Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I Know How to Gag in 17 Different Languages

         Twenty years ago when I was in Africa, I spent a weekend consuming nothing but bananas and beer.  No, it wasn’t a kinky metaphor party.  Rather, both of the women I was with had been evicted from Tanzania with “No Re-Entry” stamped in their passports.  Further, one of them had been robbed of all her money.  Consequently, Malawi, the country we were trying to enter, was refusing to let her out of no-man’s land.  Eventually the problem got solved, but not before the banks closed for the weekend and we were left penniless until Monday morning.  The border guards felt sorry for us (and well they should, since it was their fault we were considering selling body parts) and talked a trucker and his wife into giving us a ride to the capital.  Unfortunately, the trailer tractor was hauling a load of iron over the Malawi mountains, so it took the better part of two days to get us to Lilongwe.  Meantime, the trucker’s wife saw fit to keep us fed on bananas.  And the trucker’s assistant saw fit to buy us an endless supply of beer. 

It was 15 years before I would eat another banana.  I've yet to accept a banana split with beer sauce.

After leaving Africa, I spent a month traveling around England with my friend Pete before our year started at Durham University.  This is back in the 80s, you have to understand, when the licensing laws in the UK were stricter:  most shops closed at 5:30, and all shops were closed on Sundays.  Thus, if you were in a remote village somewhere and it was 5:32 on a Saturday evening, you’d better be well stocked, because it’d be another 38 hours and 28 minutes until you’d be getting anything more to eat. 

As you might imagine, this made a 6’3” kid who’d gone to Africa weighing 168 pounds and left nine weeks later weighing 130 just a little bit nervous.  One evening in a hostel on the island of Skye, Pete came into our room holding his toothbrush and a towel and did a doubletake. 

“What’s that?”

I looked up at him from where I was reading on my bunk.  “Stephen King.”

Pete pointed.  “No.  That.  Is it a stuffed animal?”

I glanced down.  “No.”

He leaned closer.  “Is that a muffin?”

“A scone, actually.”

“Why are you holding it like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like that.  Like—are you taking that muffin to bed with you?”

“Quiet," I said, "or you’ll hurt her feelings.  You make it sound like I’m using her.”

What can I tell you?  Just the thought of not having food nearby made my forehead break out in sweat.  It’s a good thing I didn’t live through the Great Depression, because I so would have whored myself for a biscuit. 


All of which is a roundabout way of saying that being in Hong Kong makes me nervous, food-wise.  Part of it is simply Africa/England residue.  Part of it is the complication of traveling with kids.  Will, my oldest, who I love dearly, gets itchy when you feed him anything more adventurous than bologna and cheese—and that damn well better be mild cheddar, pal.   Lucy, my middle child, is more of a risk taker, but even she has her limits—say, anything that has fish in it, or the letter “f,” for that matter.  Jamie—well, he’s just two and a contrary little bugger. 

But part of it is that, well, they eat funny things in this country.   The other day we were on the top floor of the Tai Po wet market, where the food stalls are located.  We were standing by a noodle stand, looking entirely confused, when a young lady in black jeans and purple sweater came up and, in perfect English, offered to help us.  We handed her a menu and she started to translate. 

“This is,” she said, moving her finger down the menu, “the won-ton soup.  And here is the fish-ball soup, a Hong Kong specialty.”  Flipping the menu over, she continued.  “This is pork soup, and the shrimps, and then, these are—are various kinds of, you know, internal meats.”

The key word here—strike that, the key letter here—is the “s” at the end of meat.  We’re not talking kidneys here, people.  Or even tripe.  We’re talking everything:  everything.  Liver.  Lungs.  Spleen.  You name it, it’s in your soup. 

On an intellectual level, of course, I know my resistance is stupid.  After all, we’re not just talking about Hong Kong, we’re talking an entire continent that finds bladder soup very tasty.

