I was midway between being a cautious eater and an adventure eater. Hell, I could also say that I was half-humanitarian and half-spectator too: as my mother firmly gripped the squirming amphibian in one hand and brought down the cleaver with a deadly precision and force, severing one rubbery leg after the other from the pale underbelly of the poor creature, I squirmed, but couldn't help but watch, sorrowful, grossed out, but above all, excited that I would be eating something I'd never eaten before. The plastic bag full of locusts, held upside down and dropping its inhabitants into the hiss and sizzle of their gruesome, oily deaths in the frying pan, entranced me.
When those fried frog's legs and locusts came out to the coffee table of the living room, my father was nowhere to be found. I believe my sister was too young to know any better. I must have inherited my curiosity from my mother, and I matched her step-for-step, intrigued by the nutty aroma of sesame oil and the hearty smell of fried protein. To be honest, I don't remember the flavor of either the entomological chip or the amphibian drumstick. Though based on my lack of enthusiasm for the next time my mother went hunting in the rice fields, I gather that I wasn't impressed. The important thing is, a very important gastronomical philosophy, perhaps an overall life philosophy had been established: try everything at least once.
Somewhere between my childhood in Korea and my adolescence in Monterey County, I'd lost that excitement, curiosity for food. Until I received my driver's license, I'd been limited to my mother's homemade meals, which had grown relatively tame with the lack of wild hunting grounds for her to exploit. Occasionally, I'd join her and my aunt for her highly illegal harvests in federally protected tide pools, where they would, using screwdrivers, pry stubborn abalone and mussels from the rocks. I'd assist collecting tiny little sea-snails and an occasional baby crab, all of which would go straight into a stew boiling with our harvests, seasoned with gochujang, a red-chili soy bean paste. Aside from these potentially costly (the fine at the time, for disturbing the wildlife in these sanctuaries was at least 10,000USD plus potentially ten years in the slammer), yet delightful picnics, my meals ranged anywhere from ordinary to the grotesque (Carl's Jr, Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King).
At university, The Food Network and Iron Chef awakened that dormant foodie within me. With every octopus arm severed, turtle brutally butchered, and extravagant portion of caviar, foie gras, or truffle served, I looked up from my plate of cold pizza, envious without even truly knowing to what extent I should be envious. My professors, readings, and peers at Berkeley lit my intellectual curiosity into an unstoppable conflagration of curiosity. Food programming kickstarted a second puberty of sorts, making me feel funny in weird ways and places. My mouth would go dry and wet at once, watching Iron Chef Rokusaburo Michiba cut toro into perfection. My head would swim with desire upon seeing the Szechuan spices and chili roar up in flames in Chef Kenichi's wok.
Though culinary treasures, highbrow (Chez Panisse) and lowbrow (Gypsy's, La Burrita, Top Dog) surrounded me, my full realization as a foodie would require a further push, stronger than the tantalizations and longings evoked by vicarious tasting through television. I enjoyed all the affordable and wonderful offerings of these Berkeley institutions, but I never really went apeshit-crazy for food. So what is it that finally liberated me, propelled me into my metamorphosis, homecoming? The answer is not surprising: travel.
Just hours after stepping off the plane at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, I meet up with Ray, university dorm mate, grad school roommate, and lifelong friend and fellow foodie. At our budget hotel, we exchange a few complimentary--and slightly sleazy--remarks about how naturally beautiful the women are in Vietnam, before getting straight to business: what should we eat?
Stepping out of the hotel is a pleasure in itself, one I'm sure must be familiar to every traveler hungering to explore the world. The sky seems unfamiliar. There are strange scents in the air. Strangers passing by are different from the run-of-the-mill strangers passing by at home. People speak in unfamiliar tones. There is not a single direction in which one can look for familiarity, comfort, or routine.
There's a guide to Vietnam in my bag. Though in the future, I will develop the feeling that to fall back upon such a crutch is vulgar in the midst of so much possibilities, I don't refer to it simply because I have forgotten that I have one. To the left and to the right, the alley beckons me. Strange intonations allure me. The strange odors, pungent, foul, and sweet, pull at the hem of my jeans in a multitude of directions.
From all around us, women, old and young, invite us in broken English. What I can make of the menus, written on cardboard with thick, fat permanent markers, is fascinating: pigeon, frog, snake, weasel coffee. Weasel coffee! I recall reading about the most delightful, expensive coffee in Vietnam being harvested from the shit of weasels fed coffee beans. Pigeon? Snake? Does snake really taste like chicken? Would pigeon be as boring and unremarkable as I thought it would be?
Overwhelmed, my partner-in-crime and I step into an eatery. I must note that we stepped into an eatery, because so many of Vietnam's "restaurants" aren't places which one can step into. Many (and in fact, the best, in my opinion) are actually just child-sized plastic chairs and tables sitting out in the street, mom or grandma cooking pork for bun cha out of a very large tin can cut and transformed into a miniature grill. A foodie in training--hell, more accurately a foodie yet to be reborn--I make the mistake of giving into the allure and convenience of fans and AC. The English menus arrive--another telltale sign unnoticed--and the exotic proteins unfold before me.
Rabbit? I don't think I've had that before. Too safe? I'm actually hungry though, and what if I order something I dislike? Snake? If it tastes like chicken, what's the point... Pigeon? That'll probably taste even more like chicken. Whatever. Frog legs! The words carry me to childhood, summon memories of a younger mother, a younger me in tow, my cheeks brushing aside heads of rice, the bubbly cries of our amphibious prey growing silent as we come closer and closer. I wonder: why didn't I eat frog after the first time? The question nags at me. It refuses to leave me be, and as Ray makes up his mind, I'm still stuck thinking about why I didn't enjoy frog as a child.
