If you walk into a grocery store in Hong Kong, chances are you’ll think to yourself, “Man, they need to throw out their kiwi. It stinks.” And then you’ll pass through the produce section and into the bread aisle and forget all about it.
Until the next time you go to a grocery store. Or until the next time you walk past a grocery store with an open front. Or until the next time you’re in a mall that has a grocery store at one end, and you’re at the other end, in a perfume store, with a scarf wrapped around your nose. And then you’ll smell that rotten stinky fruit/kiwi smell again, and go, “God Almighty, what is it with these people and their rotten fruit?”
Of course I’d heard about durian (rhymes with urine, with good reason) before I came here, the spiky fruit with the soft innards that smells so bad there are signs on trains in Singapore forbidding its presence. What I’d heard, though, was that despite it’s nasty smell, it tasted like something God had made with his (or her, or its) own hands. And of course, as a semi-epicurean (meaning, I have more cook books than I actually use) when I heard about this I thought, “Cool! I want to try that!” Thinking, of course, that, sort of like Jagermeister, having the guts and stomach to try durian, and even like it (because, you know, us cultured types like peculiar things that the MacDonald’s crowd is too uncivilized to appreciate) made you a manly man in a chardonnay swilling kind of a way.
No, actually. Durian just tastes as foul as it smells, and it smells plenty foul.
I know this because last night after we went out to dinner with one of my colleagues, they took us across the street to a dessert place. While the kids were ordering all sorts of fruit and frozen tofu concoctions, I pointed to a poster on the wall of a sticky pastry surrounding a fruity center.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Colin, my Singaporean neighbor, just grinned.
To begin with, it was the only dessert I saw last night that came to the table tightly sealed in plastic wrap. Second, while it didn’t have an overwhelming smell when I took it out, it certainly did remind me of something leafy and wet that had been left outside in the heat. And third, the first bite was nasty, yes, but not that bad. Oh no, not that bad indeed, not compared to the second bite, which was like eating a grape that had been soaked in putrid flesh. And the second bite made the third bite seem like pure heaven.
Colin swears that there are those who eat durian for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’m guessing these people are single. Even 14 hours after having it, I can still taste its rancid unholiness at the back of my throat, and smell it somewhere in the upper regions of my nostrils.
That aside, here are a few of the culinary delights you should know about, that we’ve encountered thus far:
Our first time to Kowloon, Lucy and Will and Jamie and I emerged from a small park shaded by tall trees onto a busy Nathan road, with its 1920s Main street architecture, honking horns, crowded sidewalks, and a blinding sun that brought the sweat to our foreheads instantly. Squinting, the kids ducked under a brick overhang and waited for me to get my bearings. Next thing I knew, a woman with a bright red head scarf swooped in over them and was offering them a bottle of water. I scurried over, ever the watchful parent—and, admittedly, a little thirsty myself. Bright red head scarves, you see, especially ones with matching skirts and sequins, aren’t really Hong Kong couture, but more the sign of a Jonestown survivor still trying to work out her anger issues. When I got to the kids, this woman was bent over them, thrusting the water at them and chattering away. She turned, looked at me, and handed me a square package of crackers.
“These are for you,” she said, then started babbling something in English about some school, with ballerinas and kumquats and brown rubber duckies that knew how to squeal. And then she straightened, and walked away.
I stared after her. Then I looked at the kids. They were sweating profusely, and the bottle was clearly cold, slick with condensation. I reached for the water, checked the cap to make sure it was sealed. Then I broke the seal and took a sip. Nothing burned down my throat, my stomach didn’t dissolve in a rush of acid, no imperceptible shards of glass cut my tongue. I handed it to the kids.
Then, as we wove along the sidewalks toward our MTR station, I split the foil wrapper of the crackers with my thumbnail. They looked like saltines, only slightly longer, with a seam in the middle and a 3-2-3 pattern of tiny holes in each square. I bit into one.
Butter. Salt. And something slightly sharp and green. I looked at the label: Four Seas, Green Spring Onion. I took another bite. Flakey and golden. You could almost taste the chicken stock they’d used to make them.
Okay, so you were probably expecting something more highbrow. Well here’s one: we were worried my boss and neighbor Anita wasn’t seeing nearly enough of me, so last night we insisted on taking her and her family out to dinner to repay them for all the help they’d given us in settling in (Hey, with friends like us . . . ).