Too, I’ve always admired my Icelandic friends who talk about how their parents and grandparents—before Iceland became one of the richest countries in the world (before then becoming one of the poorest again)—used to eat the whole sheep:  guts, lungs, cheeks, brains, eyeballs.  I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it?  If you’re going to kill an animal, you might as well eat the whole thing?  Granted, as much as I’ve always admired people who think this way, I’ve usually done them from a distance, the same way I admire, say, bomb disposal experts, or harmonica players. 

Deepening the contradiction is the fact that one of my favorite restaurants—The Red Hen, in Lexington, Virginia, arguably one of the best restaurants on the East coast—essentially practices whole animal philosophy.  On any given night, an order of lamb might lead to a presentation involving neck, liver, heart, and loin.  I’ve had this dish, and found it delicious.  How come I like it in my hometown, but get sort of light-headed and fuzzy stomached when it’s placed before me in a foreign country? 

I’m sure there are lots of explanations, beyond the fact that I’m a huge coward.  The heat doesn’t help:  it’s hard to feel comfortable trying new things when your skull seems to be leaking down the back of your underwear.  Then, too, there’s the low blood sugar issue:  if I’m not in a restaurant, seated, and within six minutes of being fed no more than four hours after the last time I ate, nothing—not filet mignon, not rack of lamb with mint sauce, not my grandma’s homemade donuts—nothing looks good.  That at least one of my kids is similarly hypoglycemic doesn’t help matters. 

Then there are the intangibles:  consider, for example, our trip to the top-floor food court the other day.  We were there plenty early, so no blood sugar problems.  The place was relatively clean in a rustic kind of way.  And the food looked—and smelled—good.  All around us were kids and grandmas and dads and moms eating bowls of noodles with wonderful green vegetables floating in them. 

The plan had been to check out the market and get back to our flat in time for PB&J sandwiches and a nap for Jamie.  But both my wife and I couldn’t take our eyes off those big steaming bowls of wonderful hot noodles in chicken broth.  So finally we broke down and got two Hong Kong  specialties:  won ton soup, and fish-ball soup.

Now I want to tell you straight out that neither of these are quite what they seem:  the won ton soup, though similar to the version you’d get in, say Springfield, Illinois, is actually pretty different.  For one thing, it has a much fishier taste.  For another thing, this fishy taste is caused by the huge roll of dried fish skin they put in the soup.   And for the record?  This huge piece of fish skin looks exactly like what it is, including the odd scale that might be sticking to its side. 

The fish ball soup, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as disgusting as you might think.  First of all, no matter what you thirteen-year-olds (and you people with the sense of humor of a thirteen-year-old) might say, no, this soup does not consist of fish testicles.  Second, though this soup also contains a thick, fatty roll of fish skin, strangely the soup does not taste particularly fishy.  The fish balls themselves, make of densely compacted fish meat, taste more like rice than anything, and fill you up nicely.   I can provide no better testimony to the appeals of this soup than the fact that Will, my bologna and cheese man, gobbled it up. 

Go figure. 

Jamie was another story.  One issue with wonton soup in a real Chinese restaurant is that the noodles are incredibly long, and thus difficult to stuff into a two-year-old’s mouth.  Another problem is that the wonton dumplings are rather big, somewhere on the upside of ping-pong balls—also difficult for toddler stuffing.  The simple answer, of course, is to cut both noodles and dumplings into kiddie-friendly sizes.  But, oops, you’re in Hong Kong, where the only utensils are chopsticks and one of those thick porcelain spoons.  That the Chinese somehow manage to make eating with these implements actually look graceful—dipping the spoon into the soup and using it to suspend noodles closer to the mouth while eating with the chopsticks—is a testimony to both their elegance and their perseverance. 

I am neither elegant nor persevering.  I take one chopstick in each hand and half-saw, half-crush the won-tons into two pieces.  This works, but only after sloshing a third of the broth onto the table.  Next, I take the big fat baby spoon and try to trap a few noodles between the spoon and the edge of the bowl, effectively slicing them.   This works also, but only until I release the pressure from the spoon, at which time the freshly cut noodles sink to the bottom of the bowl.  No worries.  I reach in with my fingers and fish the damn things out.  I put them in the spoon-bowl.  I bring the bowl to Jamie’s mouth. 

