I grew up as a first-generation immigrant to traditional Chinese parents. Food was something that I was actively embarrassed about growing up and sought to avoid for years. I can’t count the times my food has been on the receiving end of comments like, “OMG ewwww, what IS that?” (usually delivered with a nose wrinkle and a step backward). But for my parents, food was one of the few ties they had back to the country they had just left. Our neighbors’ fridges and cabinets may have been stocked with Hamburger Helper and cold cuts; mine was filled with pig's feet and tofu. It wasn’t until I started school in kindergarten that I realized my family's meals weren’t the norm in our city. I was 5, and my kindergarten teacher had just told the class that we were going to have an ice cream sundae party and that she would bring in tubs of ice cream, but we were responsible for telling our parents to help us bring toppings. My family had been in the country three years at this point and we were very familiar with ice cream — that’s something we had in China, too. But toppings? What was a sundae? (“Ice Cream Sunday? But this party is not on Sunday,” I remember my mom telling me, perplexed.) From what I could gather from the other kids, a topping was something you put on ice cream, so I relayed that to my mom who remembered all the complicated ice cream concoctions and desserts she used to have in China, went into the cupboard, and pulled out a can of red bean paste. For those unfamiliar with dou sa, it’s deep maroon in color — almost blackish brown — and DELICIOUS. It’s a staple in Chinese sweets and a trendy food item now...but it’s not the most attractive item. To put it indelicately, it’s got the same look and consistency of a turd.
To put it indelicately, it’s got the same look and consistency of a turd.
My mom figured that a whole can was too much for the class, so she scooped a couple dollops of red bean paste into a plastic sandwich bag and packed it in my backpack. As soon as I arrived to class, I realized that I had made a huge mistake. Every other kid had brought in a plastic tub, shaker, squeeze bottle, or can, and they were all variations of the same few things: Syrup, sprinkles, or whipped cream. Definitely no baggies of a soft, brown substance. The teacher saw me stall and took my hesitation as an invitation. “Do you want to show me your topping, Connie?” she asked me. Reluctantly, I reached into my backpack and showed her what I had brought — and I STILL can remember the face she made. I mean — it’s the same you’d make if a 5-year-old handed you a plastic bag of poop. Her reaction was so startling that every other kid in the class immediately ran to her side to see what it was and the room erupted in laughter. I spent ice cream sundae Wednesday hiding under the plastic indoor slide.
Obviously, I do not blame the teacher or the other kids. That thing looked like poop — and there is nothing funnier to 5-year-olds than poop. Kindergartners who grew up with caramel sauce and rainbow sprinkles can’t be expected to have the gastronomic vocabulary to recognize red bean paste — and I’m sure the teacher didn’t, either. (To her credit, she felt very badly about it all, told me the school couldn’t serve things that were already opened, and we had to throw it away — but gave me an extra serving of ice cream to convince me the world wasn’t going to end.) But I didn’t know it then, and from 5 to 15, my entire existence was about keeping my home-food life and my school-food life separate. I might eat sea cucumber and wood-ear mushrooms at dinner, but I made sure that I had money for hot lunch at school. When my friends came over to visit, I would ask my parents to bring home fast food for everyone. I was that person who brought Doritos to potlucks.
If there are people who are into a dish, there must be a good reason — and I want to know why.
Something changed in high school, though. It might have been that I realized that a cold-squid-and-cucumber salad and mapo tofu just tasted better than Shake ’n Bake chicken or instant mashed potatoes. It could have been that I recognized that it was my family’s particular differences, struggles, and success that made me more curious about the world and more eager to explore it than Becky next door. But whatever the case, I became a huge advocate for weird, good food: Blood soup from Vietnam, horse meat from Canada, fermented and goopy Natto beans from Japan, offal stew from Italy — get in my belly. My rationale is this: If there are people who are into a dish, there must be a good reason — and I want to know why. Now, when my parents come to visit me in New York and we go out to eat with my friends, I’ll choose the best Chinese restaurant that can hold us and make my parents order whatever they want for the table. My California-raised boyfriend’s tried my mom’s famous squid-and-cucumber salad and loves it.
Just like the fact that being ignorant and uninformed do not make you “cool,” calling food that you don’t recognize “gross” doesn’t make you more sophisticated. It’s not just in Western nations, either — I’ve been in China and had to explain that my taste for raw vegetables wasn’t disgusting (try ordering a salad there — food prejudices exist all over the world!). The global foodie movement has done a lot to broaden the palates of people, and it’s both awesome and annoying to see the same foods I used to be made fun of for eating suddenly a best-seller in restaurants. Sure, there’s a small part of me that wants to be like, “Apologize to everyone you might have made fun of when you were 5 before you say that your bingsu was delicious!” But a bigger part of me is just thrilled that it’s more convenient than ever for me to eat the food I want to. So unless you have a moral and ethical reason for not eating something, don’t knock it unless you’ve tried it. And if you still don’t like it, keep your "ews" to yourself, please.