Thursday, August 14, 2014

That offal taste

I visited some friends in a city a few hours north of me.  I like to make short trips to discover new things, enjoy good food, and revel in the company of friends that I don't see as often as I would like.  One of my friends insisted that I stay with her for the weekend.  She informed me that her parents were also visiting for the weekend, and I was looking forward to seeing them.  I like her parents.  They're good people.

Her parents love me.  And I've known them for well over ten years; I've actually spent several special family occasions and been on vacation with them--unwittingly the first time and a few other times since.  The first time I was roped into vacationing with them was when I made the long drive (about 2 days worth) up to the west of the Rocky Mountains to see my friend graduate from college.  The plan was to visit her for a week and then continue on to California for a few days getaway.  Instead, I found myself spending two weeks meeting and getting to know her (extended) family and taking part in what evolved from my friend's graduation into a mini family reunion.

I've been friends with the Graduate since we were in jr high, just a few years before we started high school.  I met her parents back then, and I met a few of her siblings who were still living at home at the time.  But at her college graduation, I got to meet the rest of her siblings and the aunts and uncles and cousins who made the trip.  I found myself chauffeuring half of her extended family around town and across several states over the next two weeks.  Not that I minded.  I quite enjoyed hanging out with her relatives and driving them around to see different places.

In return, they fed me a wonderful assortment of Chinese food, one of my favorite foods in all the world.  Everyday was like a buffet where I got to eat and enjoy so many different, delicious Chinese dishes.  I loved the usual stir fried dishes of rice, pork, beef, chicken, and seafood, along with new stews and soups I've never had before.  After spending two weeks in the company of her large and lively family, I suddenly found myself adopted into their clan.  And whether I wanted it or not, they'd taken me in as one of their own.

My friend told me that her family really liked me and appreciated what I was doing for them.  I didn't really understand what the big deal was.  But my friend stated that her family was impressed with how courteous and friendly I had been to them; driving them around town and across hundreds of miles to and from neighboring states, to see and enjoy the some of the magnificent natural (and man made shopping) wonders of the world.  I didn't mind it, really, as I enjoyed visiting those places and sharing in the company of her family.  They fed me and made me laugh and made me feel welcomed in their presence.

But my friend related how it was sometimes difficult for her family to deal with some of the people in this country.  My friend is a first generation American; her parents and aunts and uncles were immigrants, who got their citizenship decades ago.  They've had children and grandchildren born and raised here, and still, in some parts of the country, they treat them like foreigners.  I was kind of surprised and upset to hear that.  How is it that people can still be idiots in this day and age?  This country was founded by immigrants; and unless you're a native American, everyone in this country is a descendant of immigrants!  Granted, those first immigrants took advantage of the native people's kindness and proceeded to steal the natives' lands and wipe them out, but that's another topic to discuss another day.

I've never given much thought to the immigrant experience.  Back in my remote part of the world, we had our fair share of foreign visitors and immigrants, and we welcomed them with opened arms, whether they stayed for a few days or permanently.  My father was one of these world travelers who actually came out on business for a few days, but then he met my mother and decided to settle down and call this new place home.

In our community, we were raised to be gracious hosts and welcomed our visitors and immigrants.  We were taught to be courteous and friendly; to be hospitable was to be respectful; and we tried to treat everyone the way we'd like to be treated.  The idea was to create reciprocity--to be kind and helpful to others, so that when the time comes and you need help, those others would help you and be kind to you in your times of trouble.  Those were ideals the community tried to attain and instill in us.  It wasn't always possible to live up to those ideals, but for the most part, we tried our best and looked out for each other as best we could.  We wanted our guests to have a good time, and we did this by inviting them over to share in a good meal, surround them with good company, and ensure an enjoyable experience by providing entertainment, music, dances, and games.  We were a hard working people; but we were also a hard partying people.  We worked hard, so we played hard.

