You might think Halloween is all about pumpkins, candy corn and pint-sized Captain Americas. Not quite. While pumpkin is the rising star component in many unlikely foods — pumpkin mochi, anyone? — and candy and costumes are standard, the fear factor is what drives the first night of what had been a three-day event. All Hallows' Eve is the ghoulish evening before the celebration of the departed, All Saints' Day, followed by All Souls' Day, also known in some cultures as Day of the Dead. In the confluence of Christian and pagan beliefs in western Europe, it was thought that the boundary between the world of the living and world of the dead was weakest on Halloween night, and, thus, the dead returned to wander among the living. In other words, Halloween is the original "night of the living dead."
All of this sounds scary, right? But the fear factor has been lost amidst the foods of Halloween. Ghost cookies and round chocolates wrapped in eyeball foil are cute, but hardly frightening. Real foods can be much scarier.
Many of the scariest foods are available in ethnic markets. A cup of hydrated sweet basil seeds, also known as sabja, has the unappetizing appearance of frogspawn: black dots in a pond of goo. Offal, too, is rather disconcerting, even though, some of these organ meats, like beef liver, chitterlings, pork brains, even tripe in menudo, are commonplace in Charlotte. Recently, in fact, there has been an increased interest around town in tasty testes, euphemistically known as mountain oysters, or criadillas in Spanish (available at most larger ethnic grocery stores). The creepy factor in this animal genitalia — besides realizing what you are eating — is removing the membrane before slicing.
Packages of pig uterus (available at Super G Mart, 7323 E. Independence Blvd.) are completely disturbing. Beneath the cellophane rests bright pink little macaroni-shaped half-moons, looking more like remnants from a tenth grade biology lab table than dinner. I'm told it takes two days in a wine ginger bath to detox them before stir frying. My personal limit, though, is a one-day detox. If it takes two days to remove a smell, I won't be partaking.
Also lurking in markets and on restaurant menus are foreboding sea creatures. Take oysters, for example. If you buy them in shell in a grocery store, or have then shucked for you tableside at a restaurant, you are consuming a living animal. In fact, raw oysters must be eaten alive — that's how perishable they are. If it makes you feel better, you can believe the myth that the lemon juice kills them, but in reality, it's your molars.
Some sea creatures just look scary. A plateful of steamed gooseneck barnacles is the closest you'll get to science fiction food, since this barnacle looks like the love child of a geoduck clam and a stone crab, yet tastes like a salty earthworm. Don't ask.
But in terms of the fear factor, the Japanese have developed a term: Chinmi refers to those foods requiring an acquired taste, and much of these are raw, pickled or fermented seafood. For the uninitiated, these foods may elicit a dare. Chinmi dishes typically are served in izakaya, or pubs, since they pair well with alcohol.
In Charlotte, perhaps the scariest Japanese dish is the raw squid guts served at Musashi Japanese Restaurant (10110 Johnston Road). The notion of uncooked squid visceral may seem unsettling, and this dish, ika no shiokara, is only available on the menu written in Japanese. The orange color of the dish is produced by the gastric juices of the squid. Yum. Trust me, though. Follow a bite of these funky tendrils of squid entrails with a shot of alcohol. But not a sanguineous shot of the newly popular Bloody Mary made with pig's blood. That is just too creepy.