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Monday, August 4, 2008

Guest blogger: An Eastern approach to eating everything

Adventurous eating

By Cathy Ding

Friends call me an adventurous eater. By that, they mean that I’ll eat anything, from tripe to grasshopper to durian, as long as it is considered a food by some culture out there. While I love being labeled “adventurous,” it’s not quite fitting. After all, I don’t go to the ends of the world in search of food frontiers unknown to man. I'm simply not picky when it comes to eating what others have already determined to be nontoxic and delicious.

In my experiences eating with people who turn away food, the major turnoff is not the food itself, but some preconceived negative perception of the food, which clouds the actual encounters. The head has already decided that the food tastes bad before it ever makes its way into the mouth. Along those lines, it’s far easier for me to try something unfamiliar and like it, because, thanks to my Chinese heritage, I grew up with very few taboos as to what should not be eaten or what doesn’t taste good.

As a child, I was exposed to a large variety of vegetables and encouraged to eat all parts of animals. During extended family feasts, the adults often gave me and my cousins soy braised chicken feet to gnaw on. The dozens of tiny bones and chewy tendons kept us occupied for hours.

The word “delicacy,” which scares most western diners, makes a Chinese menu reader perk up and take notice. The philosophy, as articulated by my doctor mom, is that every food provides a unique source of nutrients, and delicacies are those hard to find sources that complete the eater’s spectrum of nutrients, which in turn, improves longevity. My grandma’s traditional wisdom would also have us believe that eating animal parts supplements the corresponding parts in the human body. In her mind, for growing children, nothing could be better than that wobbly pig’s brain. In a society where elders are respected above all, we don’t question such wisdom. Under this thinking, my parents often ordered things when dining out that they didn’t typically cook at home, and encouraged me to experience the different textures and tastes.

For my family, this was never more evident than when we headed out for Chongqing hot pot, a specialty of my region of Sichuan. The centerpiece is the fiery Sichuan peppercorn and chili imbued broth pot. But equally important are the “exotic” selections of meats for cooking in the broth. Seasoned hot pot eaters never pick the usual chicken or beef. Instead, they focus their attention on sliced dark tripe, more prized than white tripe for its ability to hold on to the spice within the pebbled surface. Also popular were the duck intestines, which, when cooked quickly, retain a delightful crunchy texture. But the most celebrated were always the snowy white pork neck cartilages. Slivered in diagonal halves, the cooked cartilage took on an appearance and a slight chew akin to that of fresh calamari.

No matter the selection, eating everything the parents ordered was a requirement, not a request. Pickiness was frowned upon. In this environment, I learned to embrace variations and to appreciate the different and new.

Unfamiliar/unpleasant smells are perhaps the hardest to overcome when trying a new food. After all, over sixty percent of what we call “taste” finds its basis in smell. Luckily, my mom rubbed my nose in some pretty sticky stuff very early on, which made everything that has come since pale in comparison.

The pungent lesson took the form of some innocent looking fermented tofu peddled by an old man who would visit my neighborhood carrying a massive bucket on each end of a long halved bamboo pole every summer night around sunset. He would belt out a chi-powered “stinckyyyyyyyyy tofu” at every street corner. Invariably, an old lady from some window would yell back wanting to know if the tofu was indeed sticky enough. Of course, it always was.

Mom sent me as the fetcher for our supply. The initial whiff when the old man opened his bucket could knock the unprepared right over. A mix of feet and organic fermentation, the odor was downright repulsive to the inexperienced. But to the addicted, nothing could be more drool-inducing. To show authenticity, the old man would leave the white mold from fermentation on top of the sticky tofu.

According to mom’s instructions, I’d taste the non-mushy pieces from under the most fresh patch of mold. “Smells bad but tastes super,” the old man would say with a smile, and he was right. The tofu had the most potent and unparalleled punch of umami anywhere. Experiences like that quickly taught me not to judge a food by its appearance or odor. Having had this kind of upbringing, new food finds evoke excitement rather than dread.

With an open mind, the wonders of the food world are mine to explore. Who would have thought that a roasted silkworm ingested on the safari of South Africa would taste exactly like the burnt ends of southern barbequed pork ribs? For many, it may not be immediately possible to overcome all the negative feelings that are ingrained during childhood, but the rewards of a thousand new discoveries should provide ample incentive to at least try.

Cathy Ding lives in Atlanta and writes about food on her blog, Live to Nibble. If you'd like to be a guest blogger for Omnivore, send your ideas to besha.rodell@creativeloafing.com.

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