Sometimes I look at all the carved masks and traditional tribal instruments clotting up our limited storage space and wonder why we bothered hauling all this shit home when clearly, the best souvenirs are fond recollections of shredded green papaya sprinkled with brown sugar and chili powder, or the crusty, cilantro-spiked banh mi of Vietnam. Every time we get pad thai from one of the half-dozen places that will deliver this dish to our door, I get bittersweet pleasure from thinking of how inferior it is to the magnificent specimen I enjoyed at a card table set up on the side of a road in a dusty town whose name I never knew. Hijole, that was good eats.
Who knows how many friends I've bored with the story of the world's best dal, dished onto a banana leaf in some anonymous train station where I once made a midnight connection. Personally, I find hearing about foreign foods far more enjoyable than looking at vacation photographs, even my own. In college, my favorite professor was a sweet-tempered cultural anthropologist who held us all rapt with tales from several sabbaticals spent in a Hmong refugee camp on the Mekong River, just across the border from Laos. Once, he told us that the camp elders had offered him first taste from a communal bowl of dried chicken blood seasoned with five-alarm chilies. This he described as a great, if unwanted, honor.
"What did you do?" a pert Tri-Delt in the front row gasped.
"Well, I ate it," Dwight answered with an apologetic smile. "To have refused would have been unspeakably rude." He nodded at the memory, patiently waiting for the screams to die down so he could continue.
Man, I thought, as I scribbled the name of the refugee camp in the margins of my notebook. One of these days, I'm going to take off and have me some adventures like that. Everything except the dried-blood part.
Eventually, things calmed down enough for Dwight to entertain questions. "Why, yes, Steve!" he cried, twinkling like a woodland elf to see the monolithic football player in the back coming out of his vegetative state in order to raise a tentative paw.
"Uh, okay," Steve hesitated, clearly abashed to be speaking aloud in front of others, "I was just wondering . . . "
"Yes?" Dwight smiled in the encouraging manner of the preternaturally patient.
"Uh," the footballer shifted uncomfortably in a one-armed lecture desk designed for students of more mortal build, "I was wondering if you ever had one of those monkeys where, you know, they screw it into a table and whap the top of its head off, so you can eat the brains right out of the skull?"
You'd be surprised how often that question comes up when people learn you've traveled in Southeast Asia.
Having been, I can tell you that monkey brain sashimi served en corps du monkey strikes me as more of a special occasion dish than the type of fare locals consume on a day-in-day-out basis. Its complete and conspicuous absence from the street stalls and night markets of my stints in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore came as a relief. I'm too squeamish. I got so nervous before my first and only cockfight that I nearly threw up, and I'd eaten plenty of cock in the years leading up to that moment.
Only someone on the prowl for ever-more-bizarre bragging rights screams, "Far out! Reach me that grapefruit spoon!" when confronted with a splatter guard and a screwed-down monkey. It may be exotic, but I refuse to concede that it sounds tasty, in the way a lightly poached hummingbird stuffed with caviar and gold leaf does. If I had to make an educated guess, I'd venture that it tastes like the ammonia-drenched adrenal gland of a seriously freaked-out monkey, which may taste like chicken for all I know, but does that make it the kind of dish any sane person yearns to savor more than once?
By contrast, the flavors that left me immediately hungry for more are nothing if not humble. Ragged, fried rice cakes spiraled with hardened caramel. Fresh-squeezed orange juice to which sea salt was added with a liberal hand. Wide noodles with pork and broccoli, the only, and therefore signature, dish of an open-to-the-street Banglamphu dive where antique clocks hung atelier-style beside portraits of King Bhumibol. Sweetened condensed milk drizzled over red beans, jack fruit, and chipped ice. Cold chrysanthemum tea packaged in a tiny wax juice box or poured into a plastic bag worn tethered to the wrist with a cleverly attached rubber band. Hell, even Green Parrot toilet soap deserves to be rhapsodized. I never ate it, but I did come close to joyful tears when I found it in the Thai Grocery at the mouth of Chicago's Argyle Street. Nothing I've eaten to date, though, can displace mangosteens. Ah, mangosteens. My madeleines, my Lolita.
I'd been in and out of Bangkok on my way to other locales half a dozen times before noticing them, probably because they'd been out of season on my other six trips. Suddenly, though, it was impossible to walk down the street without passing a pyramid of this bizarre fruit. Their appearance was incredibly endearing, if a little hard to describe. Purple leather tennis balls sporting tam o'shanters a size or two too small—how's that? They were so cute, I wanted to throw one against a garage door. "Fruit," the lady who sold me my first dozen answered, when asked what they were called. "This fruit." I was so excited I paid the very first price she quoted me.
"What are you intending to do with those things?" Greg asked, casting a dubious eye at the produce-filled baggie I was swinging around like Lily's Purple Plastic Purse.
"Eat them, silly! What do you think?"
"Why'd you buy so many?"
"Well, I thought I was buying just one, but I guess the woman I bought them from misunderstood. It's okay. They were only thirty baht."
"Thirty—wait, you were okay with thinking that you were paying more than a dollar for one of those things?"
