intrepid eating, or the lack of thereof
culinary encounters in Malaysia
[originally published on Medium, November 11, 2013]
I like soups and stews and steaming things in small bowls, preferably served with chopsticks. And despite this not feeling anything like fall, my intake of root vegetables and teas is increasing with every week we get closer to the end of the year. Old habits die hard.
I had heard a lot about Penang beef koay teow soup, but, too busy with Indian food, had not tried it yet. So the other day, walking through the food court du jour, I finally decided to give it a go. They sold frog porridge to the left of it, and peanut-coated satay to the right of it, both almost more tempting, but no, Chinese beef soup was on the agenda and for once I was determined to stick with it. Besides, there may be real frogs in the porridge…
Not that there wasn't a lot of real, with a capital R, beef in the koay teow soup… a lot of stuff I hadn't seen — or eaten — in ages. Hell, you could reverse-engineer a whole bloody cow out of the things you find in one meagre bowl of it. After last week’s experience, I will never again use the word beef without a long list of qualifiers. And I will never again limit myself to steaks and burgers and the occasional meatloaf. Because all, ok, most of the other strange-looking bits and pieces that make a cow walk and talk are pretty delicious, too.
If you’re vegetarian you might want to have stopped reading a while ago.
There were tendon, and tripe, huge pieces of bone marrow and a bunch of other things I couldn't identify. There were also a Japanese couple sitting on my table, as enthusiastically taking photos of their soup as I had just taken of mine, the tiny Chinese lady serving it, a bowling ball on legs, all round and shiny, and her farsighted husband, spending five minutes pouring over each and every bowl to make sure it had just the right amount of ‘cow parts’, bean sprouts and herbs in it. And these people were as essential to this particular bowl of soup as its ingredients. Because if it hadn't been for them, Japanese people who, as we all know, are almost as crazy when it comes to eating absolutely everything as the Chinese, and the couple who made it, so adoringly quirky that, even if I didn't like their soup, I simply couldn't have walked away from it for fear of upsetting them, I’m pretty sure I would have walked away from it.
But no way. I would not lose face in front of anyone. And definitely not in front of this princessy-looking Japanese woman with her faded-pink dress and silver high-heels, skilfully avoiding the puddles of dirty water underneath our table and enthusiastically slurping down her soup while giving me encouraging glances and nods. If she can do it, so can I. And if she comes all the way to this random food court in the middle of nowhere near George Town for which she had obviously dressed and where she was undoubtedly heading next, there had to be something about it.
It’s just a damn beef soup after all. Not fried duck head, or guinea pig, or horse-meat sashimi, or an assortment of cockroaches and grasshoppers on skewers. And even if, I had always thought of myself as an adventurous eater, so why on earth was I being all squirmy about some carefully cooked intestines all of a sudden?
Because I’m a friggin’ hypocrite, that’s why! Because I’d rather eat strange and borderline creepy things in a nice restaurant, where someone can come to hold my hand if need be, than in a food court. With someone who can explain to me what I’m eating, and why I’m eating it, and how I best go about eating it, and what I’m supposed to taste, experience and remember. I also prefer them fried to death and crispy rather than slow-cooked and soft and somehow feeling alive on my tongue and while wiggling down into the nether-regions of my stomach. I’m spoiled and jaded and way too comfortable in my culinary world the size of Bromley. I haven’t even made it properly into London yet, metaphorically speaking, not to speak of the rest of the world.
I had some of the usual suspects in the past, the, when you think about it, really most usual ones. Snails, and oysters, and frog legs, kangaroo burgers, bear steaks, crocodile, and strange sexual-looking seafood that could have stared in any half-way ambitious porn movie. I love and eat all kinds of cheese and only draw the line when it comes to dairy in the hand of live maggots. I feel bad about killing mosquitoes; no way would I eat poor unsuspecting worms. I also think it’s gross. I love to experiment with flavours. and I’m addicted to chillies, my body at the moment so permeated with it that, should I die suddenly, I’d qualify as toxic waste, no microbe in its right mind willing to touch not to speak of eating me. But how far would I really go?
I’m not even saying that there is any reason to go any further than I already have. I've eaten a lot of shit in my life, again, metaphorically speaking, and just combinations and variations of the shit I've eaten so far would keep me busy and sufficiently pleased for the rest of my days. But there is so much more. So much that I routinely ignore because it doesn't come with a Michelin star or at least a somewhat renowned person having written about it or a proper restaurant attached to it.
I don’t want to walk away from fish because it’s not deboned yet. I also don’t want to do it myself. And don’t get me started on eating fish whole. I don’t want to insult anyone by disliking their food. But there are things like pancakes with sweet corn or shaved ice with red beans, and I really do believe there is a gene that most westerners are missing that lets you finish those things and keep them down. I love street food, but unless I can at least guess what it’s made of or have a willing local with me who can explain to me what I’m eating, and why I’m eating it, and how I best go about eating it, and what I’m supposed to taste, experience and remember, I generally walk away to the next stall where they serve something that fits this bill.
This is fine and totally legitimate but unfortunately so not who I want to be.