Omnivore - Guest blogger: An Eastern approach to eating everything

Adventurous eating

By Cathy Ding

Friends call me an adventurous eater. By that, they mean that I’ll eat anything, from tripe to grasshopper to durian, as long as it is considered a food by some culture out there. While I love being labeled “adventurous,” it’s not quite fitting. After all, I don’t go to the ends of the world in search of food frontiers unknown to man. I'm simply not picky when it comes to eating what others have already determined to be nontoxic and delicious.

In my experiences eating with people who turn away food, the major turnoff is not the food itself, but some preconceived negative perception of the food, which clouds the actual encounters. The head has already decided that the food tastes bad before it ever makes its way into the mouth. Along those lines, it’s far easier for me to try something unfamiliar and like it, because, thanks to my Chinese heritage, I grew up with very few taboos as to what should not be eaten or what doesn’t taste good.

As a child, I was exposed to a large variety of vegetables and encouraged to eat all parts of animals. During extended family feasts, the adults often gave me and my cousins soy braised chicken feet to gnaw on. The dozens of tiny bones and chewy tendons kept us occupied for hours.

The word “delicacy,” which scares most western diners, makes a Chinese menu reader perk up and take notice. The philosophy, as articulated by my doctor mom, is that every food provides a unique source of nutrients, and delicacies are those hard to find sources that complete the eater’s spectrum of nutrients, which in turn, improves longevity. My grandma’s traditional wisdom would also have us believe that eating animal parts supplements the corresponding parts in the human body. In her mind, for growing children, nothing could be better than that wobbly pig’s brain. In a society where elders are respected above all, we don’t question such wisdom. Under this thinking, my parents often ordered things when dining out that they didn’t typically cook at home, and encouraged me to experience the different textures and tastes.

For my family, this was never more evident than when we headed out for Chongqing hot pot, a specialty of my region of Sichuan. The centerpiece is the fiery Sichuan peppercorn and chili imbued broth pot. But equally important are the “exotic” selections of meats for cooking in the broth. Seasoned hot pot eaters never pick the usual chicken or beef. Instead, they focus their attention on sliced dark tripe, more prized than white tripe for its ability to hold on to the spice within the pebbled surface. Also popular were the duck intestines, which, when cooked quickly, retain a delightful crunchy texture. But the most celebrated were always the snowy white pork neck cartilages. Slivered in diagonal halves, the cooked cartilage took on an appearance and a slight chew akin to that of fresh calamari.

No matter the selection, eating everything the parents ordered was a requirement, not a request. Pickiness was frowned upon. In this environment, I learned to embrace variations and to appreciate the different and new.

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