As a remote, small community, in the middle of nowhere, we loved getting visitors, especially the foreign ones.  We were fascinated with stories of big cities and different places and different peoples and the variety of cultures that differed from our own.  Mind you, this was decades before cable tv made it to us.  Back then, we only had 3 channels on tv, until a hurricane knocked one channel out.  And both remaining channels were off at midnight and wouldn't be on again til 6 in the morning.  It wasn't until I was in high school that we actually got a satellite channel that was on for 24 hours, but it was all CNN headline news and military news, because it was the nearby, new military installation that provided access to that channel.  So for many years before then, visitors were our only source of entertainment and news from beyond the borders.

It was amazing to hear tales of the world far beyond our borders, and we loved learning new things about other people and their way of life.  In addition to the stories and news from abroad, the most exciting thing about having visitors and travelers and immigrants is their food.  Of all the interactions and trade that happen between two different people and communities, food is the greatest and most powerful of all these cultural exchanges.

Food is the ultimate cultural marker.  It identifies and makes each culture unique.  Every culture has a signature dish or technique that defines it and sets it apart from all others in the world, yet at the same time, sharing that dish or technique brings that culture closer to the others in the world.  To share a meal is to get to know someone better; you are given a glimpse into the character of a person.  And anyone who shares a meal freely is someone well worth knowing.  To share a meal communicates respect and a willingness to share ideas and a chance to better understand one another.  And making new friends and learning new things are some of the reasons why I enjoy being an adventurous eater.  I get to experience new tastes and discover new cultures, and I get to know someone or a culture just a little bit better.

What is even more amazing than the differences in food across cultures are the similarities.  Some dishes are almost identical across the spectrum, only they're named differently in different parts of the world where they are prepared.  And sometimes, the addition of an ingredient or two is the only difference.  Take sashimi, for example, those thinly sliced pieces of raw fish; every seafaring and coastal culture has their own version of a raw fish dish; add a few ingredients and it becomes ceviche, poke, oka, poisson cru, or tartar.  Every culture has their own version of bread--flat, round, sliced--it's easily recognized across the world.  These similarities are a testament to the common origin and inventiveness and adaptability of mankind.  When we prepare and share food, we put a little piece of ourselves--our history, our ideas, our beliefs--into the food and it is expressed in the way the food is made and served.  Food is the story of us.  Food feeds the body, enriches the mind, and blossoms the soul.

I wasn't always an adventurous eater.  Truth be told, I was a very picky eater growing up; finicky and spoiled is what my older siblings called me, and they were absolutely right.  I was finicky and spoiled.  I didn't like anything spicy or with strong flavors.  I liked things bland, like plain oatmeal with just some sugar; I only ate the yolk, but not the white of a boiled egg, because I didn't like the texture of the egg white; I didn't like oregano or any strong spices, so I didn't even like pizza, unless it was just cheese on bread.  My favorite meals, besides fried chicken (which I still love to this day), were a plain fried egg sandwich and pancakes with syrup.  And if I didn't like what we were having at a meal,  I would complain, and my mother would see to it that I would have a fried egg sandwich, usually made after giving instructions to my older sisters, who would then complain and threaten me for being so spoiled and making extra work for them.  But I didn't care; I knew I was going to get my sandwich, one way or another.

But the good times ended when I was 10 and complained that I didn't want to eat the lamb curry that my mother had prepared.   Ungrateful little bastard that I was, I asked for something else instead.  But instead of hearing my mother issue orders to my older siblings, there was just silence.  I suddenly felt the hairs on my neck stand up and I got that sense that I was in deep trouble.  A quick glance at my mother confirmed my fears.  She had that look in her eye that I recognized as I was in trouble.  I shut my mouth and waited for things to calm down.

My mother then asked me what I wanted to eat.  Relieved, like a fool I thought, 'Oh, good, things are back to normal and I'm getting what I want.'  I told her I wanted a fried egg sandwich.  But instead of telling one of my older sisters to make one for me, my mother instead told me that she would instruct me on how to make one right then and there.  Imagine my shock!  At first, I thought she was kidding.  But nope, she really was giving me instructions on how to make a fried egg sandwich, all while my older sisters rejoiced that they were no longer subject to my picky food whims.

