new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Why I Like Asian Food

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Why I Like Asian Food

For some reason, I'm trapped in an Asian culinary aesthetic and I can do jack shit about it. It embarrasses me because I'm all too aware of the trendy kids who, obeying the Hive Mind, have convinced themselves that their skinny, withered bodies are only capable of metabolizing 200 dollar slices of sashimi and not much else. This of course is bullshit, further evident when you watch them attempt to use chopsticks. But I digress.

Now, I am lily white. You could probably see my whiteness from space. I've never even been to Asia. But my family on my mother's side has lived in, worked in, and generally tooled around Asia rather a lot and some of it has rubbed off on me, some perverse notion of how much much more interesting things are Over There. Last time I was at my grandparents house, my grandfather joined me in sneering at Italian food, about how there wasn't enough there there. "I like spicy," he said, and then we went out for lamb vindaloo and wounded ourselves, self flagellation being another aspect of the dominant culinary aesthetic in my family. I suppose we enjoy gasping for air and getting chili peppers in our eyes because we are just that hardcore.

I realized I'd reset myself to a distressing degree when I found myself vaguely turned off by macaroni and cheese. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with macaroni and cheese, other then the occasional tendency celebrity chefs have these days to put lobster, truffles, and whatever other overpriced ingredients they can find in their cuboards in it. But yet I wasn't interested, I didn't find the taste worth the calories or worth my time. I found myself thinking, "This is okay, but it could really use some fish sauce." Which would of course be an abomination before God and possibly get me zapped by a lightening bolt, because it wouldn't even taste good. And yet.

One is often asked what their desert island cuisine would be, at least among the yuppified foodie circles I find myself in. There's a certain ingenuity in answering "pizza," as if that were a cuisine, mainly because you can put whatever the hell you want on it without violating the rules. (Thus the California Pizza Kitchen trying to convince us a tostada on a pizza covered in barbecue sauce and gypsy tears is delicious and worth money.) But I would answer, eyes glazing over in a red bean paste induced haze, that it's either Vietnamese or Korean for me. I cannot decide. I have eaten them both in short succession this week and they were both so damn good that it would feel like a horrible affront to pick either. Nuoc cham or spicy tofu seafood soup? But they're both equivalent to crack! Profoundly, deeply, antisocial crack if you intend on breathing on anyone afterwards.

I suppose my mania for Asian food has only increased since I have lived in a rural and extremely twee Massachusetts town, where seasoning is generally considered with distinct suspicion and the Mexican place in town puts cheddar cheese on everything and charges 8 bucks for a deeply unpleasant burrito. Needless to say good Asian food is hard to find. My friends all swear by a truly woeful Chinese takeout joint that has the art of gloppy neon-orange sauces down to a sophisticated science. General Tso's Chicken generally has one redeeming feature for me - the damn broccoli - and they even managed to louse that up by giving you two florets and extra MSG infused fried chicken parts. I believe there is not a single vegetable based dish on the menu, which is made all the more infuriating by the fact I walked in once and saw the family that runs the place chowing down on steamed lemon grass fish, Chinese greens, and some delicate looking dumplings, all nowhere in sight of their actual menu, of course. Dammit. Yes, there's an okay Thai place in town whose owners I have befriended. They can even whip up a rendition of papaya salad that sort of tastes like the real thing if I squint, although it's woefully under seasoned. They know me now and I've convinced them to actually spice my food, so they can throw a seafood stir fry at me that has that good smoky chili pepper taste that the Sodexo run college dining hall is mandated not to dispense. Still, I pay 12 bucks for the privilege at lunch and 20 at dinner, and it makes me miss California all the more, land of the 5.00 Vietnamese lunch that is at the same time smack yo' mama good.

So that's why I intend to return to California: better food, less stinging ice pellets in winter, fewer New York scene kids with attitude problems. I feel comfortable in a state with a big Asian influence on its culture, feel at home and pleased when I'm elbowing with elderly Asian ladies for the last fish part on offer at the Vietnamese grocery store. I like to live in a place where a weekend shopping excursion can involve curry braised chicken necks and durian. Life is more pungent here but it tastes a hell of a lot better too.

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