“Too hot,” he says. 

“No,” I tell him.  “It’s not hot.  Daddy just stuck his fingers in, didn’t you see?”

“Dirty,” he says.

“No, daddy’s fingers are very clean.  He licks them all the time.”

But his jaw stays clenched. 

I put the noodles back, scoop up some of the chopped won-ton. 

“Too hot,” he says. 

No, I explain, it’s not too hot.  To show him, I stick some of the dumpling in my mouth.  It’s amazing:  ground pork, shrimp, green onions, all saturated with salty chicken broth.  Holy crap, I want to eat the whole bowl right then.  But there’s only one spoon.

“Come on, Jamie,” I say.  “Daddy’s hungry.  Open up.”

“Too ho—“ he begins again, but I’m too quick:  the moment his lips part, in goes the dumpling. 

“Aaaaaagh!” he screams.  “Aaaaaagh!  Too hot!”

My wife looks at me.  So does a couple at the next table, whose one-year-old is contentedly eating his noodles in that elegant bowl-spoon/chopstick way. 

“It’s not too hot,” I say to my wife.  “I tasted it myself.  It’s fine.”

“Too hot!” Jamie hollers.  “Too hot!”  His mouth is wide open, his lower jaw hanging down.  Soggy, partially chewed, sloppily-cut won-ton is pouring over his lower lip.  He looks for all the world like a demon from a Japanese horror film, come back to haunt the owners of the noodle hut where he choked to death. 

“It’s not too hot,” I say to the couple at the next table.  “I blew on it.  He’s just a fussy eater.”

“He doesn’t like the texture,” Ellen says.

“Aaagh!” says Jamie, his jaw unhinged.  His eyes are frantic, ping-ponging back and forth between his mother and me. 

“How can you say that?” I ask my wife.  “All he’s saying is ‘Too hot.’  Where do you get texture from that?

“Won-tons have a weird texture,” she says.  “Sort of gluey, with tiny lumps.”

“Aaaaagh!” says Jamie.  He starting to sound like he’s gargling.  The whole of his tongue is coated with thick rice noodle and what looks like masticated beef. 

“Get it out,” Ellen says. 


It’s a simple question, but a brilliant one.  There are no napkins anywhere.  There’s not even a table-clothe, the corner of which Jamie might spit into unobtrusively.  The bowl of soup has barely been touched, so if he spits there, it’s a complete loss.  The only option is to have him hack into my hand, which means that I’ll be stuck with a fistful of meat and noodle with nothing but my shorts to wipe it on.  I love my children, but I’m not about to spend the rest of the day with shrimp stuck to my pants. 

“Too hot,” Jamie moans, plaintively. 

So I do what any other normal psychotic dad would do:  I grab a bottle of water, stick it in Jamie's mouth, and pour some in.  Then I clamp his jaw shut and force him to swallow.  Which he does, instantly.

Then he looks at me.  I look at him.  I look at my wife.  She also looks at Jamie, then glances at the other two kids, who are staring at each other.  The couple at the next table watches all five of us, wondering if we’re related maybe to Nicole Richie.  Then I look back at Jamie. 

“Was that good?” I say.

“More,” he grins.  “More.”


 Please note:  this blog is mine, all mine, and in no way represents the views of the wonderful folks of at the Fulbright office. 




Peter Hanson said...

I can't believe you wrote a whole post about gagging in 17 languages and didn't mention Dagaa (those little fish we ate in the village near Singida where the kid had the Green Bay Packers Tshirt and we, being Very Good Volunteers, taught them how to throw a frisbee). I clearly remember a carefully constructed Swahili conversation where we listed all the things we liked to eat, and then told our co-workers, "we don't like dagaa..."

Cherilyn Colbert said...

Hysterical. As a mother of an almost two-year-old, I can relate to the "Too hot" complaint, when it is in fact, not too hot.