also served armadillo for dinner on one occasion. It was actually very good like a tender, sweet pork.
Having grown up in San Diego, I had eaten Mexican food all of my life. So I was not quite prepared for the fact that corn tortillas in Honduras were typically a quarter-inch thick and unsalted. It took me a few months to get used to them.
Remember those small red-eared turtles you could buy in pet stores? In Nicaragua, the lady of the house brought home a full-grown, live one for dinner. I still have somewhere a picture of myself holding it while it was still alive. She tied a small rope around its neck to keep its head pulled out while she chopped it off. She then cut the turtle up and stewed the meat. It was dark and rather gamy.
The same woman once served what we thought was chicken and rice, a classic Central American dish and typically one of our favorites. However, with this one, the chicken seemed lean, tough and stringy. Then one of the elders found a pelvis bone buried in the rice. Chickens, of course, don't have pelvis bones, but iguanas do and she acknowledged that's what we were eating.
On the upside, she would have us pick green (unripe) mangos from the mango trees that grew all over the city. She would then make the most wonderful, tart green mango jelly from them.
Bruce F. Webster
In the small town of Milton, my companion and I were friendshipping Agnes, not a member of our church, whose two teenage granddaughters living with her were recent converts. Their home was humble, and Agnes, who was always dressed in overalls and a plaid shirt, raised most of their food.
I'll always remember her crooked arthritic fingers covered with dirt from digging up turnips and other vegetables for us to take home.
One day she proudly showed us her "leather britches." It was not her laundry, but some kind of wide bean pods she had grown, picked and strung on heavy thread or string all around her kitchen to dry until they were brown as could be. On one of our visits she cooked up a pot of her leather britches reconstituted with water and flavored with extra-thick bacon chunks. Those leather britches were a little tough to chew, but actually tasted pretty yummy.
Kristi Fraughton Chapman
One of the most interesting things that happened to us with food was the time we were invited to a New Year's Eve barbecue by the stake presidency.
We were getting ready to eat and I noticed a bowl of meat at the table, and I asked the stake president what it was. He told me that it was goat meat and was just reserved to be eaten at midnight, a Filipino tradition. I told him, "Oh, we have to be home long before then" and kiddingly remarked that I was hoping to taste some. "Well, you can taste this," he said and handed me a bowl that looked exactly like the one on the table.
The prayer was said and I took a spoonful only to get a very unpleasant and very leathery taste in my mouth. I leaned over to our sweet Filipino house help who was with us and asked her what it was. She smiled at me and said, "Oh, it is just goat skin, half raw and half cooked."
Then, to make matters worse, the stake president sat down next to us with this bright green mixture that looked like green tapioca over rice and said, "Sister, you need to taste this; it is just delicious." We were rescued again by our house help, who told me, "don't eat that; it is goat bile."
The interesting experiences that we have on our missions are all worth every minute.
Elder and Sister Read
Eating dog soup (boshingtong) was a surprisingly pleasant experience. The fact is dogs one eats in Korea are not like any of the dogs we have here. They are large, almost cowlike, docile beasts that graze and eat grain.
Several missionaries went with a member out into the countryside to a particular restaurant that served this historically special meal. Unlike the stories you hear, dog soup and the lesser known dog rib meals are not everyday affairs, nor is it common in the general population by any means.
Dog soup is like many other Korean meals, full of vegetables, soy bean paste and a light serving of meat. It was not only tender but tasty. In many ways it reminded me of leftover stew from an American beef roast from the Midwest. It did however have the feel that it was somehow wrong, but when in Rome .... Also, eating live baby octopi is also a treat. Imagine trying to eat something that is desperately trying to get back out of your mouth and has the strength of survival in it. Interesting.
Having issues eating many things growing up, my diet never included fruit, vegetables or many other things my pallet just didn't care much for it. The dish a wonderful man from Ghana fixed us was called Ghana hot-rice. This contained a whole fish covered with a very hot sauce. I had no idea how I was going to eat this meal, but being young and full of missionary zeal, I put my faith in the Lord and started eating. To my surprise I ate the whole dish, which by the way continued throughout my entire mission.
When I returned home, on the way from the airport I asked that we stop and eat. I wanted my family to see that the Lord had blessed me to be able to eat all kinds of food that I had never eaten before. As I started in on my salad, the experience that I had while a missionary was gone. I couldn't choke anything down that I had ordered. Many missionaries are blessed with a gift of tongues. Mine was the gift of pallet.
John M. Shaw
I was ready to get back on the boat midway through my first breakfast in Scotland. Not that the menu was unfamiliar: cornflakes and milk, with bacon and eggs on the side. But it rains four or five times a day in Scotland, and everything is extremely damp. So the cornflakes were limp to begin with, not crisp as I was used to. And this was before refrigerators were common in Great Britain, and the milk was a couple of days old, on the verge of turning. So limp cornflakes with half-sour milk.
On top of this, Scotland is a great fishing country. And they feed the fish heads to their pigs. So the bacon had a distinctly fishy taste, not at all like the crisp, sweet bacon a Utah boy was used to. ... I could hardly get down that first meal and immediately began wondering whether I could last out a two-year mission. But the wonderful hospitality of the Scottish people quickly made up for any culinary deficiencies, and it is wonderful how one's taste can accommodate to the food available.
David Brighton Timmins
While welfare service missionaries in Thailand, we were served a basket containing little leaf-wrapped packages. We began to unwrap the packages held with string.
