Steve's Weird Food for Hong Kong: Pass the noseplugs.

Friday, April 2, 2010

As much as Hong Kong is very very different from mainland China, there are still some things that are the same. True, there are so many 7-11s, McDonald’s and Starbucks that you can usually stand in the doorway of one and toss a half-caf double mocha frappuccino into the next. But there are also noodle shops and little butcher stalls with barbequed ducks hanging in the window and those places selling desiccated sea creatures.

Along with newspapers, cans of Coke and bags of chips, 7-11s here sell things with TENTACLES. We are not in Kansas anymore.

Finding weird food here is not a challenge. Not in the slightest. When the supermarket sells lychee flavoured gum and vaccuum-packed chicken feet and durian, digging up an appropriate weird food is not an issue.

Yes, I said durian. For those of you not familiar with this fruit, durian is one of those foods with a really bad reputation, sort of like tripe or worms or pig ears or… well you get the idea. Clearly, this was something I had to try. A durian fruit is large – up to twelve inches long and six inches in diameter, and is covered with a hard, thorny husk. Inside the flesh is pale yellow and divided into sections that in turn have large seeds.

A picture of durian, from Wikipedia

Not so weird, you say? Well it’s not the durian’s looks that give it its bad reputation, it’s the smell. The smell of durian has variously been described as “dirty diapers left out in a dumpster at midday, with a top note of sweaty gym socks” or my favourite, “rotting flesh”. And it’s not just that it smells bad, it’s that it smells a lot. The smell of durian is so strong that the very presence of even the unopened fruit is banned in some hotels and public transit in Southeast Asia. Having just spent a few minutes intentionally inhaling great snootfuls of durian’s unique aroma, I’d say it most reminds me of raw onion. This is a fine quality in an onion, but not perhaps a good one in a fruit.

For another perspective on durian’s unique qualities, here’s an oft-quoted bit from the 1856 writings of British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, whose love affair with durian is evident from this description:

“The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. ... as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.”

I didn’t buy a whole durian. Instead I got one section of the flesh, packed in a styrofoam tray and barcoded, from my local grocery store ($16.00 HK, about $2.10). Even sealed behind clingfilm the smell was evident, and I was a bit worried about putting it in the communal fridge at my hotel. But I know what you’re really wondering… what’s it like to eat? First, I opened the window in the room, and then I sliced open the clingfilm, with some trepidation. Then I dug in - with a spoon - I didn’t want to get any on my fingers and have the lingering smell of durian follow me to the end of my days. The texture of the flesh is smooth and creamy, with a few stringy bits. As for the flavour – it does have a bit of onion about it. It’s also like custard, and very strong cheese, and a bit like mango. Definitely unique.

This is what durian flesh looks like when it’s been reluctantly prodded with a spoon and then dug around in to find bits of the creamy custardy part. One large pit is showing.

Russell claimed that more you eat, the more you want to eat. I can’t say that was my experience, though I did notice that the second and third and fourth morsels I tried seemed more custardy and less Roquefort than the first. I didn’t finish it off though, and quickly wrapped the remainder in seventeen layers of plastic bag, to be smuggled out of the room and disposed of in a back alley somewhere. Once the experiment was over, but before the offending bundle was removed from the room, my nose had a weird tingly feeling, almost as if it was simply over stimulated and didn’t quite know what to do about it. Poor thing.

And just to prove how easy it is to find weird food here, I’m going to include two bonus weird food items. These were both procured from a small kiosk in the Tsim Sha Tsui metro station, in between a cookie shop and (of course) a 7-11. So it’s not like I had to make a special trip to a Weird Food Store in a dim alley to get them. And what are we talking about? Well, how about a little loquat, lotus seed and white fungus dessert? It’s not just tasty, it’s also medicinal! To quote the side of the tub, it’s “Suitable for: dry skin, dry mouth with thirsty feeling, discomfort in the respiratory system, gets coughing easily, suffers from insomnia frequently, dreamy.”

There’s nothing like a little white fungus to clear up that persistent cough

The contents of the tub were a pale creamy-coloured soup with a mild coconut-like flavour. It was reasonably pleasant except for the large, rubbery bits of fungus floating in the mixture. I’m sitting here with the tub open and my spoon poised and I just cannot think of a way to describe those fungus bits. They really have no flavour, but the texture is… words fail me. A bit like frilly, very firm gelatin. Yup, that’s about as close as I can come. Imagine very strong, clear Jell-O in the shape of tiny curly lettuce leaves. Sort of rubbery, sort of toothsome, and certainly not exactly at home in a cup of dessert.

So perhaps Loquat, lotus seed and white fungus is not your cup of tea. Well surely then you wouldn’t object to trying some Kidney-strengthening five bean dessert? Especially if you are “experiencing deficiency in the function of the spleen and stomach, poor digestion, gets tiredness easily and excessive depletion of energy or have poor immunity and suffer from influenza easily”. Just pop open the tub and dig in!

Five, count ‘em FIVE kinds of beans in every dessert.

This one was more agreeable, maybe simply because the texture and flavour of beans was familiar. The juice, or broth, or whatever was a bit sweet, but mostly the beans just tasted like beans. I don’t think it will replace cheesecake or chocolate on my list of top desserts, but I finished it off.

So there you have it, lots and lots of weird food, and more to come as I move into Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. Until then I’ll just add that I’m doing fine, and my kidneys have never felt better.

1 Comment:

Unknown said...

Your food adventures are braver than I would attempt. Good for you.


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