I have to admit, after getting over the initial shock of having to make my own sandwich, I was delighted to learn that I make a pretty good sandwich under the supervision of my mother.  That sandwich tasted great.  And any thoughts I had of this incident of making my own meals was a one off were quickly corrected when I was apprenticed to the kitchen that weekend, so I could learn how to cook.  By the time I was 12, I was put into rotation in taking turns to prepare a meal for the entire family.  My parents believed that learning to cook was an essential life skill we needed in order to survive and thrive.  And I loved learning how to cook.  In fact, I become more curious and started experimenting with different dishes and ingredients.  Granted, my experiments weren't always successful (or well received by my family, the unwitting guinea pigs I secretly tested recipes on), but I was learning to appreciate food and my curiosity about food and technique helped me evolve into an adventurous eater.

I love discovering new dishes and experiencing new tastes and new cultures.  And having many friends from different parts of the world and with different backgrounds and cultures helped me explore and try out many different dishes that only broadened my tastes and appreciation for food and life.  Of course, there are times when the food just doesn't taste right to me.

There are just some dishes that I just don't like.  For instance,  I don't like egg drop soup--it's just a watery, bland liquid mess to me.  I don't care for cheese cake either; it just doesn't taste all that great to me, and I've yet to find one that I would order again.  I'm not a fan of spaghetti, either.  I just want the meatballs; keep the spaghetti strands or toss them out. I don't like anything with cilantro (coriander), because it tastes like soap to me; no matter how well someone thinks they've cooked or prepped a dish with cilantro, I can always taste it, and it tastes like soap.  How do I know that it tastes like soap?  Because I've had the taste of soap in my mouth before, and cilantro tastes just like soap.  It's a genetic thing; some of us are programmed to recognize cilantro by its soapy taste; no getting around that.  It is what it is.  Some people are allergic to nuts and others are lactose intolerant; I only taste soap when I have a dish with cilantro.  Ever wonder what soap tastes like?  Well the next time you are in the shower, go ahead and take a lick of that bar of soap or drop of shower gel.  Then you'll know what soap tastes like, and that's exactly what cilantro tastes like to me, just like soap!

Then there are dishes that are just too overwhelming for me to even give them a try. Kimchi is one of those.  My parents were adventurous eaters (probably where I got it from), and one of their favorite dishes was Kimchi--a very gawd awful pungent stinky smelly fermented cabbage Korean dish my dad discovered on his travels.  My entire family loves Kimchi; my entire family that is, except for me.  I can't stand the smell of Kimchi!  And every time we had it at the house, my mom would make sure I would get a different, separate dinner that I would eat outside the house, away from the horrid, ghastly, putrid death and spoiled stench of Kimchi.  In spite of these set backs in my food adventures, I can say that for the most part, I've succeeded in meeting the challenges of eating new and foreign treats.

Graduate's family were among the many who introduced me to new and exotic dishes.  The first time I was introduced to Graduate's parents, four of us were working on a history project for school.  Graduate wanted us to work at her house, since it was central and about equidistant from the other 3 of us in the group.  It made sense, so we went to her house to work on the project.  During a break, her mother served us the usual stir fried dishes of rice, chicken, beef, and pork.  But then she introduced the 3 of us to the most amazing, tender, and flavorful stew of baby octopuses and squids.

It was just unbelievable how delicious and tender and savory those baby cephalopods were.  Now, I've eaten adult octopuses and adult squids before cooked in various ways--stewed, grilled, roasted, and dried--and they were tasty and flavorful eats.  But I've never had baby octopuses and baby squids before, and the way they were stewed was just an amazingly rich and savory experience that was new and delightful and such an eye opener.  Over the years, Graduate's family continued to introduce me to other new dishes, like chicken feet and bird's nest soup.  To be honest, I prefer the gelatinous chicken feet to the meh tasting regurgitated bird saliva soup.  Bird's nest soup is really made from a bird's nest, and that nest is created from the saliva the bird throws up and lets harden to create its nest.  At least the chicken feet are packed with flavor.

