Palate drift

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I’m always on the search for new restaurants with good food. That’s why it was with a minor infusion of joy that I noticed a new restaurant opening just down the road from my church. Look, a new lunch place – and it had the air of a place that might be kind of bistro-like, yet cheap! Perfect.

But then I had a closer look. It was not a bistro. It was not a coffee shop, or a fast-food joint, at least not quite. It was a salad place.

Now, years ago, that would have been just fine with me. A good salad with lots of nice ingredients would have been just the thing for a quick lunch. But for some reason, I found myself experiencing a sense of clear disappointment as I worked my way down the posted menu.

Why?

Well, I had to acknowledge that, deep down, the thought of a salad for lunch no longer seemed quite right to me – there was just something not-completely-formed, something vaguely inadequate in the concept itself . . . .

And I realized at that moment that I’ve been through palate drift, and come out on the other side.

What’s palate drift? I’ll define it as a change in one’s tastes brought about by long exposure to an initially unfamiliar cuisine that ultimately overcomes one’s original preferences.

Hong Kong is a perfect place to experience palate drift. It’s got great food, headlined by one of the world's preeminent cuisines, so it’s no surprise that a American who’s accustomed to his home country’s food may find himself losing his taste for old favorites, and replacing them with new ones.

But just finding new favorite foods doesn’t quite do justice to the sense of palate drift I have in mind. To explore this, it’s better to get down to fundamentals.

For example, my dissatisfaction with the notion of a salad lunch is not based on the taste of any given salad. Rather, it’s a bedrock assumption about what constitutes a proper meal. And although salad lunches are common in my homeland, they’re widely derided in Chinese culture as not lunch at all: for many local people, a real meal must focus on cooked food, so salad is not going to make the grade. Obviously, I’ve been subconsciously converted to this view as my palate has drifted.

I’ve also noticed this phenomenon kick in when I’m back in the USA on long holidays. At first, eating typical American food is no problem (I’m not a food snob – although there’s lots of bad food in the USA, there’s also plenty that’s good). But after some days an impatience with menus (not to mention my saintly Mother’s cooking) nags at me; I miss certain tastes and textures that I’m accustomed to in Chinese food here in Hong Kong. My food seems bland and un-pungent. I find myself subconsciously reaching to pick up my rice bowl.

And usually upon returning to HK I find myself doing the rounds of favorite places and dishes to feel like I’m really back home again.

Another aspect of palate drift, of course, is one’s ability not just to tolerate, but to enjoy – and even crave – very different tastes. The word that came to me just now was ‘pungent’, and that’s a good example. When I first came to Hong Kong, I found things like shrimp paste, fermented bean curd, and (top of the list) stinky bean curd not just unappetizing but almost disgusting. That has changed, to say the least; I now love all three.

On the other hand, my palate hasn’t drifted all the way over to the Eastern shore. One point of evidence is sandwiches. I recall on my first visit to Hong Kong being bemused by seeing a new Chinese friend powering down a ham-and-cheese sandwich for breakfast, but then refusing to entertain the possibility of having sandwiches at any other meal. I still eat sandwiches for lunch on many days, but we’ll see if that too must pass as time goes by . . . .

Readers, do you have any examples of palate drift in your own tastes?

Comments

Re: Palate drift

Dear Mr Tall:

Quote>>

shrimp paste, fermented bean curd, and (top of the list) stinky bean curd not just unappetizing but almost disgusting. That has changed, to say the least; I now love all three.

End quote>>

Even for us locals these are acquired tastes despite I have been eating those smelly bean curd since I was a kid.  Back then we could smell the stink two blocks away.

I had a similar feeling when I first tasted some unidentifiable blue cheese and goat cheese more than two decades ago.  The taste was alright, actually it was good.  The problem is that you would have to override your visual and Nasal input and will yourself to put the darn thing into your mouth.......

Best Regards,

T

French too

It's not just the Chinese, the French have taken to putting on their menus "A salad does not constitute a meal and cannot be ordered as such" ...

re: Palate drift

T & Mr Tall, my palate drift is noticeable, but at more of a 'continental drift' pace. I don't forsee me drifting close to any stinky beancurd stalls in my lifetime!

