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.