Every time I share a meal from different cultures, I come away feeling good, having sampled some amazing dishes and usually learning something new about a dish or ingredient or cooking technique.  It's a great learning experience; but not all learning experiences are great.  As I've learned the hard way over the years, there are times when I need to stop and ask myself, "What the hell am I doing here?" and "What the hell am I thinking?" when it comes to certain dishes.  Like the time I was offered a sea cucumber fermented (spoiled) in the sun inside a glass jar.  It not only looked disgusting, but the stench was strong and off putting, like Kimchi.  I just couldn't bring myself to try it.

The same can be said for when I was offered a bit of an artisanal maggot infested cheese.  That's right; maggots in the cheese!  And it was a very expensive cheese; you'd think that for a cheese that costs so much they could keep the flies and maggots off it.  But nope; I was told that is what made the cheese unique (and expensive), the freakin maggots!  I could see them crawling in the moist, spongy parts of the cheese; but what really put me off was the strong ammonia scent of the cheese; it reminded me of industrial strength bathroom cleaners.  Hell, even Pine-sol smelled a lot better than that fancy cheese.  The overpowering pungent scent made my eyes water and I just couldn't get past that burning, chemical stench to attempt swallowing maggot cheese.  I couldn't bring myself to taste it; it just smelled too awful!  No, thanks.  I'll stick to the processed stuff that comes in individual plastic wrapped slices.

Thankfully, those off putting experiences are very far and few in between.  And it's been a very long time since I've had to question my food choices.  That is until I was confronted by a new dish prepared and offered by Graduate's mom when I sat down for dinner.

In addition to the usual stir fried rice, pork, beef, chicken, and vegetable dishes, there was new dish I had never seen before.  Graduate had to excuse herself from the table to take a call.  Graduate's mother, in her heavily accented English, explained that the new dish I was seeing was made of pork, "It's from the pig."

Sure it was, except it was really all pork offal.  Offal is made up of the internal organs and non-skeletal muscles of an animal, parts such as the stomach, heart, brains, intestines, liver, lungs, kidneys, etc.  Stop making that disgusted face and ewww sounds.  If you've ever had a hot dog, sausage, or bratwurst, then guess what?  You've had offal!  That includes vienna sausages, cocktail sausages, and breakfast sausages.  Processed meat is made up of offal.  And if you've ever eaten spam, bologna, salami, and pepperoni, then you've eaten offal, my friend.  Yummy delicious animal innards, mmmm!  Offal, when prepared right, is absolutely fantastic and flavorful.  You know what else is offal?  Sweetbreads.  Which is really the thymus gland and pancreas of an animal.  Talk about a misnomer, there's nothing sweet or bread like about sweetbreads.  So why call them sweetbreads?  Because it sounds a lot better than thymus and pancreas on a plate.

As an aside, I really hate it when misnomers occur in food.  Imagine my disappointment when I found out that sweetbreads wasn't really a sweet bread or jelly roll, but the thymus gland and pancreas of an animal.  Thankfully, sweetbreads is scrumptious when fried.  But I still do not appreciate the mismatched name.  You know what else was a big let down?  Breadfruit.

When I went to a luau on vacation, I was offered breadfruit.  I imagined a pastry roll full of pineapples or berries or mangoes or apples or other delicious sweet fruits.  But nope.  Wrong again.  There was nothing bread like or sweet about breadfruit.  Granted, it is a fruit from a tree, but it's not sweet; you can't eat it raw; it's about the size of a football, and to eat it, you have to cook it.  It's more baked potato like in consistency when boiled, sort of light and fluffy and spongy when baked, and it fries up nice and crispy when sliced thinly, which is my favorite way to eat breadfruit, as fried breadfruit chips.  Come to think of it, just about anything deep fried comes out tasty and delectable.

And while I did enjoy eating both the boiled and baked breadfruit dipped in coconut milk sauce and palusami (a spinach dip like dish made of soaked taro leaves wrapped around a coconut milk mixture with onions, salt, and sometimes, some meat or fish or poultry all baked in a umu or underground earth oven); and sure, breadfruit was a fantastic, tasty side dish to the grilled mahi mahi, garlic and onion stir fried shrimp, and kalua pork, I was still a little pouty that it wasn't a sweet roll dessert like the name implied.  If you're going to call something breadfruit, then by gawd, it better be some sort of bread with a delicious fruit stuffing!

