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Hungry Jacks: Australian for Burger King

When started telling people we were going to take a year off to travel, one of our friends was troubled by one particular thought, “What are you going to eat?”

It was a legitimate concern. I am one of those funny eaters. I try to hide it but every once and a while I have to come out with it. Most of my close friends know and some even boast proudly that they can pick what I am going to eat off of any menu.

I am afraid of food. It’s not that I am afraid to eat and then get fat. In fact, the more likely a food is to make me fat, the more likely I will eat it. Breads, cheese, desserts, bring it on. It’s the foods that keep you skinny that give me angst – protein and vegetables primarily. I am afraid that I will put something in my mouth that will insult my bodies internal meter of what is an acceptable food, which will in turn trigger a gag reflex.

This fear can be all consuming, particularly when we’re at social gatherings or guests at someone’s home. Often, I ask Nellu to switch plates with me and finish the food I wouldn’t eat to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings or getting that dreaded question, “Didn’t you like it?”

In most cases it comes down to texture. If the texture is mushy, slimy, tendony or generally unexpectedly inconsistent… Gag!

When our Sydney host Art was preparing for the Stockton Beach camping trip, he emailed and asked if there was anything I wouldn’t eat. That’s always a loaded question.On our camping weekend, he confronted me. “I used to be like you,” he said.

Art made me swear to try a few things while we stayed with him and I did. There’s no place better to confront a fear than Australia and no better time to deal with eating issues than when you’re a hungry traveler. The night that we got back from our camping trip, he made ribs for us with this delicious sauce. Ribs are usually a big no for me for one major reason: you have to eat the meat right off the bone and sometimes there’s funky things like tendons and ligaments still attached nearby and that is oh-so scary. But I tried them and they were good. I did leave a little meat on the bone mostly because it was close to the tendony looking pieces. I also ate the cherry tomatoes in my salad. All together, progress.

As Nellu goes further down the road of extreme eater trying everything from snakes to cicadas, I am working on eating what most people would consider every day food. But I am trying. To date here are a few things that I have started to eat on this trip (unless of course there’s some serious funk going on and all bets are off):

#1) Watermelon: For years this fantastic fruit offended my sensibilities with its pseudo-sweet watery texture, but now I can’t get enough.

#2) Pork dumplings: The day that we hiked the Great Wall, we returned to our hostel in the middle of the dumpling party. We were famished from hiking up and down the Wall in the August heat. So after checking with Nellu on whether he thought these particular dumplings were “Molly friendly,” I dove right in. They were delicious. In Shanghai, there was a tiny shop just off the People’s Square that served up fried, soup dumplings. We went back there several times and now I regularly crave the little suckers.

#3) Red meat: You may remember that I tried my first steak in over ten years in Buenos Aires. But I have also had red meat since. I ate a steak when we were home at my parent’s house in July. I ate the hamburgers our hosts in New Zealand served up for Christmas Eve barbecue, and two nights ago night we bought ground beef for dinner.

#3) Tomatoes in things, primarily sandwiches: While I am still a little weary of eating tomatoes on their own (seriously, they are super mushy and gooey and not in a sticky, sweet dessert kind of way,) I have tried not to remove them or eat around them when they’re served in other dishes.

I have also stopped for the most part preemptively picking apart my sandwiches to remove anything that could possibly upset me. And you know what I’ve found? Sandwiches are actually better the way they’re served. I guess there is a little genius that goes into sandwich design.

~ Molly

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After spending the previous night watching the fights, we woke up early to experience another aspect of Thai culture… the food. Of the top things to do in Chiang Mai (according to TripAdvisor.com), other than spending some time with some elephants, is to take a cooking class. We chose one that seemed to fit our speed : A Lot of Thai. It was a family run, 10 year business which offered small classes for full & half day.

This is the converted side-garage kitchen and cooking stations. Notice the blue VW bus in the back. (Photo by Jack Zalium)

The pickup was done in an old VW bus by the chef’s husband and partner, Kwan (also the graphic designer for their site, business cards, advertisement, etc). We had eaten a small breakfast beforehand not sure what to expect. That was a big mistake. As soon as we arrived, Yui (Siripen Sriyabhaya) introduced herself, handed us our aprons, complementary take-home cookbook and then started cooking. She would demonstrate making the dish first and then we would each go to our stations and try the same. The first dish we would make would be pad thai breakfast.

Eating the pad thai that I made; DELICIOUS! (Photo by Molly)

Other dishes soon followed : tom yum goong, green/red curry, simple stir-fry chicken with cashews, spring rolls and even mango sticky rice. I could go into details about how to make it and how it tasted, but it won’t do you or the food justice. It is something that you will just have to experience on your own.

Molly tastes the green curry she made. (Photo by Jack Zalium)

Yui makes simple versions of these dishes using only the necessary amount of oil and fresh ingredients. I have had a lot of Thai food prior to my visit to Thailand (and even in Thailand itself) but none have been as good. We had originally signed up for the half day class not sure that we would want to stay for the whole day, but after making several dishes we were hooked. We immediately asked if we could stay for the whole day.

Enjoying lime slushies as we walk through the market with Yui.

