If you asked me a week ago what balls taste like, I probably would have either looked at you confused or made a joke too inappropriate for this venue. But that was before I went to Antigua Guatemala, home of ceviche de criadillas (bull testicle ceviche).
In certain parts of the world, even in certain parts of the U.S., bull testicles are a delicacy. ‘Rocky Mountain oysters’ (or ‘prairie oysters’) have an almost cult following, and festivals all over the country – from California to Montana to Texas – have dedicated ‘testicle festivals’ with live music, beer drinking and, of course, testicle consumption.
Most of these testicles come from cows, but for 35 years, Huntley, Wisconsin has held an annual Thanksgiving festival serving up turkey testies. In 2017, they served up 1,200 pounds, and you if missed it, mark your calendar for 2018, or check out the website, which has a live-streaming countdown.
If there are two things we can assume from all of these festivals – which have slogans ranging from “The original ‘sack lunch’” to “You’ll have a ball!” – it’s that 1) people go nuts for testicles and 2) they love making testicle-related puns.
Apparently, I am both delighted and ashamed to admit, I am one of these people.
The thing about eating Rocky Mountain oysters is that they’re sliced small and deep fried. Deep-fried testicles (I can only guess) taste like pretty much anything else you bread or batter and throw in hot oil. Sure, the texture of fried food can vary slightly, but it’s almost invariably crispy, greasy and delicious.
Frying food masks the texture. With ceviche de criadillas, there’s no hiding the fact that, well, you’re eating balls.
Ceviche de criadillas is a simple dish: raw testicles sliced in chunks, sprinkled with a healthy dose of lime juice, and mixed with tomatoes, onions, cilantro and Worcestershire.
At this point, you might be wondering why anybody would want to eat such a thing. And the answer depends on the person.
If you’re a Guatemalan, it’s because you’ve either developed a taste for it or because it’s a purported aphrodisiac, and apparently you have no access to oysters or chocolate (or can’t afford caterpillar fungus or whale vomit). If you’re Andrew Zimmern, it’s because you have a television show called Bizarre Foods, and this is a dish that lives up to that name (and was apparently the impetus for Zimmern to travel to Guatemala for an episode). If you’re me, it’s because prior to your trip, you were challenged to “eat the rarest type of food/animal you can find.”
The first – of several – problems with this ceviche de criadillas is finding it. It turns out, there aren’t exactly restaurants on every corner dishing out bull’s balls to eager diners. I asked the chef at Por Qué No? Cafe – a heartbreakingly charming restaurant in Antigua – where I could find the dish, hoping that the man preparing the food at one clean, delicious establishment with great attention to detail could lead me to a chef at another upscale restaurant giving equal care and attention to testicles.
“They’re good! Don’t worry – they just taste like citrus,” the chef, Carlos, told me. “Just go to the market and you’ll find them.”
This presented the second problem: ceviche, which is ubiquitous across much of Latin America, varies greatly in style and flavor, but it’s almost always made with seafood and it’s always ‘cooked’ in citrus (usually lime).
Contrary to popular belief, squirting lime juice over animal flesh doesn’t actually cook it. It ‘cooks’ it. More specifically, what the citric acid from lime juice actually does is denature the meat. But while disrupting its molecular conformation – which, depending on how long it’s marinated – can give it the appearance and texture of being cooked, it doesn’t actually kill bacteria or parasitic worms the way heat does.
This is why you need to eat ceviche prepared using fresh fish, ideally right after it’s made. If you did find ceviche in U.S. grocery stores, it would probably come with a warning label that read: “Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.”
Once I got to the market – a sprawling mass of booths containing everything from consumer electronics to cheap clothing to produce and prepared food – finding the ceviche wasn’t easy.
After a mixup resulted in getting shrimp ceviche, the ladies who served it insisted that the “ceviche de juevos de toro” (ceviche of bull balls) I was asking for is not a thing.
I made my way to a butcher who insisted, as far as I could understand with my limited Spanish, ceviche de criadillas was very rare and difficult to find even at the market’s ceviche stands. But he agreed to sell me a raw bull testicle, walk me over to the ceviche stand, and ask the chef to prepare it.
When I arrived, it turned out the guy who owned the ceviche stand – which was little more than a street cart on wheels – already had a pair of testicles sitting in a plastic container, ready for lunchtime.
He took one out, put it on the cutting board, and began to slice it in bite-size chunks. Then he squirted lime juice over it, and dropped it in a Styrofoam cup mixed with Worcestershire, as well as onions, tomatoes and cilantro that had been sitting in a clear bucket of water on the cart.
This presented my third hurdle: in a country that – at least among Jewish mothers like my own – is as famous for its parasites as it is for its volcanoes and textiles and centuries of rich Mayan culture, water was the most likely source of parasites.
But the vendor assured me the water was filtered – that is, assuming he understood what I was asking.
Seeing my hesitation, the vendor assured me eating juevos de toro will make me “muy fuerte” (very strong), referring to the alleged aphrodisiac properties. I didn’t explain that I was concerned about months of diarrhea, and, you know, shoving testicles in my mouth – not about getting an erection. Instead, I took a deep breath and took my first bite.
And it turns out, raw testicles are actually delicious and refreshing if you can somehow distract yourself from what it is you’re eating. The key to enjoying ‘strange foods’ is keeping an open mind – and bull testicles were seminal in teaching me that.
Had I not known what the ceviche was, I probably would have scarfed down the entire cup in a matter of seconds. Even so, I had about 20 bites before finally throwing in the towel.
Now, if anyone asks me what balls taste like, I can tell them: a cross between tuna sashimi and raw octopus. And I’ll probably throw in an inappropriate pun for good measure.