On Things I Put In My Mouth: Mostly Food
Food: the light in my life, the fire in my loins. Nothing gets me excited like the promise of good meal. It's my favorite part of traveling, every country, every region takes me on a new culinary adventure.
My philosophy is that I’ll try anything once. I’ve been burned a couple of times but overall it yields good results. Bear in mind that this doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll go out and search for something weird and gross looking. If I see a pile of horse hearts in the market I’m not going to pay to subject myself to that, but if someone hands me one for a taste I’ll absolutely try it. It helps that I’m not a picky eater, I try to find redemptive qualities to pretty much everything I taste. Sometimes I even force myself to like things that I don’t like. Back in the day there were two things that I couldn’t eat, avocados and hard boiled egg yolks. Those were pretty much the two things in the common American diet that I could not stomach, I would gag whenever I ate them on accident. It was a texture thing. But slowly over the years I would force myself to try them again. The trick is to change the context in which they are served. The thing that changed avocados for me was eating guacamole on a burger. I liked that and so I tried guac and chips, and then guac alone, and then plain avocado on bread or sushi and then bada-bing bada-boom I like avocado. I did something similar for egg yolks, and now I’m cool with chicken eggs. But sometimes I’ll bite into a hard boiled quail egg hidden in something like banh bao and get a little grossed out.
For the most part I tend to like the stuff that’s off the beaten path. I ate fried crickets and these little mealworms in Cambodia, fried up in a ripping hot wok. I would eat those on the reg if they were available, it felt like I was just eating chips out of a bag. In Vietnam I tried trứng vịt lộn aka balut aka fertilized duck fetus. It’s not my favorite thing in the world, but I might even eat it again. The texture is the worst part. The only thing that I’ve tried so far that I will never eat again is mắm tôm, a funky gray colored Vietnamese shrimp paste with little red chilies on top often served as an accompaniment to noodles, fried tofu or pork. I’m normally all about the shrimp paste but this stuff is vile. Tried it twice, can’t do it. Hate it. Haaate it.
Sometimes my biggest problem is that the weird thing to eat is often just an inferior medium to something more traditional, sometimes there’s a reason it’s not more popular. Just the other night I was eating a dish with this weird cartilage-y something, fried with tomatoes, pickled bok choy and morning glory in this sauce that was super nice. But the cartilage stuff was super impermeable and very chewy. The great part about muscle is that the sauce gets all up into the meat when you cook it. But with this stuff, once the outer sauce was gone I was left chewing flavorless bubble gummy… gunk. Not horrible, but not the best. I feel similar feelings about dog meat. The meat I had was kinda tough and not super flavorful, although I’ve heard whisperings to the contrary so maybe I’ll have to give it another try someday.
I was talking to a student I had in Saigon about pets, asking if she had any, if she wanted any. She said she loves dogs but she never had any pets. “They are so cute,'' she told me in choppy but workable English. So I asked her if she had ever eaten any and she told me, “oh, I love dog meat. So delicious, my favorite. Like pork but better. When I was little I eat dog meat all the time, every week. But now I don’t, they are too cute.” I thought this was hilarious so naturally, because I’m a dick, I brought it up in front of everyone during dinner which yielded horrified looks and uproarious laughter. Turns out a lot of people in the South don’t eat dogs and it’s more of a Northern thing. Learn something new everyday. She hilariously defended herself by reiterating, “No, not anymore, they are too cute!”
Being able to eat anything that’s put in front of you is a great social skill to have. I’ve had entire friendships built solely on them taking me around to try different food, even if we could barely communicate through speaking. When someone gives you something to eat, they're telling you a story and refusing that food is refusing to listen. I feel like I would have trouble connecting to someone that came to the US and refused to try a hamburger. You can’t trust people that don’t like hamburgers. Most westerners I go out with aren’t down to just sit down at a place, point at words you don’t know on a menu and have them bring you whatever. Most of the time it works out and I get something great that I never knew existed. But I'll admit I’ve been burned in the past. I did this on my birthday this summer and they brought me out a big steaming pile of organs and fish sauce. Hearts, intestines and liver in big pile boiled to hell, I had to ask for rice and a beer to get me through but I ate it all. Jokes on them.
More than anything I just imagine that traveling as a picky eater must be difficult and stressful. I already get a little stressed thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner tonight. Do I go for something I know? Do I get myself psyched up for something new? And then I have to think about the litany of pointing and grunting I’ll have to do to make my order clear. But I don't have to worry if I like what I’m brought, because the answer is generally yes. I met a girl here that didn’t like rice or fish or chili. Which like:
A. How do you not like rice? It’s the alpha carb. It’s the best. And...
B. That must really, really hard. Everything here is rice. It’s inescapable.
That’s a position I don’t envy. I guess my thinking is: what’s the worst that could happen? I take one bite, I don’t like it and I’m down $1. Best case is that I love it and I can add it to my rotating repertoire of cravings. Even if I'm not a huge fan I'll still finish the plate, it has to be real unpalatable for me to refuse it outright.
All that being said, I could really go for a burger and fries right now.