I am sure my eyes widened as my stomach lurched. They were filled with fried crickets, ants and ant eggs. There was also something our dear friends explained to be a bee nest. It was a piece of bee comb with the larvae in it, which had been roasted over a fire in several layers of green banana leaves.
Our escorts were so excited to provide for us such a treat. They passed the delicacies around, chatting and nibbling. We, too, ate, smiled and knew this would make such a good memory. No plates, no utensils, just pass the leaves and everyone help themselves. These snacks were served with an old china bowl filled with shredded papaya, other vegetables, little shrimp, peanuts and something hot enough to tan the soles of your feet. We did learn as the months went on that the adding of insects to scrambled eggs or to soup made the meal extra special.
J. Earl and Joan Bone
I was serving in a rural area in southern Belgium in 1971. We were teaching a family, and they invited us to stay for dinner. The mother of the family was fixing what looked like patties of ground beef. She put in some oil and spices while making the patties. She asked if we liked "American steak." I was sure she was making a hamburger of sorts. But no such luck.
She put the patties of raw meat on a plate and served it to us. It was hard getting it down, but then my companion asked the unpardonable question of "What kind of meat is this?" She said it was horse.
During our first mission, we were invited to the home of a member of the branch presidency to have dinner. As we sat at their humble but clean table, a rolled meat dish was served to us. We asked what type of meat it was. The branch counselor asked us to just eat it and he would tell us at the end of the meal. My husband, being a very finicky eater, was leery of eating this unknown dish. With some trepidation we ate it and discovered it was really very good. Still, the host would not tell us what was in it until the end of the meal. Finally, he informed us the meat roll was made of pickled muskrat.
Bruce and Veniece Lovell
Guinea pig has long been a delicacy of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador, and I had several chances to eat them. After being roasted or deep-fried, they resembled large rats. I imagine many other missionaries had the opportunity to eat guinea pig.
However, the most interesting thing I ate on my mission was "ubre," which is cow udder. It was rubbery and not very flavorful.
There was the dinner at a wonderful couple's home in St. Nazaire on the coast. We would be fed four or five times a day during our weekend visits to the small branch on the west beaches of France. One of our dinners was rabbit. So there was this full carcass laying on a plate, the head and all. The sister asked who wanted the head and said that she wanted it, and proceeded to eat the head and eyes and brains. This nice kind sister eating the poor bunny's head ... It made me rather queasy.
My husband, Sheldon Demke, recently passed away, but he loved to tell his family stories of his missionary service in the North Brazil Mission. He loved the people and the food, generally.
One memorable meal was when a dear sister placed gato in a bed of rice on the table, skinned and cooked, but otherwise very much resembling the house cat it once was. He remembers trying hard to eat without becoming physically ill or being ungracious to the host family. He especially loved telling this story to picky elders eating at our own table in California.
One of the most interesting foods I ate on my mission was called "patasca," a dish made by first obtaining either a cow or pig head, putting it in a large pot and boiling it over night.
Large corn or hominy, potatoes, carrots and a bit of grass (cut up like chives) is added. It is served as a soup, eaten with freshly baked bread and, of course, salsa. As a missionary I had a new "greenie" from South Jordan. We woke up that morning and went to our appointment, where patasca was being served. I gave him a taste from my bowl to see if he liked it. He said yes, so we asked for a bowl for him.
After we left I asked him if he knew what he had just eaten. I told him what it was and that he shouldn't have any problem eating anything in the mission after that.
There is a steep learning curve to understanding Mandarin Chinese. While serving my mission in Taipei, Taiwan, during my third month, my senior companion and I were visiting a man who shared a bowl of snacks with us. My companion asked what it was. I had no clue what the man answered, but I was game to try some. It was chewy and crunchy. I figured it was some type of jerky. My companion didn't eat any. After we left, I understood why; he said I had been eating pig ear.
The most interesting food I ate on my mission was fried guinea pig. It's called "cuye" (pronounced coo-eee) and was served with rice and potatoes. It was a little difficult picking up what looked like a chicken leg and seeing a little paw on the end. Many Peruvians raise several guinea pigs in a small pen outside their houses, and it is considered a delicacy in their culture. It tasted like chicken.
One time I had the opportunity to eat dog meat. To the Korean people, it is a luxurious, more expensive meat, provided by dogs that are specifically bred to produce meat. It wasn't too bad, and I thought it tasted a lot like roast beef, except there were some thick pieces of fat attached to it.
Next, I ate sang nockjee. It is pieces of octopus cut up while the octopus is still alive. The tentacles squirm around all over the plate and then suction cup to your teeth as you are trying to chew them. Be careful to chew it real well before you swallow or it may stick in your esophagus, and that wouldn't be good.
And, finally, I ate silkworm larvae. Amazingly, this was the only thing I ate that made me sick. Those experiences sure were great, and I would recommend them to anyone looking to excite their taste buds.
We served as record-preservation microfilmers and filmed nearly all the Hawkins County public records. We were also assigned to a small branch in Rogersville, Hawkins County, Tenn. As we prepared to travel by car to Tennessee, we loaded our favorite Dutch oven with a promise to enjoy some pioneer and early settlers' recipes ground hog with potatoes, possum with onions and sweet potatoes, and okra and beans, beans and more beans. These tasty critters and veggies were common fare a century ago but rarely today. Elder Later's fame as the Mormon Possum Cook became known throughout Hawkins County.
Ron and Louise Later
Tennessee Knoxville Mission