Nearly every weekend beginning around the age of 8, my mother would take me to a local Chinese restaurant that served traditional dim sum. For me, growing up in a culture that treated barbecue like haute cuisine, ordering chicken feet salad and shrimp wet noodle off roaming carts was just about the most exotic and exciting thing ever. I loved the instant gratification of dim sum: I see it, I eat it. And the dumplings, oh, the dumplings. Steamed dumplings were my love, my vice, my McNuggets.
Occasionally, my dad would join us, and every now and then, one of my mother’s friends would tag along, but for the most part, it was something she and I would do together (In later years, Beej would (gamely) accompany us. Though hesitant at first, she eventually dove into the dim sum experience headfirst, like a champ). It was nice — admittedly, I was a little closer with my dad than I was with my mom around that age, so this was our special time. The waiters came to recognize us — the fair-skinned, blue eyed lady with light brown hair, and her skinny, scrawny little mutt of an Asian kid, happily mooning over turnip cakes. Together, we drank pot after pot of tea, smothered our plates in soy sauce and chili paste, and happily wallowed in the gluttonous, MSGness of it all.
Though for the most part I was an adventurous eater and enjoyed everything we ever tried there, there was one particular afternoon that still sends a shiver through my palate.
For a little kid, no matter how many foods they enjoy, there’s one simple rule: fried food is always going to be good. I knew of this rule, oh did I know if it, on one fateful day when I decided to branch out from siu mai and har gow, and order the fried taro turnovers. They certainly appeared appetizing: shreds of taro root, looking much like the sticks of a bird’s nest, balled together like an empanada and encasing some unknown meat gem, then deep fried so that they were golden brown and crisp. I mean, these babies were even served on cupcake papers to sop up any grease. They had to be good. Right?
I asked my mother if we could order them. She’s adventurous too, so she made her typical “why the heck not?” shrug, and ordered a plate. I lunged for them, anxious to taste what I imagined to be a crispy, salty, savory little morsel.
It was nothing of the sort, except maybe crispy.
It was certainly not salty, and it was definitely not a morsel. The meat filling had clearly been bathed in five spice powder. Lots and lots of five spice powder. At such a young, tender age, I hadn’t opened myself up to the prospect of enjoying things like fennel seed or star anise, and disguising these flavors in a little taro root nugget was not going to change the way I felt about them.
It was bitter. And muddy. And overwhelmingly terrible.
I howled my disgust, and unceremoniously dropped the turnover onto the table. Grimacing and making all kinds of yakking noises, I spit it out onto my plate as if it were old tobacco, and used my napkin to literally wipe any remnants out of my mouth. I reached for the tea, using it like mouthwash to rinse away any leftover offending flavor, swishing it about my mouth as if I’d just finished brushing my teeth.
“VictOOORRRRRIA!” my other scolded, in that quiet, harsh embarrassed whisper that only mothers can really master. “That’s rude! If you don’t like it, chew it quickly and swallow it!!”
“But moooooooom,” I wailed, swallowing my version of Chinese Listerine, “It’s terrible!”
“I don’t care,” she said firmly, reaching for the second turnover, “That’s gross, and rude, and besides, there’s no way it’s that bad.”
She bit into the turnover, then studied the inside and gently chewed.
Then, she nearly hacked.
She gave an audible gasp. Her chewing became noticeably faster, her mouth smacking on that offensive little nibble, her face contorted as if she was smelling something really awful. She quickly dropped the turnover back into its paper, and took several large gulps of water, then came up for air with a sigh.
“See?” she said, as straight faced as possible, “Not that bad.”
We collapsed into giggles.