The expression, ‘There is something for everyone’ is true in every aspect of NYC living – culinary adventures notwithstanding. A few months ago, my husband and I read about what we thought was a little-known new group called the Gastronauts.
This particular club is geared towards adventurous eaters. We submitted a brief essay explaining why we would be a good fit for the group, and were officially welcomed. We were told to look out for monthly email invitations that would specify location, menu and price of each upcoming dinner. We were encouraged to RSVP quickly since the events tended to fill up. When we received that first email describing what would be our inaugural Gastronaut experience, we were both excited (and a little nervous!).
We skittishly pored over the menu that included the likes of Grilled Gizzards, Grasshoppers and… Silkworms. I reminded myself that all that’s asked of members is to ‘try to try’ everything – it also doesn’t hurt that every menu promises lots of lots of beer included in the set price (about $65 per person).
On that first night, we made our way to Jackson Heights, Queens, an area we rarely get to, and entered a small private room in a nondescript Thai restaurant/karoaoke bar. We found the crowd to be an eclectic mix of mainly 20-30 somethings, many falling into the ‘hipster’ category.
As the night unfolded we met food nerds, introverts, world travelers and even a charming single woman in her 20s, open to a romantic connection. Many of the gastronauts seemed to know each other from previous dinners, and the overall vibe was upbeat and friendly. With communal seating, we quickly got to know our table mates and were surprised to learn that this ‘little-known club’ had over 1300 members and has held monthly dinners since 2006! We were clearly late to this dinner party!
All of our dinner companions had great things to say about their experiences in the club (except for one unanimous Nigerian disaster). The beers starting flowing, as the first course of grilled gizzards was served, family style. These innards were skewered, perfectly charred and impressively tender. The fried grasshoppers were crispy, spicy, and honestly, finger-licking-good!
The red ant salad was surprising since the eggs looked more like small white kidney beans and had a juicy pop of flavor. We happily ate and chatted. The pork was succulent but then came the silkworms… a large platter of them. I somehow managed to try one, and that was it for me. The tough casing and the flavorless chewy insides were not my cup of worm.
As we ate, stories of travels to faraway places were exchanged along with different variations and recipes of the courses we were eating. The conversation flowed easily as this group of strangers had a common interest in uncommon food. The dinner ended with a final course of delicious Pad Thai. While my husband and I dug in, many club veterans chose to skip this last ‘ho hum’ course and call it a night. We left satisfied, full and excited about the experience.
The following month, we didn’t hesitate to RSVP instantly and headed back to Queens, this time to Elmhurst, for an evening of Taiwanese fare. Another small restaurant filled with Taiwanese customers (always a good sign). As the members arrived, we were surprised to see a completely new set of faces.
The crowd a little older (and less hip), but just as diverse and excited about the upcoming culinary adventure. We introduced ourselves at our big round table and were eager to dig in to the first course of Blood Rice Cakes which looked like large black Rice Krispy Treats but savory and crunchy. They were instantly devoured by all of us!
The Hundred-Year-Old Egg with bean curd was presented next. The egg is preserved in a mixture of clay, for up to several months. Through the process, the yolk becomes a dark green/grey color, with a creamy consistency while the white becomes a dark brown, translucent jelly (with less flavor). Shockingly, as grossed out as I was by the appearance and the general concept of it, it was creamy and quite tasty; we were off to a great start! Unfortunately, the unidentified poached intestines were rubbery and tasteless and the Chicken Bitter Gourd Soup was way too bitter to enjoy.
We were starting to feel like the meal was headed downhill when we bit into the most crispy and flavorful oyster pancake, which quickly restored our faith. The much-anticipated (and dreaded) Stinky Stinky Tofu lived up to its horrendous aromatic reputation, smelling like that unclean elevator in Grand Central that should be avoided at all costs. However, if you could get past the smell (which we somehow managed to do), it actually tasted like great fried, creamy tofu. The meal was rounded out with duck tongue that had tiny annoying bones in it, and congealed duck blood that had the strange consistency of firm (dark purple) tofu.
We ended this meal with small, plump, juicy snails served with fragrant Chinese basil. As the evening grew to a close, we were happy, once again, to have had a great time, meeting new people, hearing interesting stories, and tasting some delicious fare. We stumbled back on to the subway headed to Manhattan, stuffed to the gills with internal organs, Taiwainese style.
It has been so interesting to venture into neighborhoods, which we normally don’t find ourselves in, discovering vibrant testaments to far-away and time-honored cultures and culinary traditions that are being kept alive and well, in a bustling city that’s constantly moving forward. I’m thrilled that we’ve discovered this unique club, which has given us the opportunity to get an authentic glimpse into different worlds – by way of food!
My mom, along with many friends, think we’re nuts to pay ‘good money’ eating such bizarre things. However, I can honestly say that we’re really enjoying this new experience. Perhaps there will be a menu down the line, which will be out of our comfort zone. And while I’m not yet searching exotic grocery stores for items to cook at home for the kids, we are looking forward to the next Gastronaut experience and are certain that there’s much more out there for our expanding palates to experience!
Prior to becoming a stay at home mom, Mina was an HR Recruiter for years. Now her time is spent happily juggling the demands of two young daughters while trying to expose them to the endless adventures the city has to offer.
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