I like to think of myself as a foodie. Not in the “Oh my God have you heard about the new menu at Alinea? It’s like so innovative?” kind of way. While I do enjoy procrastinating on various food-related websites ranging from watching a ‘Chinese chef kills crab’ video to Rene Redzepi plating a strangely appealing aged carrot at Noma, at the end of the day I just love eating and cooking.
It’s the comfort of knowing that if I sautéed mushrooms on high heat, they will stay moist. The certainty that comes from knowing 180 degrees, 10 minutes is the magic combination for crunchy-yet-creamy-on-the-inside peanut butter cookies in our rickety, uneven-heating oven. In a world where most things seem to be in flux, these little morsels of certainty are what I cling to.
Combined with my tendency to get bored with places really quickly, which translates into lots of travelling, I fall into the “what’s local” category a lot of the time. Yes, I romanticise whatever seems local – that tingle of self-serving pride when I manage to find a ‘local joint’ that sold thirst quenching mango lassi does, I admit, reify an unrealistic image of Subcontinental cuisine. But I like to think that sometimes, I do manage to transcend the hipster obsession with the palatable ‘genuine’ and venture out into territory where my digestive system punishes me for.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m usually not squeamish with food. I’ve never really understood people who cringe at the way restaurants in Hong Kong display their live seafood so the customer can choose which unlucky fish/lobster/phallic looking geoduck is going to end up on their plate. It’s ‘vulgar’, apparently.
How can getting to know the thing you’re eating be ‘vulgar’? I’ve had more than one friend recoil at the glorious display of stewed inner organs and intestine lining in street- food stalls in Hong Kong— while it may seem unappealing, surely it’s a more honest way of dealing with your food.
But I digress. My point is, growing up, I’ve had my fair share of ‘weird’ food, such as opening the fridge to find a bowl of squirming silk worm pupae, which just so happens to be one of my mother’s favourite dishes. I guess this influenced me to have one rule when it comes to trying out food— try everything, and always try it twice before deciding whether you like it or not.
I also have another belief – the good stuff is always on the street. If it’s fried in opaque looking oil, doused in questionable sauce and contains mystery meat, it’s usually pretty damn good.
These beliefs, naturally, have led to many hours in the toilet in what can only be described as a transcendental experience. But it was worth it.
You see, it’s not only about the food. It’s about the people you meet and the things that happen to you when you’re the weird Asian guy in the room who paid double because he’s too stupid to count the local currency.
The nice waiter who offers to let you try different types of biscuits for free; the inebriated Croatians who take you in as one of their own and randomly name you Ivek (which, for the record, bears no relation to my actual name); the chef who gives you a bit extra when you tell him to split one portion in two so you and your friend can each have a bit more.
Sometimes, however, the quest to seek out what locals eat on a daily basis can result in disillusionment, showing just how similar we are in our differences.
More often than not, when I am fortunate enough to be crashing at a friend’s place, they will take me out specifically to try out the local specialities, which includes, of course, weird yet umami-packed street food.
However, whenever they go out with their friends, with me tagging along, we usually end up in McD’s, the local Chinese, or some form of Italian restaurant with a cringeworthy name such as Ristorante Venezia. Local joints just aren’t da thing.
Looking back, the same thing applies to us in Hong Kong as well, to a certain extent. When we’re bringing people around, or if it’s a special occasion, we might end up in local joints. But more often than not it’ll be McD’s, a Japanese place, Korean BBQ, or some variation of café de Paris.
If we’re going by how often local people frequent a particular establishment, the neighbourhood hangover place with its oil-soaked chips will probably beat any ‘traditional’ establishment.
Why is this? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the way we always want to be what we cannot be. My obsession, among other similar things, with learning how to make pasta come una nonna puts me firmly in the guilty camp.
Maybe it’s time for all of us to put back the ‘local’ in ‘local joints’. Until then, when I’m travelling next time and feel the urge to ‘eat like a local’, I will feel no compunction about seeking guidance from the warm yellow light emanating from those ubiquitous golden arches – the symbol of a truly global local establishment.