"How much was the admission to that war museum you went to the other day?" I challenged, my baggie inscribing a perfect circle just inches from his temple.
"All I'm saying is, I hope you like them."
"Like you like tanks and killing?"
"You will forgive me," he said, chivalrously taking my hand, "if I am incapable of sharing your level of enthusiasm for this sort of thing."
He wasn't just whistling Dixie.
"Oh! Unh! Oh my god, baby!" The walls of the little room we'd taken at the Friendly Guesthouse were thin, but given that we'd probably never see them again, who cared what the neighbors thought? "Slow down, slow down," I told myself. "Make it last." I closed my eyes, relishing that ambrosial sensation of satisfaction tangoing with insatiability. The ceiling fan whispered overhead, a discreet if avid witness. Sighing voluptuously, I groped behind me for our well-thumbed copy of Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. Toward the front, there was a guide to the region's produce.
Okay, it wasn't salak, since those had brown rinds that looked like snakeskin. It couldn't be a custard apple or, alternatively, a zurzat, because that fruit's flesh, while white, was also described as "squishy." My tennis balls had the consistency of Hacky Sacks and—bingo!—"cracked open to reveal tasty white segments with a very fine flavor."
"Greg? Greg? Honey, are you awake?"
"I found out what my things are called!"
"Mangosteens. The book says Queen Victoria was offering this huge reward to anyone who could bring one back to England for her to taste. I can totally see why!"
"Eat some." I seized the nearest mangosteen and rolled it at him.
"I did," he muttered, declining to take this gift, or even open his eyes.
"I swear to god," I chattered happily, retrieving my offering and prying it open with his Swiss Army knife, "this must be what it's like to drink nectar. When I was, like, what, maybe three years old, my grandmother bought me this pack of cards because we were going on a car trip, only not regular cards, it was more like a coloring book, except they were individual cards that came in a pack. Are you following?" Detecting the barest of nods, I plunged on, still quite keen to "share," as Professor Dwight would have called it. "It came with four colored pencils. Anyway, one of the pictures was this beautiful little bumblebee girl perching on a flower like it was a stool. She was sipping from a striped straw jammed into the bell of a bigger flower, a lily if I'm recalling this correctly. I made a total fetish out of that picture. I refused to even color it, I loved it so much. And, this is going to sound crazy—I mean, I haven't thought about that picture in years—but when I peeled that first mangosteen and put a section on my tongue, I swear to god, the first thing that flashed into my mind was that bumblebee girl drinking out of a flower with her straw! I was like, this is what she must have been drinking!"
"Isn't that amazing?"
"I am trying," Greg enunciated, with ominous self-control, "to take a nap. But someone in this room insists on talking." His eyes snapped open as he rolled to face me. "Ho, shit! How many of those things did you eat?" Seven or eight ruined purple husks festooned my side of the bed and looked to be well on their way toward colonizing the floor.
"Relax, I saved you a couple." I jutted my chin at the laminated fiberboard bureau where the fruit lady's plastic bag slumped. "Unless, of course, you don't want them." I raised my eyebrows, hoping I didn't look too much like our friend Heather's terminally peckish boxer, Sydney.
"You're going to get the runs," he predicted pleasantly, flopping back down as he relinquished his stake with a limp wave.
Many times since the frenzied, weeklong mangosteen orgy that followed, I've found myself passionately desiring to reconnect with my bee girl's nectar. If only I'd had such a glorious reaction to lychees or rambutan or even durian, all of which can be found in season in Chinatown, and year round at a fashionable Manhattan fruit purveyor whose prices don't seem all that exorbitant when compared to round-trip airfare from JFK to Bangkok. Even if I had that kind of cash to blow, I'm a mother now! I can't go gallivanting halfway across the world just because raspberries and cantaloupe don't really do it for me anymore.
If only I could home in on a domestic source. I've rooted around this city like a pig in search of truffles, but sadly, the closest I've gotten is a 14-ounce can of mangosteen sections, packed in heavy syrup. I shelled out but, once home, found I couldn't bring myself to break out the can opener. Not to discount the charm of recognizing that purple tennis ball on the label, but how could the contents possibly compare to those packed in the heavy syrup of nostalgia? The flavor I've internalized is too delicate, too elusive to survive the rigors of a distant cannery.
It mocked me for years, that can, until the November morning I impulsively snatched it from our topmost kitchen shelf and stuck it in Inky's backpack, instructing her to deposit it in the box her school sets out for donations during its annual Thanksgiving food drive. I can only hope that my can found its way to darkest Queens or Brooklyn and into the hands of a needy Thai Gran-Gran who'd be more than psyched to incorporate it into some sort of Siamese Jell-O salad. More likely, it's being used as a doorstop by a recipient who's still stumped for a polite way to let the yuppie do-gooders know that next time, they should err on the side of Success Rice or a Hormel Ham. Anything but the dusty exotica they apparently couldn't stomach, either.
© 2006 by Ayun Halliday from Dirty Sugar Cookies: Culinary Observations, Questionable Taste. Reprinted by permission of Seal Press. All rights reserved.
Ayun Halliday is the Chief of Primatology and sole employee of The East Village Inky, not to mention the author of four self-mocking memoirs, including No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late.
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