I love the exploration of food. There are few things I don't enjoy eating and even fewer things I won't at least try. And this isn't because I'm seeking the "shock value" of it all or because I'm on some "Bizarre Foods" crusade. I truly enjoy the exploration of food.
I was never one to crinkle my nose in distaste at some edible delicacy that seemed out of the ordinary in regards to my cultural upbringing. Rather, my approach has always been, "if it's munchable for them, why can't it be munchable for me?"
And for me, an Odd Eat doesn't mean it has to be of the grub-on-a-stick or tuna eyeball variety. It can be. But it also can be as neutral and innocent as fried Coca Cola or a Crispy Creme Burger. My only criteria is that it has to be somewhat unusual to my everyday fare That's what I consider to be an "Odd Eat".
Today, my "Odd Eats" quest takes me to Chinatown in New York City.
Most major US cities have their version of Chinatown, but by far, New York City's Chinatown is the largest of them all. In fact, its two square miles holds the largest concentration of Chinese in the country, and perhaps, the hemisphere.
Although Chinese emigration to the United States began as a mainly transient population of migrant workers who were lured to California in the 1840's by the promise of gold,
Steadily, the population grew and they tended to live in groups that often held over over a dozen people to an apartment. As a result of racial discrimination, they congregated and eventually, segregated themselves into their own neighborhood, and on a larger scale, their own society. It was a society which not only offered them protection in numbers, but a place where they could practice the traditions of their ethnicity freely and unencumbered.
And unlike other ethnic groups, they didn't readily assimilate into the native population or succumb to outside influence readily. Instead, they built an internal political and social structure where all they needed to survive (and thrive) could be attained within the few square blocks of the neighborhood.
What this did in essence was preserve a lifestyle that we of other enthnicities have lost over the course of time. And this is most often reflected in their foods.
Today, although Chinatown has changed dramatically, and much of the neighborhood has now become home to Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Burmese, Vietnamese and Filipinos, much of the Old World can still be found in the markets, fruit stands and specialty shops.
And that's exactly where our Odd Eats journey begins...
One of the more plentiful fruits you'll find displayed by the throngs of curbside venders is called the Rambutan.
It is by far one of the more unusual looking varieties of fruit you'll find here, as well as one of the more colorful.
The rambutan is native to Indonesia and Malaysia, and can be found growing in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam and the Philippines. It is closely related to several other types of tropical fruits such as the lychee and longan, both of which we'll touch upon later.
The most distinctive feature of this red, golf ball-sized fruit are the yellowish-green follicles that protrude from fruit's skin and give it an almost "hairy" appearance. In fact, the very translation of it's name means "hair". However, rest assured that its odd, and perhaps even distasteful, appearance belies the wonderfully delicious flesh held within.
Soft to the touch, the outer skin is easily removed and reveals an egg-shaped, luminescent flesh that appears to glow. It is extremely juicy and has a taste that is sweetly sour, and perhaps even vaguely tart; almost grape-like both in flavor and texture, but a tad gummier.
Within the flesh is an almond sized pit that an overzealous eater (such as myself) would have to take care not to swallow.
Another fruit that can be found at almost every sidewalk stand and is closely related to the rambutan is called, the Lychee.
Native to China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia, the lychee is smaller than the rambutan (about the size of a large grape), but has a similar flesh once the pinkish-red, roughly textured outer skin is peeled away.
The translucent white flesh revealed within has a floral scent and a fragrantly sweet flavor; far sweeter than the rambutan. Not only is it delicious, but it's one of the stickiest fruits I've ever eaten. Bring napkins... and lots of water.
Very similar to the preceding two fruit varieties is the Longan. Although it bears striking similarities in terms of easily-peeled skin and a translucent flesh, there are some distinct differences which make this my favorite of the rambutan-lychee-longan family.
For one, it is not quite as juicy and messy as the lychee and thankfully, not as sticky.
