the collective mind of the Western Hemisphere, a dish featuring monkey registers
somewhere between unsavory and unbelievable, but to Kong Phot, the flavor
of fresh monkey meat is a cherished memory of his childhood in Cambodia.
"I've eaten elephant, ox, alligator..." Meat of any kind was a treat
for the peopleof his rural community. If an unwary elephant wandered into town,
animal protein was plentiful; otherwise Kong ate rice. "To us, it is just
as silly that Americans only eat the pig, chicken and cow as it is to you
that we eat the elephant. It is nice to get any meat, and when you do, it
tastes good. You eat it."
Because his father was an armed member of the military, Kong's family
dined on forest critters more often than neighbors who joined in when an
animal large enough to share was taken. "We just shoot 'em."
Now a resident of St. Paul, Minnesota, Kong occasionally purchases canned
or dried monkey meat in a local Cambodian grocery. Over the last two decades
thousands of Southeast Asian groceries have opened in this country. In these
stores can be found a world of food vastly different from the chow mein
and frozen egg rolls carried in traditional American supermarkets.
your idea of what to eat developed outside an ethnically Asian environment,
you may never dive into a steaming plate of curried monkey stir fry. But
for all of us grazing this side of the meat and potatoes boundary, many
priceless treasures are to be discovered by exploring the wide array of
strange and delicious products available from Asian groceries.
Many pre-packaged items combine well-known ingredients-like koka, the
Taiwanese treat of coconut covered peanuts. Those who eat in Oriental restaurants
will recognize other items; tamarind pulp, made from tamarind pods is a
necessary ingredient of tamarind chicken. And then there are the goods that
anyone raised on American food would at first call bizarre: durain fruit,
basil seed drink, duck tongues (by the pound). Actually, the thought of
duck-tongues-by-the-pound becomes a more gripping concept upon extended
first time you visit an Asian grocery, you'll notice a "distinctive"
smell, a smell some mistake for a sign of unkempt conditions. The pungent
odor mostly results from stocking dehydrated products, especially dried
fish. Asian groceries are subject to the same regulations and standards
as any other US. market place: you're just accustomed to the funk of American
markets. You may want to wipe the cans as they probably gathered dust in
overseas transport. Wash your produce, just like you would with food from
Not all packages read in English, especially those originating from countries
with encapsulated economies, like Indonesia or Viet Nam. (Um, if encapsulated
is an adjective used by your Econ Professors to describe a characteristic
other than 'having minimal trade with distant countries,' please forgive
me. I guess I am assuming that the readership is at or slightly below my
writer ship, so I limit my research to stuff like making sure 'encapsulated'
is an adjective and not a categorical imperative as I called it in the first
draft. I would like to thank Matthew Jaffe of Spec for editing the version
of this story which originally appeared in his magazine. Among his brilliant
manipulations was a change in wording so that it didn't read as though I
thought Taiwanese products come from Thailand. Matt also suggested that
"Indonesia" be substituted for my first choice for an example
of an "encapsulated economy," which had apparently not existed
as a sonorous state since the mid Seventies...) If you're not sure what
you're buying or need to buy, it's best to aim questions at the youngest
employee, they are most likely to be Americanized. Showing a legitimate
interest in becoming a regular customer will earn you warm smiles even if
you only buy a few exotic snacks and candies during each visit.
should be aware many Orientals will take offense at the purchase of their religious
items for purposes other than those for which they were intended. If you've never
seen "Hell Bank Notes" you should sneak a peek--quite odd. They are
supposedly burned for the purpose of sending dead relatives money.
markets operate in all urban US cities-even ones with smaller Asian-American
populations. If you live in the backwoods, several helpful books and mail
order sources are available. The hardest to find ingredients--spices, pastes,
dried vegetables--are often the easiest to ship. If you're real into it,
many vegetables can be cultivated in a home garden. Your butcher may be
delighted to learn how to make special cuts of meat for you if she doesn't
already know how--just think how exciting it would be cutting the muscle
off a pig skeleton in a new and different way!
Most of the produce sold in Asian markets is grown in California; the
proprietors may harvest a few vegetables from their own garden. Many vegetables
are close relatives of familiar foods: Chinese eggplant (small and excellent
for stir-frying) and different varieties of greens and endives. Fresh shiitake
mushrooms are sold at a fraction of the price supermarkets charge (If you
don't mind frozen fish, you can get a pound of many varieties for less than
a selection off the Value Menu).
Among crops impossible to cultivate in theUnited States is the Japanese mountain
potato, or nagamo. It looks like a parsnip and grows in the rocky soil of Japan's
volcanic mountains. Mountain potatoes are transported in refrigerated boxes of
sawdust as they're easily bruised and very valuable. Expect to pay ten dollars
a pound for this delicacy. The uncooked root, usually served as dessert,
combines fruity sweetness with the texture of a raw potato.
groceries carry an almost endless selection of dried vegetables.