I settle on the fried frog legs--partly to be polite and not keep my friend waiting and partly to satisfy my curiosity--and also order a plate of stewed rabbit, just in case I can't stomach the product of my curiosity. We order some exotic fruit smoothies (apple custard? dragon fruit? how could we not?) to quench our thirst. Mom screams our orders to grandma in the kitchen and things get under way.
A 6-inch television hangs from the pillar of our establishment, the screen wavering, snowy with shoddy rabbit ear programming and the speakers blaring the harsh tonal language to which we are still trying to grow accustomed. There is clatter coming from the kitchen, and I can't help but wonder if the old woman behind the beaded curtains is holding down my frog, its feet splayed in opposite directions, squirming, struggling against its gruesome fate. And what of the rabbit? Is it wriggling its nose in anxiety, hearing the sound of metal death meeting wooden board, its heart accelerating?
The heat is stifling, only occasionally suppressed when the fan turns its face to me in its automechanical cycle. Our smoothies arrive, the glasses sweating, the bright red, crooked-necked straws bent, stuck deep in the mush of pristine white pocked by stark black seeds (dragon fruit) and fibrous, pulpy sick yellow (custard apple). I take a strong sip through the straw, feel the chunks of liquid mush hitting my tongue between intervals of air. Tart, apple-ish, and nowhere near custardy. Not bad. Like a thick apple shake. I pass my glass to Ray and scan his face for a verdict on the dragon fruit. The blank expression betrays no emotion, not a hint of approval or disapproval. When I take a sip of his choice fruit, I understand why: dragon fruit has almost no flavor of which one can approve or disapprove. The flamboyantly pink and green skin shrouding the stark contrast of pure white flesh and black seeds has a flavor that is as boring as its appearance stunning. Imagine a kiwi without the tart or the sweetness. You have dragon fruit.
Though the flavors aren't to our greatest liking, they are different. And different is what allures me about travel, breaks me away from the routine, the expectedness, and the predictable nature of the life I lead at home. So I keep sipping at my drink, I keep watching the garbled programming on television--news which I cannot understand through neither words nor context--and I keep looking, listening, smelling, and tasting.
It's hard to tell how many minutes pass before our food arrives. Time takes on a different dimension, becomes a different experience during travel than it does and is when we are going through the motions of our everyday lives. Nevertheless, our food is served. On a bed of pale lettuce, my fried frog legs sit, looking innocuous beneath the breaded tempura. On another plate, beside fragrant jasmine rice, chunks of rabbit and bone glisten in chili sauce.
I grab a fried leg, slowly rotate it with my fingers, examining it carefully for any indication of the exotic protein within. Unremarkable. There is a small bowl of soy, tiny rings of red and green chili enclosing pale yellow seeds in which I am to dip the tempura'd drumstick. I dip the leg just slightly, briefly, wanting to taste the meat, rather than the sauce, before I bite into my twenty-year reunion with fried frog.
The texture reminds me of the dark meat of chicken, not unlike the drumstick of poultry. But the flavor has a slight fishiness, that's not altogether pleasant. It's not that I don't like the flavor of fish--even strong fish--but I just don't find the texture and the flavor to meld very well. The frog isn't inedible, but it isn't to my liking. Yet, after scrutinizing the flavors, wondering if it could be done in a better way, I finish my plate of three or four legs, propelled by the novelty of flavor, the need to break down this experience.
The rabbit is more suited to my palate, but a hassle to eat. The cut or the preparation is terrible, as I'm constantly biting into one tiny bone after another. The sweet-chili sauce in which the poor hare has been cooked is ordinary at best, made appealing only by my hunger. But as I did with my stomach's amphibian companion, I finish my light-footed friend, lost in my thoughts of how to improve upon the dish, whether the proprietor really cares about her customers or takes pride in her food, whether my subjective tastes are radically different from those of the people who frequent this eatery.
Ray and I share our thoughts on our meal, perhaps a little unusual in the extent to which we will philosophize, analyze, and hypothesize. It's a practice I've engaged in a countless number of times in the classroom, in the auditorium, and in the museums. And to view food from the same lenses and with the same level of passion with which I have viewed music, literature, and art seems a natural extension. The most sensual, beautiful experiences in life are the results of vision, passion, and dedication. So too, is food.
Food is spiritual.
To eat, to cook, and to share is a spiritual act of the highest accord.
Food is proof that life, the human experience is divine.
To know the flavor of saffron, its regal, yet subtle boutique spreading from the tip of your tongue, through your paranasal sinuses, and out of your nostrils... How can anyone not question from where--why and how--such pleasures should arise?
Since those days of lusting, longing over the ingredients in Iron Chef, I've eaten foie gras, snake, crocodile, chicken hearts, beef hearts, truffles, caviar, maitake, and whatnot.
I am fortunate now, to have the financial resources with which I can step foot into the establishments serving rare culinary delights, prepared by artists passionate about providing a culinary experience representing their visions of paradise.
I am still an aspiring foodie--aspiring, because there is still so much I've yet to experience: the finest white truffles from Umbria, various moles from Oaxaca, Jamon Iberico from Spain or Portugal... There's just so much I have yet to taste.
While those reruns of Iron Chef are long gone from my favorite network and my tongue has become familiar with some of the most delicious, divine flavors known to man, the wide-eyed, mouth-dried, painfully yearning gastronome never grew up.
He's still here and he's still looking forward to his next meal.