Friday, April 16, 2010

An Interlude: Adventures with the Sickly Sweet (And a Trip to an Asian Market)

Like a good lawyer, I complied with licensing and copyright law when jacking this photo of durian fruit.

I had an interview today! It’s not what I want in the long term, but it’s a job and it will provide the experience I need to move in the right direction. On my way back from Orange County (ugh), I decided to stop at Ranch 99 Market. For those of you who don’t have a Ranch 99, it’s basically a small chain of Asian markets. They have imported goods from China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand (and probably a few other places). They have ten kinds of tofu, five kinds of coconut milk, dead whole fish chilling in a big box of ice, fifty kinds of noodles, and basically every kind of sauce and paste imaginable. Plus, they have some cheap veggies and fruit.

Today's haul included leeks, bok choy (39c/lb!), lemongrass (99c/bunch!), ginger, pea sprouts, Chinese eggplant, buckwheat soba noodles and some spices. I was considering one of the many other “choy” vegetables, but decided I should probably look them up before I pick them up.

While this was most of what I wanted, I was disappointed that they carried durian but not rambutan. I take issue with this mostly because I take issue with durian. When I stopped in Singapore on my way up to Vietnam this past summer, I met up with my good friend L-Dub. He took us to a food court/market area for dinner that night* and pointed out the empty husks of durian, describing the fruit as extremely sweet. He also told me that our friend Zach hated the stuff. Unfortunately, all of the shops had sold out, leaving my traveling companion, J, and I without any to try. Three and a half weeks later, on our last day in Southeast Asia, we came across durian. Deciding to purchase one, we had the vendor cut it up so we could eat it on the way to the airport. Once locked in the car, realization hit us. People are so divided about this fruit because it emits an odor so sickly sweet that it reminded me of vomit. I absolutely refused to taste the stuff once I smelt it, leaving J to take one for the team. He confirmed that it not only smelled of vomit, but tasted like it, too. Our driver laughed at us, but was glad to take it off of our hands. I'm clearly prejudice against consuming foods with bad odors--and with good reason.

Let me premise the rest of this with the fact that I have a very rambunctious sweet tooth that I generally find on par with most of my peers. Considering my sweet-tolerance to be average, my experience with durian solidified my belief that other countries generally enjoy things exponentially sweeter than we do in the US.  This belief has its foundation in my six month stay in Chile. I openly admit that my preferred form of caffeination is Diet Coke. So picture me annoyed when I show up in South America and they sell something that goes by the name of Coca-Cola Light. After tasting the abomination, I delved into some research. We all know that Coca-Cola has a much sweeter taste than Diet Coke because it uses real sugar. Diet Coke in the US is instead made solely with aspartame. Coke Light, however, is made with a mixture of different artificial sweeteners that vary from country to country based on taste preferences. The mixtures they use in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Costa Rica, Kenya, Tanzania, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia taste exactly like regular coke. At this point, I go to a new country, I try Coke Light, and I am invariably annoyed to find that the mixture doesn't seem to change. I have generally not been a happy caffeine addict during my travels. However, it is interesting to note how much sweeter "diet" coke is elsewhere when compared to our version here.

I’ve also encountered a good deal of ultra-sweetened yogurt and milk products and over-sweetened coffee and tea in each of the above countries. The most disgusting thing I have come across is manjar. Commonly found in Chilean sweets, the condensed, carmalized milk product is very similar to dulce de leche. I can’t find anything that explains how they are different, but imagine dulce de leche, an already sweet and delicious item, being even sweeter and slightly thicker. Then do yourself a favor and think about it in a sandwich cookie or pastry. How many of you find that thought appealing? I'd rather eat durian. Also, five years later, I still have taste flashbacks to the few times I accidentally ate manjar, and I never fail to gag.

Ever the lover of unscientific and anecdotal evidence, I'd like to know if any of you have ever noticed this differentiation before. Have sweet items in other countries been too sweet for your taste buds? Or am I completely crazy? I'd also like to know if you ever leave an ethnic market feeling like its unique odor has permeated your skin and clothing. I swear I smelt of dead fish and fruit when I got into my car this afternoon.

*If you ever have a chance to go to Singapore or go to a Singaporean restaurant, order Cereal Prawns. Amazing.

2 comments: said...

Ah..I was wondering why did you use a picture of rambutan for your blog!

Not many people know that fruit. I am a Malaysian living in the UK, I have not tasted durian for a long time, but few months ago I went to a Malaysian restaurant in London, they have very tasty durian ice cream. AND they cereal prawns were amazing too! Too expensive though to eat Malaysian cuisine in London!

Seems like we both having a professional day job, but spent too much time in the kitchen!

Baking Barrister said...

See--Durian is totally an acquired taste. I bet I wouldn't mind it as much if it were transformed into something like ice cream.

I am trying to find Nestum so I can make my own cereal prawn. They don't sell it in major markets in the US (unless it's under a different name), and I don't want to use cornflakes or something else. There is an Indonesian market nearby I need to check out.

And I LOVE rambutan! That picture is in Laos, but I ate it everywhere. It's such a weird little fruit.

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