Whereas the rambutan and the lychee both have a sweetly-sour flavor profile, the longan definitely encompasses a drier, more pure sweetness. This difference is exemplified by the fact that longan are often canned with syrup whereas the other two are not.
The smallest of the three, the longan has a pit concealed inside the flesh like the others.
Puzzled looks abound and a host of questions like, "What is that?", "What does it taste like?" and "Is it good?" are answered in varying degrees of broken-English, if answered at all. In fact, most stands offer per piece fruit price for a taste. At fifty cents per lychee or rambutan, I'm sure their profit margin is raised considerably.
Me? I'm their best-case customer; I read the sign, buy the fruit and munch away for better or worse, no questions asked.
Moving along, there was another fruit that seemed to pop up on nearly every stand and intrigued me to no end ~ the Jackfruit.
Sold by these curbside vendors, you can take your jackfruit home in a number of ways including; whole, sectioned, or by the container (pieces).
Believed to have originated in the south- western rain forests of India, today, the Jackfruit grows throughout Southern and Southeast Asia.
Ripened jackfruit is naturally sweet with a subtle flavoring that is not overwhelming on any level. In fact, I was amazed at how closely it resembled a cross between a banana and pineapple in flavor profile.
It's texture is soft and fibrous, and when eaten, is said to quickly replenish one's energy and bring on a heightened sense of euphoria (though I'm sure this has everything to do with its high sugar content and nothing mystical).
When ripe, it is a delicious eaten raw, but can also be used to make a variety of dishes including custards and cakes.
The fruit contains a seed that looks remarkably similar to a clove of garlic. I didn't chew on it, but learned they are edible and have a milky, sweet taste. These seeds are often boiled, baked or roasted, and when cooked by the latter method, they're said to taste comparable to chestnuts.
The unripened jackfruit also has it's culinary uses.
The flesh of an unripe jackfruit is said to have a meat-like flavor and texture, and because of that quality, is most often used as the basis of a spicy curry.
The durian's lackluster - okay, abysmal - reputation is brought on by a single element - its putrid scent. But not everyone views it as putrid.
The odoriferous quality of the durian, if nothing else, evokes strong emotions from both ends of the spectrum. The flesh emits a distinctive and penetrating odor that is strong and is even detectable from beyond its thick, thorny husk. To some folks, this odor is described as pleasantly fragrant. Others find the aroma revolting and deplorable. As I said, there is no middle ground with the durian.
I'll be perfectly blunt here; I had all intentions on trying the durian, and was even looking forward to the opportunity. But I did not.
Here's the reason: at $4.99 a pound, the smallest one I could find was about 2 pounds and even that one was not quite ripe. I don't mind taking one for the team, but there was no way I was going to shove an unripened fruit with this awful a reputation down my gullet simply to do so. Nor did I have room in my backpack for one larger. This is at the top of my to-do list next trip in.
I picked it up and marveled at it's roughly-textured husk with protruding thorns which actually hurt your hands when lifting one of any significant weight. I held it to my nose and pushed it away. I grabbed another and did the same. And yet another. What I smelled would hardly lead me to believe so many could actually consider this the "king of fruits" as is often said!
The odor of the flesh was absolutely detectable through the thick outer layer and the only thing that varied from durian to durian to durian was how one smelled like rotten onions, another like sweaty socks and another like raw sewage. I just can believe the fruit within could be pleasurable on any level. So I asked around.
Much to my surprise, more than a few folks said they liked it immensely and raved of its custardy, almond-like flavor. Some even described it as "sweet". I left more confused than I came and decided the only way I could reach a conclusion was to try it myself... next time.
Window shopping amidst long rows of roasted ducks, chickens, pig snouts, ears and whole octopus is not something I find off-putting in any sense. Quite the opposite. In such situations, my inner carnivore can't help but rise to the surface and I am one of the bold few that actually salivates when faced with a crispy pig face (no pun intended).
There was one particular storefront far more intriguing than all the others.
There were neat rows of whole ducks, ducklings, chickens, octopus, fish, pigeons, a whole pig, bellies, ears, snouts, wings, organs and more than a few things I couldn't make it.