I was searching the Lily Wong archive for a cartoon I thought summed up the salad issue. I couldn't fid it, but it went something like

  1. Stewart finishes preparing large bowl of salad, and stands back to admire
  2. Lily appears, and declares it just need one more thing
  3. She tips the bowl into a wok, and proceeds to stir-fry it!

Re: Palate drift

Hi there,

To make things a bit more complicated.......  If you folks think those deep fried stinky bean curd which could be detected two blocks away is repelling, wait till you have tried the steamed version in Shanghainese restaurants. 

Actually there is something else which I have not tried yet.  It is some Hangzhou delicacy made of steamed stinky bean curd with another stinky vegetable.  I don't know what they call that in English, but the menu calls it 杭州蒸雙臭﹐ which literally means a steamed dish with two stinky items.

My 2 cents,

T

Stinking foods

Hi T;

Actually, I've tried the Shanghainese version in a restaurant here in HK, and I thought it was quite a bit less smelly than the ordinary HK street version. But then I wonder if it had been tamed down for Cantonese consumption?

The photo of that Hangzhou version is really intimidating. That is one sick color!

Re: Stinking food

Dear Mr Tall,

You are quite right.  For ordinary local Shanghainese Restaurants, if you don't ask the chef to do it their traditional way, they will present you with a lesser version.

The photo I borrowed was taken by a friend in a Restaurant in Wanchai called Hangzhou Restaurant, at Johnston & Wanchai.

Best Regards,

T

Steamed & stinky

Not long after I first arrived in HK, and was still finding my way around, I bought some deep fried stinky beancurd from a roadside hawker. People seemed to be enjoying it, and I thought the smell was coming from the drains. Several milliseconds after biting I was put clear on that mistake.

Then a year or so later I went to Taiwan with a friend. In one evening's 'what shall we have for dinner' conversation, they got quite excited about a wonderful stinky beancurd restaurant that was nearby. They listened patiently to my protests, but wouldn't be dissuaded - 'This is steamed, not the deep fried stuff you're talking about. It tastes way better, and anyway you can hardly smell it.'

T, you're absolutely right. I could smell it before they even opened the kitchen door. And maybe it does taste better than the HK version, but I'll never know! Eww.

bugs...

Next time I'm in HK I'd like to drift my palate a bit.  But not in the direction of stinky tofu.  Even though growing up in the States my parents were able to expose me to Chinese delicacies, they did not mention stinky tofu.  I learned about it on TV just last year.  Apparently, my folks would stay far away from it if possible!

Anyway, having dropped beef from my diet a few years ago, I'd like to explore a new source of protein -- like insects.  Are they popular or available at all in HK restaurants?  Hopefully, if they are available, they are not exposed to pesticides...

Vinnie.

Bugs, worms, insects..... a la carte

Hi there,

A few years ago, there had been such a specialty restaurant in San Po Kong.  However it is no longer there.  The owner opened another restaurant in Tokwawan but they do not carry much such delicacy anymore.  I've seen some small scopion look-alike stuffs last time when i was there, however.

You might like to print their address out next time you are in town and try to find the restaurant:

老二和味館﹐ 紅磡崇志街20號明華閣地下

The entrance is in a back ally though. 

Best Regards,

T

 

re: Bugs, worms, insects..... a la cart

Hi T,

Thanks for the info and really neat link!  Even if I don't find the delicacy, the search will give me a reason to explore another part of HK, too.   :)

Vinnie.

Variety is the key

I have convert form Chinese food into roast dinner, banger n mash, fish n chips, the lovely local pub food, the result of living in UK for 10 yrs. AND every time I came back to HK I'll do my round of dim sum, mum's cooking, Thai, Japanese, grandmother soup, grandfather seafood and local dessert.

The mix culture extended my taste bud and i am thankful for it :-)

openrice english

I just found that www.openrice.com is now in English, according to an article on CNNGo.  Woo hoo!  There's an "ENGLISH" tab on the original site or
http://www.openrice.com/english

 

 

Re: Openrice in English

Hi there,

It is not the original management anymore.  Some venture capitalist bought in and had taken over about two years ago, I think.

Best Regards,

T