After several hours of cooking and eating, we take a much needed break and shuffle into the VW to go to the market. There we see some of our ingredients up close, meet some of Yui’s merchant friends and have a quick snack. After the break, we said goodbye to the ‘half-dayers’ and returned to the kitchen to make some more dishes.

Molly, Yui, me and the VW Bus.

The main attraction in all this is Yui. She mentions quite often that she learned to cook simply because she liked to eat and making it herself was the only way to keep the cost down. She smiles and laughs frequently, with mannerisms similar to Martin Yan. Her stories are varied and personal but definitely do NOT get her mad as she can throw a wicked hook (thankfully we only experienced it in story form). The mood here is light and informative, where no one should feel self conscious or out of place.

This was one of the main attractions of Chiang Mai and of Thailand itself. We learned to cook some of our favorite dishes, were stuffed to the gills on great Thai food, heard some great stories and we even met another American couple that was also traveling the world (Two Backpacks One World). Who could ask for a better end to our time in the north and our first venture into Thailand?

The first attempt at the night market, while failing to live up to the culinary expectation due to unforeseen changes, was still quite an adventure. The next day, we decided to press our luck and try it again. This time we took the metro, having been in the Wangfujing area 4 time previously. We decided to visit both markets first, to gauge the situation.

The "other" market is definitely more crowded.

The first market was filled to capacity with pedestrian traffic. As stated previously, this market area is more touristy and has more than just food (clothes, shoes, jewelry ,bags, tea, etc). We mostly just explored this section and took photos of some of the overlapping food options. The food options here were not as varied, but the items were displayed more artistically and hence better for my photos. After getting our fill of the overcrowded market, we decided it was time to start eating and made our way to the same place I had started at last night, a block away. We first walked down the street in it’s entirety to gauge the tasty options.

"Large scorpions here! Get some deep-fried scorpions here!!"

My first stop: scorpions.

There were two options; 3 tiny fried scorpions on a stick or 3 giant fried scorpions on a stick. Since this was only my second tasting (after the previous night’s silkworms), I wanted to start slowly. Also the price was a factor as the large scorpion was double the price of the small. To be completely honest, I was slightly intimidated by the sheer size of the large scorpion. I regret not having the large after my tasting of the small ones. They were perfectly seasoned and crunchy. I could easily see myself watching sports, drinking beers and popping scorpions like popcorn. Ok, perhaps popcorn is a bad analogy as you need at least 2 bits to finish one, but it did have me craving more. It was crispy, yet contained more substance than the baked tarantula I had before I left. Having thoroughly enjoyed the scorpions I was now eager for the next tasting.

Who knew that something that sounded so horrible, could taste so wonderful...

Stop #2 : cicadas.

I wanted to try cicadas next, simply because they were so prevalent around Beijing and they looked quite bug-like. I was again quite surprised by the taste. As compared to the silkworms from the previous night, the scorpions and cicadas were quite good. The stale taste that I had experienced with the silkworms did not reappear this day. The taste was of something deep-fried and crispy, yet there was more substance to it than a potato chip. I kept trying to convince Molly to try one, but she was having enough difficulty taking reaction shots of me eating and at the same time keeping her food down. Ultimately, she would end up not tasting any of the “treats of the day”.

Starfish-on-a-stick?? It's possible in Beijing.

Attempt #3 : starfish

This is an item I did not expect to find on a stick, but was more substantial and delicious than it looked. Out of all the things I tried this day, taking into account that all these items were deep-fried and seasoned the same way, this was the most unique in color, texture and taste. While crunchy on the outside, the inside was green and resembled white fish meat in taste (though obviously not white). While the insects were more finger food/snack, the starfish could be considered a small meal onto itself. One might call it the hot-dog of China….

Food #4 : snake

By this point, I had gotten most of these items from the same food vendor and I was building a bit of a rapport, to the point where I was providing temporary monetary exchange for him. I was offered the choice of either goat penis or snake. Ultimately, I went with snake (this time). This was probably the most ordinary of the things I ate at the market that day. The head was missing and it was on a stick (no surprise there). The taste resembled fried eel with small crunchy, but edible bones. It was skillfully seasoned and was quite spicy.

Spicy fried squid on a stick, wasn't as good as it sounds. Photo by Molly.

Final stop : squid tentacles

By this point I had started to lose steam and was becoming satiated, fast. Of all the options left to me, I wanted to try something familiar yet prepared in an unusual way. I had tried squid (calamari) previously, but the spicy tentacles on a stick intrigued me. Unfortunately, this was not my favorite. It was spicy, the way I like it, however the tentacles were a bit chewy and left me with a slight queasy feeling. Thankfully the freshly brewed iced tea and bubble soda drinks helped wash this down.

After trying several things at the market, none tasted strange enough that I would not recommend it to a friend. It is true that their outward appearance was strange, yet the taste was far from it. I could have potentially stayed there the whole night trying different things. One problem was that there were so many options I had yet to try (goat penis, cat, dog, sea urchin, etc. to name a few) and we needed to be at the BBQ dinner at our hostel (Chinese Box) for our friends final night in Beijing. The other problem is that I can only eat so much at once. That night I slept well, stomach churning full of BBQ, a variety of night market edibles and Chinese beer, dreaming of all the unusual foods I would get to try next, wherever that may be.

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