Prepare them by soaking in warm water for ten minutes, and then cooking
as desired. falm breakken, a chlorophyll poor flower, grows on rotting foliage
in shady areas. After reconstitution, stir-fry it with mint.
The crinkled, black Japanese shiitake mushroom, available dried, canned,
or fresh, grows on dead oak trees. Farmers bore holes in oak logs, fill
them with grain bearing microscopic mushroom roots (or mycelium, pl. mycelia--
remember these words--they come in handy when flirting with the wait staff
at Chinese restaurants) The fungus establishes a colony in the wood around
the holes in which conditions are just right. When the fungus gets ready
it sends up the fruit, which is the part of the mushroom we eat. I bet you
didn't know you were eating fungal orgasms. Used as a component in soups
and stir-fry, shiitake have a delicate flavor and a soft, crunchy texture.
reading Mr. Christe's article
did not convince you that Asians are more adventurous in quenching their
thirst than Westerners, a visit to the grocery will. While Americans drink
Madison Avenue's latest line of ingredient free beverages, Asians quietly
consume carbonated milk and energy beverages like the psychoactive Red Bull
Carbonated milk, or "white soda" is a favorite breakfast beverage
in the bustle of urban Japan Don't wrinkle your nose: If you like slurping
down the sweetened milk left over from a bowl of sugared cereal, you will
enjoy this unique soda, available in vanilla, chocolate, and fruit flavors.
Red Bull energy drink is recommended if you're sick of toying with the
glorified Kool-Aid professional athletes drink on the sidelines. If they
drank Red Bull instead, they wouldn't be able to sit still and wait for
their turn to play. Ingredients include an array of B vitamins, high fructose
corn syrup, caffeine, and taurine-an amino acid first extracted from ox
bile. The flavor echoes the syrupy liquid sold in candy wax soda bottles.
Shortly after ingesting the Taiwanese product, the drinker's body morphs
into a Loony Tunes style rocket and careens from wall to wall, eventually
returning to its original human form with the word "tilt" flashing
in each silver-dollar sized eye. GOURMANDIZER advises that you remove all
furniture from your drinking area. My theory? This taurine stuff makes the
blood super-saturated with the recently found sugars. People in the FDA,
and other friends of the pharmaceutical lobby want to put stricter regulations
on this and other products, mostly medicinal herbs, which are imported from
Asia and currently available without prescription.
shopping, you will want to take notice of the candies and sweets.
Partially drying and sometimes salting slices of fruit has long been a treatment
to preserve a harvest. Liquoriced limes, salted un-ripe mangoes, gingered
dates, and crystallized ginger come packaged in ornately shaped clear plastic
boxes. The taste experience offered by these pungent products can be overwhelming,
but you may like them if you enjoy horehounds or menthol cough drops. The
popular movie candy Jujubees borrow their name from the tart jujube fruit
which the Chinese have been making into candy of this type for centuries.
The Japanese treat of Pockey can be enjoyed by even the most mundane
appetite. Pockey is a long thin cookie-about the size of a pipe cleaner-dipped
in chocolate, leaving a portion of one end bare for gripping. In Japanese
slang, "pockey" refers to a homosexual man. The slang term existed
before the brand name entered the market. Weird, eh?
Another popular Japanese snack is wasabi sweet green peas. Wasabi, a
green horse radish, packs an enormously spicy punch. A mixture of wasabi,
cornstarch, and sugar molded around crunchy dried peas makes a noisy, zippy
treat. Like most Asian snacks and candies, the flavor Is too strong to fill
up on-wasabi sweet green peas provide the eater with a pleasurable taste
experience, not a meal. This particular product is more effective in clearing
the nasal passages than staving off hunger.
also plays a vital role in the composition of Asian dishes. Most
East Asian languages contain a word that most closely translates as "tasteless,"
but this translation doesn't convey the implication of an interesting texture
of the food: "flavorless, yet texture-ous" perhaps. The bland
lotus root, prized solely for its water-chestnut-like crunch and odd shape,
resembles the barrel of a gun which could simultaneously fire several caliber
of bullets. Slice it into thin disks, boil for 15 minutes, and add to soup.
The flesh of a jellyfish is nearly tasteless, but rewards the eater with
an oddly appealing, slippery texture. Jellyfish dishes commonly contain
shredded jellyfish and with little additional solid ingredients so as to
accentuate its uniquely delicate texture.
reading this piece didn't transfix your attention as though
the words passed by like a bus load of masturbating self-decapitators. Most
of you have a good understanding of cultural relativism from Public Television
or your anthropology courses. Familiarizing yourself with the unusual products
in Asian groceries is a sure-fire cure for standing in front of a well-stocked
refrigerator and thinking, "there's nothing to eat." A few minutes
of exploration during each outing will quickly add exciting dimensions to