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Around the World with Knife and Fork....and Chopsticks - Part One

I have never been a fussy eater. I have my family to thank for that. My mother’s family were all food lovers and adventurers. Wherever they traveled, the tales they brought home featured food, not mountains, monuments, or other must-sees. So I grew up hearing about, and trying (when possible), foods from around the world. Even my paternal grandmother, a health nut who relished drinking the water (unsalted, no less) in which spinach had been cooked (yes, really truly) set me a good example.

And I was probably born a food adventurer. According to family legend, my parents enjoyed playing the "Let's see if the baby will eat this" game, especially after a martini or two. Fisheyes and live sea slug are the only foods I can recall refusing to even try. At times in my travels I've felt a bit suspicious when I asked my host what the food was on my plate and got, "No word in English" as a reply. I'm pretty sure that I was eating beef brains when I got that response during a lunch in Buenos Aires (it was delicious, by the way). And of course, the fruits, vegetables and other foods found in Thailand are often quite different from those found (for just one example) in Scotland (I’ll tell you about Scottish food some other time), so when a young Chinese acquaintance told me that there was no word in English for a delicious green vegetable that I loved to eat in Fuzhou, my response was regret, not suspicion.

One time when I was having dinner with friends in Hong Kong, I greatly enjoyed a mysterious dish and grabbed more every time it came around on the turntable at the center of the table. After my 3rd helping, my friend Elaine (whose Chinese name is Yin Ling) leaned over and said, "Jean, you like this?" I answered, "Yes, it's delicious," and she said, "Jean, it is eel. You like eel?"

I laughed and said, "I thought it might be eggplant! But yes, I like eel. It’s yummy," and shoveled some more of it onto my plate. I will admit that if I’d seen that eel before it was caught and cooked, I might not have been eager to try it. It was probably the wiggling of the sea slug that made me cringe. And the fish eyes? I don’t know.

Sadly, eel is hard to come by in rural Tennessee, so I was delighted when Mr. P. recently bought some frozen eel online. When thawed and cooked and garnished with chopped fresh fennel fronds, it was almost as delicious as the eel I enjoyed in Hong Kong. And that, my friends, is a very happy culinary memory.

Trying new foods everywhere I go has been both educational and enriching. And sometimes fattening. But mostly, yummy! So I tell you now what my mother used to say, “Don’t knock it 'til you try it.”

Eel

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