I am blessed to work at a place that employs people from many diverse cultures. When Chinese New Year came around I was invited to lunch to celebrate. There was some teasing that went on about the food and whether I would be able to eat it. It was all in fun, and the food ended up being very good and, unfortunately, all well-suited for American tastes. However, it did lead to discussions of traditional Asian foods that would seem strange to most of us in America.
Last night it led to more as a friend of mine from Taiwan, Chinglan, took me on a culinary adventure. Right after work she took me to Houston’s burgeoning Chinatown. We started at a very small place with the innocuous name of China Gourmet. Afterwards we were to meet her husband and my wife for Peking Duck and other more “normal” Chinese fare, but the China Gourmet was the biggest part of the adventure, that they were intentionally skipping.
We walked in and I knew immediately that I was not in Kansas anymore. Once Chinglan began speaking to the gentleman behind the counter it struck me that there was conversation all around me, not a word of which did I have the ability to understand. I can’t exactly explain why, but being nudged out of my comfort zone was exhilarating. For all I knew my friend was telling the counterman, “Hey, this stupid white boy fancies himself a food tourist, fry him up some cat turds marinated in goat urine and if he eats it I can post about him on my blog!”
Luckily for me, she is a very nice lady, and apparently ordered the dishes that we had come for; Stinky Tofu and the ultra-mysterious Four Things Soup. Although, had the batteries in my camera not been dead, she would be posting a picture of a stupid white boy eating Stinky Tofu on her blog this morning, but that was previously agreed upon.
Stinky Tofu is bean curd that has been aged in fermenting vegetable matter and then steamed or fried and served with a dipping sauce that I could not identify and some kimchi, which I could. The fried variety, which is what we had, is less fragrant that its steamed cousin, but still earns its name. While I am very grateful to Chinglan for sharing this dish with me, and I will be able to proudly be able to brag about having tried it forever, I can not claim to be a fan of it. Fried Stinky Tofu is not entirely unpleasant. It has a nutty, slightly cheesy quality that is very nice. It does, however, retain flavors from the rotting vegetation if gets its name from that is much less nice.
Then there is the texture. I had imagined that it would be creamy, maybe even slightly runny. It is not. Another friend and co-worker of Chinese descent had described it perfectly earlier in the day. He told me to imagine that someone had cut a dish sponge into cubes and the battered and deep fried it. Bingo!
The other dish, Four Things Soup, was much more to my liking. I’m not entirely sure what the four things are, but I do know that it had stomach and lotus bean seeds in a broth made from rice wine. It is reputed to have medicinal qualities and I found it to be both tasty and refreshing. It also left a very pleasant aftertaste. I will definitely eat this again. Chinglan did inform me that it is traditionally made with intestines and not stomach, but having no other frame of reference, I was quite content with how this tasted.
The more American-friendly food we had at the next restaurant was also fantastic, but wasn’t quite as adventurous. I ordered us all a bottle of Pinot Noir, figuring it would pair well with the widest variety of foods, and Chinglan ordered the food. For the record, Peking Duck is fantastic with Pinot Noir.
Afterwards we headed for a third restaurant for desert; shaved ice topped with strawberries and mangoes, sweetened condensed milk, and a scoop of ice cream. It was unusual, but highly addictive.
It will probably take me weeks of penance at the gym and much sacrifice at the dinner table to recover from such a food orgy, but it was worth it. I hope to get the opportunity to do this again soon. The fried duck tongues on the menu sounded intriguing.
If you don’t open yourself up for new experiences you might spare yourself the occasional bad taste, but you will miss out on so many more wonderful ones. Don’t be squeamish!