Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Food, Hong Kong style!

My birthday cake in Hong Kong. My friends covered it with all kinds of prawn crackers. Yum.

I have always been a food lover. I'm not very picky and have moderately adventurous tastes. I think the credit for that goes to the year and a half I lived in Hong Kong when I was in my 20s. Hong Kong is a melting pot of cultures; all manner of exotic cuisines can be found there. I ate Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Thai, Japanese, and Korean food, and what a gustatory adventure I had!

Before living in Asia, however, the my most exotic meal came from Wayne Moy's takeout place on 63rd Street. Chop suey and pork fried rice were about as foreign as my family got, food-wise. Mostly, we ate lots and lots of meat and potatoes--roasts, pork chops and chicken, with a couple of hot dishes or a side of Minute Rice thrown in once in a while to spice things up.

When I was informed that I would be serving in Hong Kong, I thought, "No sweat. I LOVE Chinese food! And I LOVE fortune cookies! I will have no problem adapting to the food." At the time, I thought I was relatively well-rounded and cosmopolitan. After all, I grew up in Chicago, how sheltered could I be?

Oh, how very naive I was!

Here are some lessons I learned about food while I was serving in Hong Kong.

~~~~Minute rice is an abomination. It should never be consumed in any form. Ever.

I really mean this.

~~~~Fortune cookies are not Chinese. I never saw a single fortune cookie the entire 16 months I lived in Hong Kong. They are purely an American invention. Instead, dessert was typically fresh exotic fruit.

~~~~Mangoes are the food of the gods. I am convinced that the forbidden fruit was a mango rather than an apple. I mean, seriously, who in their right mind would give up paradise for an APPLE?

A mango, on the other hand? Yeah, I'd be tempted, alright.

~~~~Before taking an enormous bite of a food, make absolutely certain you know what the ingredients are. You may think you know what is in that fruit salad, but you could be seriously wrong. Just because fruit salad in America is typically made with whipped cream doesn't mean the same can be said for Hong Kong. In fact, you'll have a heckuva time finding Cool Whip anywhere in the city.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Miracle Whip.

And if anything can make you gag, it's a mouthful of fruit salad dripping with Miracle Whip. Trust me on this one.

~~~~If you happen to be enjoying a particular food, do yourself a favor. Don't ask what's in it. You can't handle the truth.

~~~~With food, as with so many aspects of life, it's all relative. You may think those fish balls are revolting, but after being served chicken's feet and cow's intestines, they suddenly become downright delicious.

Me with a chicken's foot. I have to admit, I never did actually eat them. This is the one food I could never force myself eat. They just seemed way too much like baby skeleton feet. You tell me, could YOU eat them?

~~~~You can't make instant pudding with soy milk. It just doesn't work.

~~~~Those tiny red Thai chili peppers are like 100 times hotter than jalapenos. When you decide to make salsa using the peppers, only use one. And for the love of everything that is holy, DO NOT rub your eyes after touching one. You will go temporarily blind.

~~~~Oyster sauce--much like ketchup in the States--can make almost anything palatable.

~~~~If you know an old woman who routinely fishes vegetables out of the garbage and then sells them to people on the street, do NOT let her cook for you. No matter how good the food smells or how normal it tastes, don't eat it. You will regret it for the next 15 months.

And so will your bowels. They will never be the same again.

We're pretty sure this granny fed us garbage. To this day, I still am nauseated by the taste of tofu and cashews.

~~~They say that necessity is the mother of invention; I say desperation is. When you cannot go another day without a piece of cake, you will learn that it can be made without an oven. Steamed banana bread is delicious!

~~~~As in other aspects of life, taking risks can bring great rewards. Some of the best food I have ever eaten, I ate in Hong Kong. My mouth still waters when I think of a particular shrimp dish I ate and the steamed pork buns at dim sum. And I still crave the pumpkin curry I from the Sri Lankan buffet in Central.

Because I was willing to try new things, I learned about all kinds of tastes and cuisines. I learned that ginger is a root, not a powder, and garlic is not used only in Italian food.

Most of all, though, I bonded with people over the food they served me. I learned that when someone makes food for you in Asia, it is their way of showing you love and hospitality. And when you graciously eat the proffered food, you show your appreciation for their sacrifice.

And I learned there are people so generous that they will serve you a feast even when they can scarcely afford it. And to turn your nose up at the offerings is insulting.


For more posts on food, visit Jen at Sprite's Keeper.


B1l said...

Eating Cha siu baau with my lady...ahh the memories... nice post.

Sprite's Keeper said...

I love this! The memories, the tastes you mention, the pictures! Such a great way to Spin a wonderful experience. You're linked!

Matt said...

Aaah, steamed banana bread. Or plain cake with jam on top. We got pretty good at cooking in the wok, huh?! I remember, and have retold your story about being fed from the garbage...so funny :) Great memories, thanks for sharing!

Matt said...

Bummer, that last comment was not from my husband, it was from me, Sister Keller :)

Pseudo said...

Oh, I loved this. I have never been to Hong Kong, but my husband is part Chinese and part Filipino and this just cracked me up.

Laura@livingabigstory said...

Oh Patty, I'm so glad I found you again (did you know I'd lost you?) ... seriously, this post made me sooo happy thinking about my mission and all the stories Doc has told me about his stint in Taiwan. And, yes, I tired chicken feet and I *seriously* got soooo sick .... so good move to not.

Heather said...

I fear I would not do well in a foreign country. I'm insanely picky about the food I eat. I have the specific foods I'll eat at each type of restaurant and nothing else. And, I'm guessing none of those things could EVER be considered authentic! You are my hero for being so brave and expanding your palate in such a way :)

Lizbeth said...

My hubs is from Viet Nam and his mother and grandmother would make these gawd awful dishes for me to try just to see if I would eat it. I did. Every last bit.

I ate heart, liver, kidney intestine and any other mammal part you can imagine.

Now that we are married I won't touch a thing without seeing what goes in it.

I was sick for almost the last year we dated/were engaged. :)

Stacy Uncorked said...

What an amazing adventure you had! And not just with food! :) And no, I wouldn't be able to bring myself to eating a chicken foot either. :)

Spin: Cooking Passion Started at a Very Early Age

Trish said...

Oh my goodness, as exciting as this post sounds, I know I would not fare so well. I am an extremely unadventurous eater!

Mama Badger said...

This sounds wonderful. I love how one of the longest memories of a culture is through food. I lived in the UK 15 years ago, and I still get the urge for mayo on fries in a pita every now and again (but only when it rains...)

Kelly said...

Every so often we get invited to lab parties at the house of a Chinese biologist whose wife works in Jason's lab. Most of the biologist's lab is also Chinese and so the parties always consist of this huge Chinese food (REAL Chinese food) feast. The food is amazing! I don't think they've tried to serve us something super bizarre yet, though.

SuziCate said...

I love this! What a wonderful experience you had! I can't imagine eating chicken feet! I suppose it can be considered gourmet like some consider frog legs! I grew up on southern cooking...chinese food was literally unknown to me - did not experience it until I was seventeen and fell in love with it.