You know what else is a misnomer?  Chinese parsley.  There's nothing Chinese or parsley about it. It's just coriander!  Fraking cilantro!!!

Back to the dinner, I took some of the prepared pork offal and had a taste.  It tasted amazing, so savory and sweet and sour and spicy at the same time.  It was a sensational hit in my mouth.  I liked it a lot!  I told Graduate's mom that the pork was just delicious and so full of flavor.  She laughed and said thanks.

As I continued eating the pork offal, I tried to discern some of the ingredients that went into making this fantastic dish.  I could tell there was garlic and onion and ginger in the dish; and Graduate's mom verified my findings.  I tried to guess some of the other unique flavors, some of which were very subtle but familiar, while others were foreign yet completely welcomed on my palate.  I guessed there were Szechuan peppercorns and salt and hints of soy and fish sauce; and I was right, as Graduate's mom told me.  I ventured if there was sugar added, and yes, just a tiny amount along with some lemon juice for that hint of citrus flavor.  It was becoming quite a challenge to identify the last few ingredients.  In addition to the hint of sugar, I guessed that there was cinnamon with that distinct sweet and spicy flavor, along with perhaps some cloves, because I had seen her use those two spices before in her cooking.  Graduate's mom said that I was tasting cinnamon and cloves.

But I could not figure out what the remaining ingredients were.  There was a unique taste, that had a very familiar undertone, like I had tasted it before, only I could not for the life of me remember what it was.  Then it dawned on me why it tasted familiar.  I asked Graduate's mom if she had used any fennel in the dish, and she replied yes, she had.  I was ecstatic that my taste buds were getting so good at detecting these exotic ingredients that went into making this very savory and sweet and spicy dish.  But there was still that one flavor that eluded me, and while I thought it was fennel, it was somehow similar, yet different, almost more pungent in its undertones.  There was a secret ingredient, I was sure.  But I could not figure out what it was, no matter how hard I racked my brains to figure out what it could be.

I was all ready halfway through eating my bowl of tasty and richly flavored pork offal.  So I finally asked Graduate's mom, "You know, I think there's one more ingredient in there that I just can't guess what it is.  It seems familiar but new to me at the same time.  Is there something else that was added to make the dish taste so wonderful and full of flavor?"

Graduate's mom replied, "Oh yes, the last ingredient; it's the only one you haven't guessed yet.  I'm not sure if you've ever had it before, but it's a really strong flavor," she paused, leaned in a bit like she was about to reveal the secret ingredient.  She looked me in the eyes and said, "It's the anus"

I was like, 'Say what?'  In my head I thought, maybe I heard her wrong.  But she continued, "The anus adds more flavor to the pork."

Nope.  I heard her right the first time.  She said the secret ingredient was anus!  Oh, my gawd!  I was eating a pig's anus!  At least I think it's a pig's anus; for all I know, it could be the anus of another animal that was used to flavor the offal!

Now I've eaten many strange things over the years.  I've had pig's feet, and I've had pig's tail (which is best when it's crunchy from being roasted or fried); sea turtle (which surprisingly tasted a lot like a lightly salted beef and pork meat combo in a savory stew); eels (I like 'em grilled or fried); grubs (stir fried is the best way to enjoy their fatty, sweet, woodsy goodness); crickets (chocolate covered or twice fried are the best with the legs removed); horse (it was just like beef in a roast); alligator (so tasty when deep fried; then again, isn't everything tasty when it's deep friend?); sea worms (best when stir fried or baked with a yummy briny taste when eaten raw); sharks and stingrays (grilled and in soups);  roasted moose (which has a strong gamey, tasty flavor); and barnacles, the crustaceans that grow under boats and on whales and sea rocks (and because they are crustaceans, they taste like crab).

Sure, I've eaten some bizarre and exotic things.  But never, ever, could I recall an instant in my food adventurous life where I had eaten an anus!  I quickly thought about hot dogs, but no, I'm pretty sure they don't add anuses in the hot dog meat.  How could I be so sure?  Because I recall a conversation some friends and I had back in college.

