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Will write for food

Will write for food

USA | Thursday, 22 March 2012 | Views [451]

I have fantasized for many years of world travel with the organizing theme of exploring local cuisines.

At home, my criterion for my favorite places to eat is simple; find a place where no one – except perhaps the cashier - speaks English. The tiniest hole-in-the-wall family run dives – that usually won’t be there in six months – are my personal favorites.

While living in Beijing, my favorite restaurants were in the miniscule Muslim (Uyghur/Turkish) district where no one spoke English and most food was Halal (essentially the same as kosher). I would take the waiter and walk around the other customers and point to what looked good to me.

I could only hope it was as good as it looked (and smelled). My biggest problem was that I never knew what anything was called, so I couldn’t order it again.

When it comes to food, I have made the transition from picky to unpronounceable to unidentifiable. I'm not Asian, but my local Asian store has tempted me with enoki mushrooms (they look like miniature elongated alien life forms) hard-boiled ptarmigan eggs, and fish cakes as well as things a few degrees closer to normal like fresh tofu, seasoned bean sprouts and seasoned & toasted seaweed.

Once in a while I'll venture into the entirely incomprehensible; the bags, pouches, jars and sometimes open bins of bulbous, gelatinous, tangy smelling, sometimes pulsing globs taunt me not only with their scents and textures but with their uses, their preparation and their sources. Is this particular vat of steaming multi-colored brightness a vegetable delight, a soaking for aching feet or part of an untranslatable religious or coming of age ritual? Is this breakfast, a spiritual endurance test or some sort of sensory-overload baptism which will leave me shivering and shaking and saying “That was wonderful!” or “Never again” or some unhinged combination of both?

One city in Southern China had as its local specialty “stinky tofu”. I had never heard of it until I saw a crowd around a food stand that smelled like fresh sewage. They walked away with a multi-colored glob on a stick – and a look of bliss.

So yes, I had to try it. Beyond the gut-wrenching smell, it was wonderful…sort of like sweet & sour on steroids, delicious and disgusting at the same time. In a sense, looking back, perhaps my whole time in China could be summed up in that fierce dichotomy; delight and horror, squalor and unspeakable beauty, tedium mixed with flashes of unmitigated exaltation; a sweet & sour of the soul with no sense at all of what the next moment would hold.

The traveler’s mind is an acquired taste, a disciplined muscle. One learns as one goes – or not.

Far from home or even at a (relatively) typical day at work, I pluck insights from absurdity, life lessons from the endless parade of frustrations and minutiae of every day life.

As I meet and work with people from around the world, I realize that we have intense, non-negotiable differences that leave us puzzled, frustrated and sometimes lost. Yet at almost exactly the same time I recognize our common ground that surpasses all the cultural divides. The delights, occasionally, trump the crises.

After a year in China I returned to what I thought was home. I had changed, home had changed, and my world had shifted.

Somehow I had expected life in America to be, well, American; but the monochromic, single race dominant America is long-gone, at least in my region.

Here, for example are only a few first names from just  one current class of mine; Sida, Zhixiang, Parambir, Igor, Geliza, Junyi, Chenggang, Hua and Mahogany.

Every day, as I see my students (and struggle with their names) I am reminded that my world, local and global, is one in flux and everyone seems to be everywhere.

On a daily basis I work with students from Viet-Nam, Cambodia, Moldova, Rumania, Iran, Korea and many, many, other far-flung places. My home has, for whatever reason, become theirs.

They remind me that a key aspect of our era might not be wrapped around technology – as useful as that is – but it is personal mobility. We see a large scale migration not too different from the movements as people moved in response to the Ice Ages. Now those who can afford to are leaving their roots and making a life their ancestors could never have imagined.

These pioneers of a new culture are my students.  Perhaps they are dissatisfied with their life options at home, or perhaps they will return, but either way, they and their world will never be the same.

For the past few years I have not travelled as much as I would have liked, but even so, I have had a constant flow of the foreign. The wide world comes to me now, but I’m ready to meet it again on its own turf.


Tags: beijing, china, food, tofu, travel

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