Luang Probang, Laos, January, 2001
Mekong. Languid air. Languid river. Languid landscape.
The captain replied, “Not bird,” while flapping his arms. Concise explanation for the steamed lunch’s outer wrapping not understood until his young son picks up what was set-aside, unfolds a wing, and starts sucking to retrieve every possible bit of flavor. Happy boy!
Taste? The tasting was over twenty years ago. I recall not having liked it, whatever it was. Which, for me, is unusual. Blood, insects, raw meat, fish eyes — I am usually an enthusiastic eater. ButI the dish was greasy and had what I interpreted as a strong fishy taste — at least, this is what I recall. I had finished eating before the boy revealed the bat wing. I had assumed I was eating a fish-based forcemeat. The bat wing suggests the recipe had included at least some bat.
“The Oxford Companion to Food” allocates fruit bat to the myriad creatures not known in European cuisine that are said to taste of “chicken.” Not an especially informative concept. Young factory chicken? Old farmyard chicken? Or, the informant simply lacks the culinary vocabulary to explain, so points us to the mild tasting bird we know the best as this is closer than fish, cow or pig, the three other primary meats of the Western table.
As fruit eating mammals, it seems unlikely bat tastes of fish. If you actually know, then please leave a comment. My thought is that either the stuffing included a very fishy fish, or something was fried in oil that was pungent with fishiness. Perhaps the fat of fruit bat is greasy. Again, if you have eaten fruit bat and can describe its taste and texture, please do.
Once I realized the wrapping was bat wing, my disinclination was reinforced not to ask for seconds. Taste of the dish notwithstanding, I am not into the slaughter of bats. Some years earlier, I had visited a friend who was working for a French NGO in Cambodia, Nord Sud Action. This was during the period just after the overthrow of Pol Pot, when the UN and NGOs were effectively the entities governing Cambodia. One morning at our house in Phnom Penh, there was a commotion around the gate house. With a slingshot the watchmen had killed the fruit bat that flitted about the property. Actually, it was not quite dead as we ate our breakfast of petit pain, butter, jam, and coffee.
I was also familiar with the book, “Stellaluna,” by Janell Cannon, a picture book about a fruit bat and her family that humanized them, firmly placing them in the not-food category of the lesser creatures. Once, visiting The Peasant, a fire-based restaurant in New York where I had guest cheffed, Harvey Weinstein was sitting at a table near mine. He was with several exceedingly beautiful young women. Looking up from her menu, the one facing me said that she “could not eat Peter Rabbit.”