We were discussing the worst jobs we've ever had, and the winner was a friend from up north.  One summer, he worked at a meat processing plant just outside of Chicago.  His job was to operate the machine that ripped the anuses off the cow carcasses.  The reason being that the anus was too tough to be used in the offal and left over meats and gristle bits that were made into a meat batter, that would be transformed into hot dogs and sausages.  That's right; the anus is too tough for the meat batter that is turned into delicious hot dogs and sausages.

But if I was hearing things right, Graduate's mom had somehow found a way to incorporate that tough anus into a savory, tender, delectable meal.  My gawd!  I didn't know whether to throw up or be impressed!  I try very hard not to be judgmental when it comes to different cultures and their unique dishes.  Some people eat cows; others worshiped them.  I couldn't deny that the pork dish was still tasty enough that I couldn't stop eating it, even though a part of my mind was screaming, 'Dude!  You're scarfing down anus!'

Still, I recognized that it was a well seasoned and prepared anus; perhaps the preparation was key to making the anus taste so good and tender.

So I asked Graduate's mom how she prepared and cooked the dish.  She proceeded to describe how she quickly stir fried the veggies and herbs; removed them and then quickly browned the pork offal.  Then she proceeded to use the liquid ingredients with some water to slowly braise the offal with the veggies and herbs added in.  Low and slow for the next two to three hours, and the result was this excellent flavorful, rich dish.

I still needed some clarification on something, as there was one particular ingredient she didn't mention cleaning, so I asked her, "Do you wash the anus before you put it in?"

To my surprise, she shook her head and said, "No; you don't want to wash the anus; washing takes away the flavor.  You just put the anus right into the pot without washing it."

Oh. My. Gawd!  It was a dirty anus!  I was eating a dirty anus! 

She continued, "That's how you get the most flavor out of the anus.  You don't wash it and it makes a very strong taste in the pork."

I'll bet an unwashed anus has a strong taste!  I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that she used an unwashed anus in the dish.  I immediately thought of all the germs that live in the anus and the diseases they caused.  My gawd!  I hope they at least gave that pig an enema before they took its anus!  I prayed that the long cooking time would've at least sanitized the dirty anus.

I asked Graduate's mom, "How did you get the anus?"

She answered, "Oh, they come in a package."

Anuses come in a package!?! I couldn't believe it, so I asked, "Where do you get the package of anus from?"

She replied, "From the Asian store.  All Asian stores carry the packages of anus because they use them a lot in Asian cooking."

Oh. my. Gawd!  They really do sell everything and anything at the Asian stores!  Now I've been to Asian stores before, and the big ones sell all sorts of exotic fruits and veggies and herbs along with live seafood, including fish and crustaceans and cephalopods and mollusks that I've never even seen before.  I've seen them stocked with lanterns, bamboos, aisles of soy sauces, a variety of dried and seafood flavored chips, exotic smoothies and drinks, dried lizards, and rows of alternative medicinal herbs and concoctions.  But I had never paid attention to the fact that they also stocked up on packages of anuses! 

Graduate's mom continued, "When you go shopping for anus, look for the really dark and brown ones.  You want to pick up the package and smell the anus.  The stronger the anus smell, the better the taste. When you get home, you just put them in a jar and close the lid tight so the anus flavor and smell will last longer."

It took all my strength not to fall out of the chair.  Good gawd!  Now there's a shopping tip I'd never heard before, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to use it.  So if I wanted to buy the best anus, I had to be sure to pick up the package and sniff it, to make sure that I buy the best anus, which will be the one with strongest smell!  I'm not sure what a package of anuses smelled like, but if it's anything like a live pig's anus, I don't think I'll buy any, much less get up close and start sniffing them in their packages!  No thank you; the food adventure stops here.

I still couldn't wrap my mind around it.  Anuses in a package?  Good gawd almighty!  I had to ask, "How do they make the anus packages?"

Graduate's mom answered, "They usually get them from farms when they are just right; dry them out; then put them in packages in the factory.  Then they ship them out to sell in the stores."

