Thursday, August 7, 2008

For Picky Eaters

My 25th birthday cake, Shanghai, China (notice how many n's they used in my name...)

Months ago, when I first launched this blog, HK, a good friend of my family who has also been like a second father to me, asked if I would write something for him. He wanted me to write a short piece about food/dining etiquette for the missionaries he works with outside Reno, Nevada.

I promised to do so but then months passed and I never got around to actually writing the article. I've spent quite a bit of time however thinking about it because it's actually an issue that is near and dear to my heart.

Matt trying snake scales at a restaurant in Shanghai.

From a culinary perspective at least, Reno might be at the top of my list of non-scary food locales in the world. However, regardless of the fact that the missionaries there aren't likely to be served anything truly frightening, they will still refuse to eat food that they don't like/enjoy. This frustrates HK because he feels like this kind of attitude reflects poorly on the missionaries, and by extension, our church. For these reasons, he was hoping I could whip up a little literary something to help explain why it's important to be a more open-minded eater when you are in someone else's home.

BBQ squid at a night market in Taiwan.

I just want to make clear at the outset that I don't have any issues with specific, overarching dietary choices people make. I recognize and respect that people limit/control their diets due to many personal beliefs, convictions, and health concerns. I myself make choices about what I eat/drink based on my own religious beliefs. I do however lose patience quickly with people who don't have any defined dietary limitations but will refuse to eat something prepared specifically for them merely because they don't like it. The below article, which I sent to HK this week and have decided to also share with you, is directed at those individuals.

Here's hoping my thoughts on this topic don't deeply offend any of my readers. However, if you disagree, please feel free to comment and we can get a mini discussion going.

The Limits of Personal Preference

Americans are spoiled. We hear this a lot, and sometimes it's justified and sometimes it's not. In one particular area however, I have found this statement to be almost universally true. We are overwhelmingly spoiled when it comes to food. We are raised in a society where its OK to not like certain foods, and where, for the most part, our likes and dislikes are indulged rather than eradicated.

Pigeon head in Shanghai.

It seems to me however, that at a certain point in one's life, some of our pickiness can and should fall away in certain situations. In particular, when you are a guest in someone else's home the simple fact that you don't like something isn't really a good enough reason to refuse to eat it.

As a missionary in Taiwan, I didn't have the luxury of refusing to eat something that didn't appeal to me. From a cultural perspective, it would have been extremely rude to tell the host or hostess that I wouldn't eat something they prepared simply because I didn't like it. I can't pretend that I wouldn't sometimes try to avoid certain dishes on the table, but it was never overt and I was rarely successful. Taiwanese people have a habit of putting food in your rice bowl, and once it is there you really have no choice but to eat it. Because I wasn't always able to avoid food I didn't want to try, I've tried such lovely dishes as Stinky Tofu, Rice in Pigs Blood, and Cow's Stomach.

Kenny's birthday BBQ in Taiwan.

Unfortunately, in America we don't seem to have this sense of propriety when it comes to eating in other people's homes. Even as adults, we feel like we can simply explain that it's a food we don't like. With friends and family that is usually fine. But as a guest in the home of someone you have only recently met, it should not be OK.

When people open their homes and their kitchens to you, it's important to graciously accept whatever food they have prepared on your behalf. Although this may not be widely acknowledged in our culture, I still feel that a host or hostess will be much more impressed/favorably disposed to a guest who tries all the food that has been prepared. Every dish requires time, effort, and money on the part of the cook. To be told that something will go to waste simple because the guest doesn't like it is probably the quickest way to find yourself in your host's bad graces.

Hot pot in Shanghai.

Thanks to my time in both Taiwan and China, I have fallen in love with many foods that I hated as a child. I have a wise friend who pointed out that as a child there were many foods she didn't like but when she gave them a chance as an adult, she found that she really liked them. Our palates change both as we grow and as we encounter more of the world. If we stick to the limits we impose on ourselves as children, we close ourselves off from many of the great things the world has to offer. While food may only be one small aspect of our life experience, it's probably the way in which our lives are the most often and most immediately impacted. (The End)

In honor of off-putting foods, I'm pairing today's musings with a recipe for mussels. I thought this recipe would have more of a Chinese flavor to it, but although I was mildly disappointed on that score, I was, on the whole, thrilled with the end result. Delightful. Mussels are one of those foods I came to love while living in Asia, but if you haven't yet been converted, give this recipe a try one night (preferably with someone who already does love mussels so if you still find yourself unconvinced they won't go to waste).

Black Bean Mussels
Adapted from this recipe in Gourmet magazine

2 lb mussels, scrubbed and beards removed - I bought my mussels at Salt Lake's most respected fish market but as it turned out, they no longer sell fresh mussels. The fishmonger explained that they had too many problems with bad mussels when they were buying them fresh so now they sell a brand of pre-cooked, frozen mussels. I was a little skeptical, but they turned out great so you should be fine with either fresh or pre-cooked/frozen in this recipe.

1/4 c. diced red bell pepper
1/4 c. diced yellow pepper
1/4 c. finely chopped red onion
1/4 c. finely chopped scallions
1 T. minced garlic
1 T. minced fresh ginger (I used my Microplane for this, so it was grated, not minced)
1 T. Chinese fermented black beans, rinsed in cold water (available at Chinese grocers)
1 c. heavy cream
2 T. rice wine
1 1/2 t. soy sauce
1 1/2 t. oyster sauce
1/2 c. chicken broth
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a large, heavy pot and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then tightly cover and cook over moderate heat until all the mussels open wide, about 3-6 minutes. Discard any mussels that remain closed after 6 minutes.


Adam said...

Ok, I have a question. Exactly how does one eat a pigeon's head? Do you pick off the soft bits? Or do you just crunch away, beak and all?

Shannon said...

Actually Adam, you pretty much got it right. You kind of crunch and chew on it and spit out the bones once you have managed to separate the little bit of meat there is on the skull. Interesting side note about that picture... As soon as we had taken that picture my friend turned to me and said, "What do I do with this now." We were out with Chinese friends who were paying for the meal and she had picked it up because she wanted the picture. So I said, "You eat it." And she got a very scared look in her eyes and said, "I can't." So guess who ended up eating it instead?