Some may have run in horror.
Me? I was in roast critter paradise.
Entering, I found it to be half store and half restaurant which seemed to do a brisk take-out business.
In truth, I didn't care. If I didn't know what I was ordering, how could I write about it? So I asked.
If the questions weren't bad enough, he really seemed to get pissed off when he realized I was snapping pictures between questions, and he quickly admonished me with a loud, abrupt, "No picture!"
Normally, my take-no-crap-from-anybody attitude would've led me to snap a picture of him followed by an answer of "too late!" But I hesitated for two reasons:
One, I was hungry and didn't want to chance getting tossed. And secondly, he was wielding a meat cleaver.
I wisely put my camera away until I put some distance between us and began to order.
They seemed to be roasted perfectly with a crisp layer of skin reminiscent of Spanish chicarone (fried pork skin).
Each slab looked to be a little over a pound, and after once more being admonished by the pleasant man with the meat cleaver screaming at me that there were no smaller amounts available, I ordered the full pound-and-a-half slab.
He hacked the pork up into bit-size pieces with the cleaver (probably pretending it was me), placed it in a tin container and silently glared at me. I looked away from his glare and ordered. Pork intestines; specifically, what was termed, Crispy Intestines.
I thought he was going to become completely unhinged when he picked up a nest of intestines that looked like limp sausages (I think they were boiled) and I corrected him, "No, the other ones."
He slammed them down and began to scoop the crispy variety I wanted into a container.
Big, big mistake.
"Half pound only! Half pound only!" he roared, waving the cleaver as if he was going to have an aneurysm.
Remarkably, I stayed quite cool considering I don't deal well with people yelling at me.
"Okay, okay, a half pound!" I answered. But I was starting to get ticked off myself and was making it clear I was tiring of the game.
As he chopped the intestines, I guess he began to detect my own alpha male surfacing, and his body language shifted ever so slightly from defiant anger to ambivalence. He stood there looking out the front window rolling his eyes and waited for the next order.
I asked him about a certain type of fried fish that I knew damn well were smelts, but he referred to them smugly as, "yellow fish."
I noticed they were sold by the pound and ordered a pound to keep the peace.
I took the order from Mr. Personality, grabbed a couple of cans of Sapporo beer from the cooler and paid for the items.
I had a feeling this counter was strictly for food ordered at this counter, but I didn't care. I was a paying customer and I about had enough with attitudes.
I reached across the counter and grabbed chopsticks. I pulled out my camera, ttore open the containers, cracked a beer and dug in.
The roasted pork was phenomenal and not just because I was hungry.
The outer layer of skin was crispy and crunchy and amazing. Beneath the skin was a layer of fat; not blubbery fat, but fat which seemed just shy of the point of rendering. I tasted a bit and it was flavorful to be sure, but after a mere taste I elected to peel most of it away from the skin for obvious dietary concerns.
And beneath that layer of fat was the most juicy and delectable pork you could imagine. The color of fresh ham, the juices simply burst forth from the meat and exploded in your mouth.
Now if there was one thing I was glad didn't burst forth and explode in my mouth, it was the crispy intestines. Not crispy by any stretch of the imagination, they weren't quite as unsettling as I presumed them to be. In fact, they weren't half bad, especially if one used the dipping sauce it came with.
I won't lie, the texture is the hardest part to get beyond. This is by no means an entry-level odd eat, many pieces being more chewy than others and some downright inedible. I will say however, I was pleasantly surprised by the "lack of" barnyard if you get my drift.
Next up was the fried smelts. Normally, I'd down a bushel of these little gems. Heck, they were a staple on my family's holiday dinner table. But these were not my Aunt Anna's smelts.
They were room temperature, overcooked, stiff, fishy smelling and mostly tasteless. I ate a few, but in truth, really had to wash it down with a Sapporo. It wasn't bad; just not good. That's okay. I had to save room anyway. This was only lunch and it was going to be a long day ahead with lots of munching to be done.