My gawd!  There are farms and factories harvesting and packaging anuses!  I didn't know which was worse, working on an anus harvesting farm or an anus packaging factory!  That they didn't wash the anus in the harvesting or packaging process was revolting!  Just dried anus!  Unwashed to maintain the strong flavor.  Ugh!  Try as I might, an unwelcomed thought popped into my head.  Were the dried bits in the anus the parts that gave the anus its strong flavor?  Blaaaaah!  I immediately banished that thought from my head and concentrated hard on other things.

I was done with the pork offal dish and started on the spring rolls and pot stickers and fried rice.  I deliberately focused on how tasty and delicious these dishes were and compartmentalized any more thoughts of pork offal into a deep corner of my mind, to be locked away, banished into oblivion, hopefully in a memory wipe.

By then, Graduate had returned to the table and we started discussing other things, like other family members I had met and some friends of ours and what was going on with them.  We laughed; we joked; we gossiped; we ate and we drank.  Dessert was a sweet and delectable flan.  When we were done eating, Graduate and I volunteered to clear the table and wash the dishes.

While putting the dishes in the dishwasher and putting the leftovers into the fridge, Graduate and I started talking.  I thanked her for inviting me over stay and for feeding me.  She asked me, "So did you like the food?"

 "Of course I liked the food," I answered, "I love the food your mom makes.  It's always so good and delicious."

"Good," said Graduate, "I'm glad you enjoyed it."

I continued, "But I have to admit, from now on, I think I'll just eat the food instead of trying to figure out what's in it."

Graduate looked at me with a question on her face, "What do you mean?"

So I told her, "Well, when I tried the pork dish tonight, it was delicious.  But I couldn't help but try to figure out what went into it.  And I kind of regret asking what was in it."

Graduate looked confused, "Why would you regret finding out what's in it?  There's nothing really strange that went into it, but the usual stuff."

And I thought, 'Of course she would think there's nothing strange in the pork dish; she's probably had anus lots of times before.'  So I told her, "Well, you might be used to it, but this is the first time I've ever eaten an anus"

Graduate looked at me like I had gone crazy, "Say that again?", she asked me.

So I reiterated, "I said you might be used to it, but this is the first time I've ever eaten an anus."

Graduate still looked at me kind of crazy, "What makes you think that you ate an anus?"

Now I was confused.  Surely Graduate must've had some of the pork offal dish that was on the table.  Or maybe she didn't. So I explained to her, "That pork dish your mom made; when I asked her what was in it, she told me that in addition to the usual cinnamon and cloves and spices, she also put in some anus, for that strong flavor."

A look of clarity blossomed on Graduate's face.  Suddenly, she burst out laughing.  I didn't get what was so funny, but Graduate was in a full hearty laugh roll.  She saw my confusion but kept on laughing.  She was laughing so hard that she could barely stand up.  She opened a cupboard and pulled something out.  In between her gasps from laughing so hard, she held up a bottle to me and exclaimed, "It's not anus!  It's anise!  Star anise!"

And sure enough, the bottle was labeled star anise, a herb!  Not a pig's anus as I had feared.  I joined Graduate in her laugh as we discussed the horror I had experienced during dinner when I thought I was eating an anus, and a dirty anus at that!  A dirty anus that from a pig that was raised on a farm and then harvested, dried, and packaged in a factory for sale.

Graduate stopped laughing long enough to say, "You know that my mom has a thick accent!  I can't believe you thought she had cooked you some anus!"

We started another round of laughter.  Graduate went on, "What makes you think that my family would ever serve you some anus?"

I replied, "Well, you did serve me bird vomit soup.  Who's to say that you wouldn't serve me something else that came from the opposite end?"

Graduate started laughing again and then said, "Even if it was an anus,  I can't believe that you would actually eat it and keep on eating it after you found out what you thought it was."

So I told her, "Hey, if all anuses tasted this good, I would definitely try some more in the future!"

What can I say?  I'm just adventurous like that.  The lesson in this story:  If it tastes good, then eat it.  And unless you're allergic to it, you don't always need to know what went into it.


