Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vittles II: A play in five parts, starring Bruce Willis as a resilient yet sensitive squid

     Around the corner from the Tai Po market, right next to the shop where we buy almonds and dried papaya, stands a non-descript, almost dingy bakery.  Most of their offerings are on the bread line, flavorless and bland.  If you duck down, though, and look close on the bottom shelf of the glass case beneath the cash register, you’ll see something that can make you very happy. 

Mango Pancakes aren’t pancakes in the American sense of the word, but more a cross of crepes and a breakfast burrito.  The “cake” referred to is a thin layer of golden sponge, maybe twice the size of a pancake but not nearly as thick as something you’d layer and frost.  Around it are stewed slices of mango, maybe from a can, but frankly it doesn’t matter:  they’re sweet and a little green in that way that mangos have.  And around that is fluffy white whipped cream of the cheap, canned variety, the stuff you know you should hate, but don’t, especially when it comes with mangos.  And wrapping it all up is a large, slightly-eggy crepe, folded in a square like the dinner crepes you have in France when you’re in the country and they’re not catering to tourists. 

Just to recap, in case I lost you at “golden sponge”:  crepes, yellow cake, mangos, and whipped cream, all wrapped up in a tidy little package you can gobble as you stroll down the street. 


The night of the fireworks celebrating the PRC’s 60th anniversary, we stumbled out the MTR station and halted just on the brink of our usual path of backstreet Kowloon. 

“Spring Deer?” I said to Ellen.  One of our favorites, famous throughout HK for its Peking Duck.

She gave a little shrug, then a grimace.  Relief flooded me.  So it was okay.  For a week now I’d been walking around feeling guilty, too embarrassed to confess the truth:  I was sick of Chinese food.  And, it appeared, so was Ellen.  Thank God. 

We turned around and walked into the first western restaurant we could find.  Tapas.  Excellent.  We ordered two baskets of fried chicken and French fries to keep the kids happy, then a pair of Hoegardens to keep us happy as we perused the menu.  It was all good in the end, but the two highlights of the evening were the chorizo with figs and the sautéed squid with olives.

I’m beginning to like this hot and sweet thing (boy, there’s a sentence not to be taken out of context):  the chorizo was sliced into half-inch rounds and fried in its own juices (grease, really, but juices sounds better).  Fresh sliced figs were added at the last minute and cooked until they were barely soft.  The combination was unreal:  burning the top and back of your mouth at the same time it lit up the front of your tongue with sweetness.  Unbelievable.

The squid was cooked in just a little bit of olive oil with Mediterranean herbs.  The olives were green, so here again you had contrast, this time between the mild, almost milky taste of the squid and the sharp, edgy taste of the olive.


The evening of Mid-Autumn festival, we went out to dinner with our friends Anita and Collin.  The dinner was good, except for the sea cucumber that I ordered (Am I the only person in the universe who didn’t know this isn’t actually a vegetable?).  But the best thing, seriously?  A tiny dish served as a pre-appetizer full of mildly vinegared cucumbers (real ones, grown in the dirt not birthed by sea demon spawn) and pork floss.  You heard me:  pork floss.  Dried pork that’s pulled apart and spun so that it’s fuzzy and chewy.  A little sweet, a little spicy, a little salty. And delicious.


Strolling across the walkway between old Tai Po and the new city, I hear the dink dink dink of metal on metal, like someone’s playing a triangle and getting it all wrong.  Sitting on one side of the covered bridge is an old man dressed entirely in white—white sneakers, white pants, a graying-white shirt with an open collar.  Even his baseball cap is white.

Between his legs, resting on a small stand, is a large metal pan, about nine inches deep and thirty inches across.  Wrinkled foil covers the side nearest me, but in the open space of the rest I see uneven, off-white chunks of something coated in something white and powdery.

That’s a terrible description I know, but at this point I have no idea what’s going on.  The old man is sitting on a stool beside this pan, leaning over it with a small chisel in one hand.  In his other he holds a metal instrument I’ve never seen before, about the shape and size of the hand-held scrapers you use to remove ice from your windshield.  The only difference is that the end of his instrument is scooped and the man keeps using it to gather up the vanilla colored chunks of—whatever it is (crystallized human flesh?), tossing them in the white powdery stuff, whatever it is (dandruff?).  Then he gathers and tosses again, and then again, then taps the tip of the chisel on the back of the scoop dink dink dink and a pudgy mom with a little boy in glasses comes over.  She says something in Cantonese, and the man mumbles back.  He pulls out a small plastic bag the size of a handkerchief, scoops the candy in the sugar (I’m making assumptions here, I know,  but the boy hardly looks cannibalistic) and slides it edgewise into the bag.  The woman hands him a five-dollar coin and the old man goes back to scooping and tapping, scooping and tapping. 