Ellen wanted to know more about Cantonese food, so Anita and her husband drove us to a nice restaurant in the middle of Tai Po and ordered a set menu with a half-dozen items, including Ostrich (man, was the head on that sucker big! Just kidding,), braised tofu, barbequed pork (Will’s favorite), and fried squid with a nice, hot, yellow mustard. My favorite though, was the pepper beef. It was sliced thin, and cooked hot so that the meat curled and was crispy on the outside but still pink in the middle. Surrounding it were little pearl onions, green peppers, and thick triangular cuts of red onion.
“Damn,” I said at one point, because I always find that swearing in an expensive restaurant and with people I barely know is a great way to impress them. “I love these little round onions.”
Ellen and Anita laughed. I raised my eyebrows. Then Ellen pointed with her chopsticks. “They’re not onions,” she said. “See? They’re lychees.”
Sometimes you eat a meal and you know the cook is clever—the guy who puts raisins in your curry, say, or the woman who decided that cinnamon rolls with frosting were a good idea.
And then sometimes you eat a meal—say one where sweet crispy lychees are sautéed with crunchy peppered beef—and you know the cook is a genius.
The other night Ellen made pork chops, frying them up with a little garlic. She’d bought some long thin eggplants, what most American cookbooks call Japanese eggplant, but apparently you can buy them from Chinese people too. Neither of us had any clever ideas about what to do with them, so she just sliced them up and tossed them in the wok with a little olive oil. The key, I think, was that she didn’t overcook them, just allowed them to soak up a little oil and heat up. So when they came out and were on the plate, they were still crisp. There was nothing green about the taste, nothing bitter or sharp. Instead, they hit every taste bud in your mouth, filling it with a warm, lush, summery sensation, like when you eat good, warm bread, or dig into tomatoes straight off the vine.
The first 29 times we walked down the main street of old Tai Po, we didn’t notice it. But then I read this great article in the South China Morning Post about how 7-Eleven was trying to edge out local fish ball venders, and two days later we walk past the same narrow shop we’d seen every day since the kids started school, and realized that those little white things floating in the vat of curry must be fish balls.
“Hey—“I said, pointing, and Ellen, who is generally more articulate, nodded. “Fish balls.”
So of course we had to buy some. Granted, it was only 9 in the morning, but the paper said that the common working man of Hong Kong had these things anytime of day, along with milk tea, so why shouldn’t we?
They were fishier than we expected. Not overwhelming, been sitting on the ice in Kroger for three days too long kind of fishy, but fishy none the less. But the curry had a nice kick, spiking the back of your throat as it went down. And that milk rice stuff? Imagine cold tea with lots of cream and lots and lots of sugar, sliding down your throat right after a good dose of spicy curry. Not bad.
Wednesday I had to go down to central for a briefing at the US Consulate—something about how it’s illegal to touch womens’ hair on the MTR and murmur, “So pretty. Like a sleeping kitten,” but I have to admit I didn’t listen very carefully. Afterwards a few of us went to a restaurant on Wellington that one of the staff at the office recommended. On a dare, one of ordered the marinated jellyfish. Someone else—me, probably—ordered the barbequed pork ribs.
Chances are you’ve had the jellyfish before and not known it. It looks and feels like slightly underdone rice noodles. It tastes like a sweet sort of pickle, with just a little spicy pepper thrown in.
The ribs were delicious too. Which isn’t surprising, because they came to the table under a two inch layer of gelatinous fat. This is no exaggeration: imagine a small block of ribs, meat falling off the bone, just what you’d expect—under a two-inch, thick yellow layer of gelatinous fat. I’ll say it again: the fat was two inches thick. And gelatinous. Headley, our resident nutritionist, just laughed when the waiter laid the plate down.
Funny thing, though. When you took your chopsticks and slid them crossways under the yellowed of goo, the fat just dropped right off. And what was left behind was moist and rich with flavor.
Which isn’t surprising, since it’d been cooked beneath—say it with me, brother—a two-inch layer of gelatinous fat.
If you go to the Wellcome grocery store—yes, that’s how it’s spelled—just up the hill from where we leave, they carry a brand of sour lime gummy worms. Each one is about six inches long and skinny as a real night crawler. Eating them requires winding them onto your tongue—otherwise they’re so big they fall out of your mouth. And they’re sweet, until you swallow, when the back of your mouth is lit up with a salty sourness.