 Related Links:
Curious Cooking Creations
One Night in Bangkok

Friday, August 1, 2014

Gone Bananas

I was eating lunch with some coworkers, sitting at the table, cracking jokes, talking about work and life and nothing in general.  It was the usual lunch time banter, meant to relax and entertain us until it was time to head back to work.  Same old, same old...right up until I reached for my banana and started to peel it.

That's when my colleague--who I shall refer to as Coll--suddenly stopped telling us the story of the fish he caught (and lost) last weekend; his eyes got big and he exclaimed, "Dude!  You are freaking Tarzan!"

I was confused, and so were my other two coworkers, at Coll's sudden outburst.  But Coll continued, "You, man!"

He was addressing me, which only confused me even more, so I asked, "What?"

"You!", he declared, "You peel your banana the wrong way!"

Once again, I asked, "What?"

"You peel your banana the wrong way!", he insisted.

At this point, I looked at Coll like he'd done lost his damned mind.  My other two coworkers were also giving Coll the same look.  But Coll explained, "You peeled your banana from the top, instead of the bottom, where the stem is.  You're suppose to peel a banana from the stem end!"

Okay, now I know he's just crazy.  The other two coworkers were now looking at the banana in my hand.  I told Coll, "Dude, there's no right or wrong way to peel a banana.  Just as long as you get the skin off and get to eat the banana, it doesn't really matter which end you peel first."

But Coll insisted, "No, you're supposed to peel the stem end first, jungle boy.  That's why there's a stem!"

"Says who?", I asked, "Who decided that the stem end was the right way to peel a damned banana?"

"It's just the way it's done," said Coll, as if that would settle the matter.

"No, that's not just the way it's done," I replied, "There are many ways to peel a banana.  I just peel off whatever end is easier to remove."

"The stem end is the easiest end to remove!", insisted Coll.

"No, it's not," I told him, "It's easier to just pinch the top end open, then start peeling from the top to the the stem end.  The stem is just there to hold the banana to the rest of the bunch.  And sometimes, the stem is lost when pulling off the banana from the bunch, and when that happens, it'll be easier to peel the skin off from that end since the skin will be broken there.  Anyway, when you pinch and peel from the top, you don't get those annoying skin strings that come from peeling the stem end first."

"And how do you know that?", Coll challenged.

So I answered, "Because we grew bananas on the farm when I was growing up.  All kinds of bananas--big, small, medium and in a range of colors from green to orange to yellow and even red.  And I've peeled and ate them all in many different ways, and pinching the top end to start peeling is the easiest way to skin a ripe banana.  So yeah, I know a little something about bananas."

Coworker number three interjected his support of my argument by revealing, "When I was in the jungles of Central and South America, I saw how the monkeys peeled their bananas.  And they always peeled from the top end first."

There, I thought.  That settles that stupid argument.  But I was wrong. 

After lunch, we returned to work, where Coll discussed with the others what had gone down and ignited the great 'Right way to peel a banana' office debate that took up all afternoon and was not settled when it was time to clock out.

I didn't know whether to be amazed or disturbed that my coworkers seemed more fired up about the right way to peel a banana than they were about doing their work.  Even several supervisors and a manager got involved in the crazy banana peeling debate.  A few times, the debaters got so animated in their arguments, waving their hands wildly and being loud that I actually thought I was in the jungle looking at a bunch of screeching, hooting monkeys!  Everyone in the office had gone bananas!  B-a-n-a-n-a-s!

We didn't reach a consensus at the end of the day.  Daylight come and me wanna go home.  A few people sided with Coll, that peeling a banana stem end first is the right way.  Some sided with me that pinching and peeling the top end first was the simplest way to skin the banana.  And a few others also shared my point that it didn't really matter which end you start peeling, as long the skin is removed and you can eat your banana.

I've never really given much though to the merits of peeling a banana.  Really, all I'm focused on is removing the skin so I can eat the sweet, delicious banana.  But now I'm curious.  How do you peel your banana?  And why do you peel it that way?  And other than eating it by itself, what's your favorite way to use your banana?  Mine is to mash up the really ripe ones and adding them to a pancake batter to make banana pancakes.  What about you?