The great thing about this candy is not how chewy it is—think stale saltwater taffy—or how sweet it is—(it’s not just sugar, but confectioners sugar) or the way it’s gingery at first and peanut-buttery later on, when the outside has softened and your dental work is starting to shake loose. 

No, the great thing about this candy is the way it burns:  somewhere, deep beneath the sugar and the nougat and the butter, somewhere beneath the nuts and ginger and glucose, somewhere beneath all of that—is cayenne.  You feel it first thing when it hits your mouth, and after you chew for a while (and chew . . . and chew), you feel it at the back of your throat.  And the whole time your lips are still powdered with sugar and your jaw is working and your mouth is salivating over that nutty, earthy flavor, your mouth continues to burn like you just swallowed sweet, candy-covered nettles.


This one sounds gross.  It looks gross.  It feels gross.  Hell, it smells gross. 

But here goes:  we’re sitting down by the harbor, stuffing stale peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in our mouths so that we can catch the 12:00 cruise on a real junk.  Lucy hates PBJ.  She reminds us of this every 7 seconds, taking bites that would leave a mouse famished.  It’s 11:51, though, and we still have to find the right dock and we need her to shut up and eat so we can get on this big old boat and I can promptly regurgitate my sandwich into the harbor. 

“Lucy,” I tell her.  “If you eat that sandwich now—right now—then after the cruise we can go get some dumplings on the island.”

Lucy loves dumplings.  She can eat a dozen at a go and not break a sweat.  But even so, I can see her eyeing me carefully.

Finally she says, “And if I don’t eat my sandwich right now?”

“We’ll sell you to that man in the Tai Po market, the guy with one eye.”

“The pig gut man?”

“That’s right,” I say.   “The pig gut man.”

Even so, she takes a moment to consider the options.  Finally, though, the sandwich goes in her mouth, we sprint for the docks, we make our cruise, and we have a grand time.

Once we make it to Hong Kong Island, we go in search of a dim sum restaurant.  And of course we can’t find any.  6,000 restaurants on that island, the main island of Hong Kong, the most famous place in the world for dim sum, and we can’t find a single friggin’ dim sum restaurant to save our lives.  Finally, we circle back to where we started, coming up a narrow, rising street.  And there, 14 feet from where our quest began, is a restaurant called, I kid you not, “The Dumpling House.”

I turn and look at Ellen.   Her face is glistening with sweat, her skin pale.  We’ve just walked 1,489 miles on an island roughly 31 square miles in size.  Had we simply turned in the other direction when we started, we would have eaten three days ago.

We go in.  It’s a pit:  part waffle house, part Flannery O’Connor stage play.  But they have dumplings.  Only one kind, of course, but Lucy doesn’t care:  as long as they have dough wrapped around something dead and ground up, she’s happy.

I don’t quite know how we got the soup.  God knows, if I’m awake, sober, and not suffering brain trauma and I see a soup called “Seaweed and Egg” on the menu, I’m not ordering it.  Ever.  Jennifer Anniston, naked, with “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me” written across her chest in orange marmalade could be serving it, and I still wouldn’t order it.  I mean, are you kidding me? 

And this is a soup that does itself no favors.  When it arrives, it’s just as advertised:  more or less scrambled egg, served in a steaming bowl of seaweed and what looks like dishwater.  And we’re not talking that sanitized, formerly dried, neat and tidy seaweed you get in an American sushi restaurant.  Oh now, when this seaweed comes, it’s got attitude.  It’s seaweed that says, “So, you hate seaweed, do ya’?  Well seaweed this, pal.”  And then it grabs its privates and flicks you a rude gesture that only makes sense in Italy. 

I mean, this stuff is fuzzy.  It looks like seaweed, like the crap you avoid stepping in when you’re having a nice time at the beach.  Only here, it’s in a bowl, with a strange boiled version of the scrambled egg.  And a spoon.  Because you’re supposed to eat it.

The next question, of course, is why I put it in my mouth.  I don’t know, to be honest.  But I did.  And boy was I glad. 

You know how coffee smells good, but doesn’t taste nearly as good as it smells?  Or how pipe smoke really makes you feel warm and nostalgic when you catch it drifting on an autumn breeze, but when you put that pipe to your mouth and inhale you feel like someone dragged a rake across your tonsils? 

Well this stuff, this soup, it tastes like coffee smells.  Not like coffee tastes, mind you, but like it smells:  it’s dark, and textured, tickling the back of your throat before going down warm and rich and—and just fulfilling.  It’s satisfying, like taking a bite of warm bread soaked in butter.  How it work, is beyond me, combining two things that generally disgust on their own—dead water plant, and soggy egg—into something that’s salty and hearty and really really tasty.  But it does.  And that’s a good thing.  

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