There's no nest in that bird's soup

Dishes: Good food is important in all cultures, but how do you figure out what's tasty?

February 13, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

WE WERE gathered in a friend's apartment last weekend, stuffing ourselves with roast pork, dumplings and homemade spicy tofu to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year, when the conversation took an interesting turn.

My friend Tim, a Canadian of Taiwanese descent, extended his chopsticks to the head of the large, steamed ginger fish at the center of the dinner table and asked: "Does anyone mind if I eat the cheek? That's the best part."

Many Asian food connoisseurs know the tiny flap of flesh beneath the eye is the most succulent part of the fish -- a choice morsel that inspires much bickering in my family over who gets to have it. And the fish cheek started a discussion on Asian delicacies around the world that are rarely found in the United States.

In almost every culture, food is of great importance. But to many Asians, its importance sometimes is of obsessive proportions.

Not only do those of Asian descent commonly mark celebrations and family gatherings with elaborate feasts, but the topic of food often dominates discussions even when we're not eating. When I meet fellow Singaporean natives in the Baltimore area, we wax lyrical about the aromatic and mouth-watering Hainanese chicken rice back home and wonder where we can get it in here.

The Chinese New Year dinner last weekend was no different. Those at the table were of various ethnic Asian descents -- including Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese. Many had sampled much interesting fare while living or traveling in Asia, and we all marveled at how thousands of years of vast experimentation with food choices had yielded some fascinating dishes.

Tim had tried dog meat while traveling in China, professing that it tasted more like duck than chicken. A Vietnamese-American friend remarked how dog meat once was so commonplace in Vietnam that food store signs regularly listed "Noodles, Sodas, Dog" on their menu boards.

Such stories are probably appalling by American standards. But in Vietnam, where dogs for a long time weren't widely regarded as pets, many probably do not share the moral trepidation Americans have with using those animals as sources of food. Americans don't have issues with eating cows or pigs, and dogs would be no different if they weren't our pets.

Then there are the interesting ways of eating animals. I shared a story about how my mother loves to go to the hawker center in Singapore for a meal of "spare parts," as she calls it. She gets to pick what she wants from bowls of pigs' parts -- intestines, livers, snouts, cubes of gelatinous pigs' blood -- laid out buffet-style.

I've never tried "spare parts," but a Chinese-American friend at dinner said he'd sampled cubes of cows' blood, which tasted like he "had a bloody nose, and it was running down my throat."

We talked about the Korean dish of live octopus -- where the chef deftly slices up the tentacles while the animal is still alive; the ancient Chinese belief that eating deer or tiger penises would give men virility; and the popularity of birds' nest soup, which is a sweet dessert made with the gelatinous coagulation of birds' saliva.

Most of these stories drew some groans and giggles, but most of us at the dinner table had spent extensive time living in Asian countries and could relate. Except my boyfriend, David, who lived in Europe for six years as an Army brat but has never visited Asia more than once, for a whirlwind 10-day trip to Japan and Singapore.

Poor David, an American who is half-Japanese and half-Jewish, had remained quiet throughout the discussion, visibly disgusted and looking more than a little pale. Nonetheless, he decided to share a food story of his own -- an anecdote about life in a Midwestern college fraternity house.

Here, we were told, the frat brothers often scarfed down frozen chicken patties from the box and ate three-day-old unrefrigerated pizza. Lunch often consisted of grayish macaroni and cheese made from a mix with tap water, with large globs of ketchup for taste.

"Ewww," the rest of us said for the first time in the discussion.

"Now, that's gross."

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a reporter for The Sun.

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