It’s Friday morning and I’ve just seen Will and Lucy onto their shuttle bus. I consider just crossing the street and taking the 26 back to school, but it’s sunny and warm and it’s been a few days since I’ve had anytime to wander around, so I stroll up Kwong Fuk Road, glancing in shop windows and just generally enjoying not being in an office designing powerpoint slides for a workshop I have to run next week.
I’m vaguely hungry, and tempted to go into one of the bakeries you find every 20 feet or so in Hong Kong, but since moving here 4 months ago, I’ve gained 300 pounds, so even just looking at a custard cup makes my good old Midwestern guilt meter kick in.
And then I see the steamed buns.
Now, I should tell you that the first time I had boa dim, I was disgusted: steamed bread? Wet buns? (Quit snickering!) No flakey crust baked to a crispy golden brown? None of those little hollow spots, so perfect for storing butter?
And I would eat this why?
The first taste basically lived up to my expectations: boring. Bland. Chewey in a snap-back-in-your-face kind of way.
And no butter. Let’s just build the little bun-sized coffins right now, and get it over with.
Then a few weeks ago I was faced with one of those Chinese breakfasts that consists of greasy noodles cooked with garlic and sinewy ham and—what do you know?—suddenly boiled bread didn’t look half bad.
And frankly, upon this second tasting, I actually found myself sort of satisfied: sure, it was kind of chewy; sure, the texture was neither as crispy on the outside nor as fluffy on the inside as I would have liked; sure, the waitress looked at me like I had just ordered flambéed baby when I asked if there was any butter in the house—but aside from that, it tasted kind of good, like bread dough tastes just after you’ve added just enough flour to make it stretchy and just before you put it the oven. Not bad at all, really.
And now, on this particular Friday, I’m standing in old Tai Po outside a boa dim shop. There’s a line of people gathered around a large, white, industrial case with glass doors that slide open when you tug on the thick aluminum handles. Inside, there are three or four metal shelves, on top of which sit a selection of buns: some white, some pale green, some round and smooth, some twisted and grooved with a gathered crest at the top, some with meat sticking out of their sides.
As I watch, two women serve a line of customers: one takes their coins and tosses them into a cardboard box on top of the boa box. The other takes the order, reaches into the case to retrieve the bun, and slides it into a plastic bag, which she then hands the customer. Every time she opens the door, a blanket of steam rises into the cold morning air. In the half-minute or so I watch, ten or eleven customers shuffle their way through the line and leave happy, bun in hand. Clearly this is the place to be.
When the line thins, I step forward and lean in for a closer look. I know this will hurt my macho quotient, but frankly, I’m intimidated by the buns. There are just so many of them. What if I get the wrong kind? What if, in ordering, I commit some egregious cultural error—ordering the Buddhist bun, or the I hate Americans Bun—that brands me forever as a social reprobate? What, in short, if everyone laughs at me?
Then I see that across the top of the case stretches a double row of small red stickers, each listing the name of a bun and its cost. And they’re in English: Lotus Paste, Sesame Paste, Red Bean, Mushrom, Green Tea, Chicken, Pork and Leek, and many, many more.
I examine my options, not sure where to begin. Beef curry? Sausage?
And then I realize: I am looking at my destiny.
It’s true. My entire career as a writer, I have searched for something that is truly mine. John Updike wrote about suburban angst; Tim O’Brien’s got that Vietnam War thing; one guy I know blogs just about street food—presently he’s working his way from Beijing to Singapore eating nothing that isn’t sold on a sidewalk. Another blogger (see the link, above) write about being the only woman in a family of five. Bill Bryson writes about, well, everything—and seems to get away with it, the bastard.
But me? I’ve got nothing. I’m just a bald white guy from a nation of bald white guys, with no particular distinguishing characteristics—or material.
Now, standing amid the noise and clutter of a Friday morning in Tai Po, steam rising from the chest/cabinet bun thingy in front of me, I know who I am. And why the good Lord put me on this earth.
I will write about boa dim as no man has written about boa dim before. I will dwelve into its innermost secrets, savor its most bizarre variations, travel to the remotest corners of the New Territories in search of its most fascinating and often only rumored varieties.
I will become one with the boa.
And, clearly, I will write lots of dramatic one-sentence paragraphs about it.
I glance up. The woman who takes the money is looking at me, face placid. I straighten, hand her my HK$3.5. Then I turn to the woman who hands out the buns. She, too, is looking at me, her face that determined mask of neutrality that the Hongkongers do so well when faced with one as bald and pasty as myself.
“Yes?” she says.
And then, in the confident, resonant voice that can only come from a man who knows his place in the universe, I open my lips and speak the two words that will shape my destiny:
It’s purple. I forgot about that, that they have purple sweet potatoes in China. Even so, I bite into it. Soft. Slightly moist. Very chewy. But tasty. It has that dusky, mildly earthy taste that makes sweet potatoes so delicious. Strolling toward the stop for the 26, I chew slowly, happily. Once I swallow, I bite further into the bun, searching for the flesh of the potato I know will be in the center. When I find it, it’s hot and soft, like a purple mashed potato.
Waiting for the minibus, I work my way through the boa, suddenly happy about the day, about work, about my life. No longer will I have to labor in obscurity, an unknown blogger in a universe of bloggers. I have found my muse. I’ll milk—you heard me: milk the boa for all it’s worth. I’ll write about the boa and write about the boa and spread the gospel of the boa until the farthest corners of the universe echo in praise of steamed bread. I’ll get to meet Oprah.
Only, I won’t. Because by the time the 26 finally comes and I’ve pretty much finished my sweet potato boa, I’m sick of the damn thing. Or more to the point: sickened by the damn thing. Because man, those things are sweet. Whoever though of putting yams in a boa must have been married to a dentist, because that’s like adding brown sugar to a jar of honey.
And man, those things are big! Or not big really, but filling. Or dense. Or whatever it is that makes you feel like you’re going to hurl after eating just one of them. The whole ride home on the 26, I keep one hand on the grip in front of me, trying to keep my churning stomach from churning even more as we skid around corners and roar past taxis. The other hand I keep over my mouth, just in case my first hand doesn’t do the trick.
When we arrive back on campus, I’m as purple my boa and swearing to high heaven that never again—NEVER!—will I eat another &*%# boa, sweet potato or otherwise. I mean, seriously, they could put Gillian Anderson in a bikini with 30 million dollars and a Pulitzer Prize for literature in the middle of a boa, and I wouldn’t take a bite.
Except maybe I would. Because now, two days later, as I write this, I find myself thinking back to that steaming white case/trunk boa thingy, that busy street corner with those eager crowds, that semi-surly woman taking my money and the other, equally, semi-surly woman reaching in through the steam and pulling out a big white lump of wet dough. And I find myself thinking:
Mmmm . . . sesame paste . . .