Last weekend we went in to Kowloon to see the laser show that happens over the bay every night at eight o’clock. Wandering down a small side street, we stopped at a rack of postcards. While the kids were choosing, I glanced into the shop and realized it was actually a little alley leading into the middle of the building. Not to far in, I saw an Indian restaurant, and pointed it out to Ellen. “I wonder if it’s any good,” I said.
The man selling the cards shrugged. “Go upstairs instead,” he said. “Always full.”
We looked at him. “Really?”
He nodded. “Always full.”
So we did. The inside was long and narrow, with windows along one side and white table clothes, and sage looking waiters who hovered between your table and the next working hard to look unobtrusive, and succeeding. We ordered pretty much at random, only making sure to get something for Will that had chicken and didn’t bleed profusely.
The first dish was shrimp in tomato sauce with crispy rice. The shrimp and sauce were just dandy, fine even. But that crispy rice. Man. It looks like Weatabix, rectangular and thin and textured. The taste is hard to describe, but is closest, as Lucy pointed out, to buttered popcorn. So, to summarize: fresh shrimp, a creamy tomato sauce, and popcorn.
What’s not to like?
It got even better with our last dish: Dried Pickled Cabbage with Mushrooms and Bamboo Shoots. Yeah, I’m not sure what we were thinking either. When I pointed to it on the menu, the waiter looked up at the maitre d’ and said something in rapid Cantonese—which is an exercise in redundancy, since there is no such thing as slow Cantonese. The maitre d’, who looks like no one so much as a Chinese Riccardo Montebaun, came up and leaned over my shoulder. “Is dry,” he said, pointing at the dish on the menu and looking a little angry.
“It’s okay,” I said, even though I had no idea what he meant. Did he mean “dry” like dry cereal? Were we going to eat astronaut food? Would it be served with Tang? Maybe, instead of being presented with a serving plate, we’d simply be handed little plastic Craisin-sized baggies of mushrooms and bamboo. Or maybe they’d add water to the dish once it arrived? Surely they didn’t expect us to hydrate our own vittles?
What finally arrived was a big dish of what looked like dried green leaves, almost ash-like in their lightness and texture. Scattered throughout, themselves so light that they could float on this mass of dried—um—stuff, were clam-sized gray things.
Huh. I thought.
“Huh,” said Ellen.
“What’s that?” said Lucy, so loudly that a couple at the other end of the restaurant looked up.
I grinned sheepishly at our waiter, who was suddenly looking slightly less unobtrusive and slightly more, well—obtrusive. Then I glanced at the maitre d’, who was looking over some menus, but whom, I suspected, was watching us out of the corner of one eye.
It’s amazing, when you think about it, how many things I’ve done in my life to keep waiters and waitresses happy. I’ve drunk flat sodas. I’ve sipped vinegary wine. I’ve ignored flakes of bread beside the salt shaker. I’ve apologized profusely for returning food that tasted like rancid cow dung. All to satisfy someone who I’d probably never see again, and who often didn’t bother to turn from the table before rolling her eyes at my questions about food that cost more than a small farm where I could grow it myself.
“Well,” I said, and reached across the table with my chopsticks. The food rustled—rustled—as I put it on my plate. I stuck my nose over it and took a whiff. A slightly smoky order, slightly charred, but not bad. Kind of like the burnt part of a roasted marshmallow—though, of course, the burnt part of a roasted marshmallow is generally redeemed by the fact that it surrounds a roasted marshmallow.
“Well,” I said again. And then I stuck it in my mouth.
I’m not going to say much about the dried, pickled cabbage. It had some flavor, yes: slightly dusty, slightly ashy, slightly green. Nice, but not overwhelming. But man, those dried mushrooms. Wow. It was like mushroom, but not really. More like mushroom pate. But not really that, either. It was definitely mushroomy, but sort of mushroom light. Like, I don’t know, mushroom squared, then divided by two, so that the sum was the same as what you’d started with, but the effect as a whole was different.
Okay, I admit it: not only do I not know crap about math, but the taste of those mushrooms completely eludes description. To quote Salinger, God, I wish you could’ve been there. If you want to try it yourself, come to Hong Kong and go to Spring Deer on Mody Road. You’ll have no trouble finding it, just ask anyone. They’ll be able to tell you. Because, as it turns out, this little restaurant that we just stumbled upon? It’s one of the most famous in Hong Kong.
Damn. We are so lucky.