Monday, April 4, 2011

My Life in Food

Most of my children have typical American kid diets.  Any meal that includes chicken nuggets (or strips), macaroni & cheese, pizza or hamburgers is all they need.  Vegetables?  Ha!  Not since they came out of a Gerber jar.  My oldest son wins the award for pickiest eater: one time we stopped at an authentic pizzeria in New York City and got the most beautiful, straight out of the brick oven pizza.  He wouldn’t eat it because “it has tomato chunks!”  Another son wouldn’t touch a dish because it had microscopic  “little green things” on it.  Potatoes are fine as long they come in the form of French fries, but mashed or baked, forget it.  Nothing affected my mom frustrat-o-meter more than my kids’ eating habits.

I on the other hand, am a Third Culture Kid.  One of the first snack foods I ate was dried squid in Japan, which came in a little bag like potato chips.  I loved seaweed and the real buckwheat soba noodles (not the “Top Ramen” that I heard referred to as Purina Student Chow).  Nothing takes me back to my early childhood in Japan like food and smells.  Gyoza from Nancy Ma’s.  The taste of osimbe, little rice crackers.  The shrimp and corn chowder at the Okura Hotel.  Veal cutlets at the Imperial Hotel.  There was a restaurant in Raponggi called “Kushinobo”.  On the table in front of you was a porcelain fish with a gaping mouth.  All the food was served on a stick, fried, and you put the used sticks in the fish’s mouth.  You were charged on the number of sticks.  But we’re not talking ordinary fried things.  We’re talking lotus root with curry stuffing.  Quail eggs.  Prawns.  That kind of thing.  It was pure, exotic deliciousness that my mind’s eye (tongue?) has never forgotten. 

In Brussels, of course, I delighted in eating escargot (buttery, garlicky snails!) with the cute little snail-eating gadget.  I wonder if it was because I truly liked them or was it the shock value.  (“Ewwww! I’m eating snails!) My mouth waters at the thought of a slice of rare roast beef served from a silver-domed serving platter at Simpson’s on the Strand in London.  With jacketed potatoes and Yorkshire pudding.  A ploughman’s lunch from an English pub, with Crosse & Blackwell’s Major Grey chutney on the side.  (Yes, the chunky black stuff.  It’s yummy!)  I did, and still do, draw the line at anything with an organ in it, like kidneys or liver.  My mom taught me to love caviar, with finely minced onion, hard-boiled egg and lemon juice.  And never use a metal spoon.  There is nothing more delectable than paper-thin sliced smoked salmon on toast points, with capers and onions.  Shall I bring up the British “cream tea” with fat, buttery scones and clotted cream, topped with strawberry preserves?

I relished Filipino cuisine, with lumpias (egg rolls), pancit (a noodle dish) and pork adobo.  If anyone offers you “balut” though, say thanks but no thanks.  It’s a pickled fertilized egg, complete with chicken fetus.  Just don’t.  And I’m sorry, Aussie friends, but vegemite?  Really?  No.  Just no. 

In Singapore there was an Indian Restaurant near the American Embassy called “Omar Khayyam”.  I adore curry, the hotter and bolder the better.  Basmati rice and naan, and Tandoori chicken (with maybe a bottle of Kingfisher to wash it all down) … oh, it’s just too lovely to describe.  Don’t get me started on the food stalls on Bukit Tima road.  Or the little man at the Shangri-La hotel who cooks chicken satay by the pool. 

Another favorite: Middle Eastern or Mediterranean … the more lamb and olives, the better.  Mom makes a homemade moussaka that is to die for. My two girls were both born in Kazakhstan, where horsemeat is a national staple.  I ate it once, to be polite.  It was a little like venison, not too bad, and I managed to get it down in spite of my husband whispering "Willllburrr" behind me.  You have to respect their culture: the horse is a large part of their lives, be it herding or transportation. Fermented mare's milk is a treat that comes in a coke bottle.  I really, really wanted to try it, I did.  I just couldn't.

I have to stop now.  I have to go find something suitably, deliciously weird to eat now … and boil up some Kraft Macaroni & Cheese for the kids.

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