In much the same way alchemists tried to convert base metal to gold, I can’t resist trying to turn basic ingredients into something exotic. Give me a quantity of braising steak and I’ll attempt an Indonesian beef rendang before a humble casserole.
I’m unsure exactly when this compunction took root. In my early twenties, I drifted from one dead-end job to another, punctuated with occasional periods as a beneficiary of the state’s grace and favour. Unable to eat out, and bored with the culinary products of a severely restricted budget, I took to seeking inspiration from my sister’s recipe book. In between Trinidadian Hotpot (beef stew with chillies) and Chilli Con Carne (beef stew with chillies and kidney beans), I found a picture of Hong Kong-Style Sweet and Sour Fish. Pieces of white fish, bathed in a sea of thick, gooey, bright orange sauce, dotted with islands of onion, pineapple, and green and red peppers. This was clearly no ordinary Sweet and Sour Fish; those italics hinted that this version was special.
But there was more to it than the illusion of a little added sophistication. Memories had been stirred.
When I was eight, my father took a posting with the Government Printer’s office in Hong Kong and moved his young family to Kowloon, on the Chinese mainland. After the comparative peace and calm of rural Co. Durham, Hong Kong was a place of incessantly-sounding car horns, row upon row of neon signs, and exotic smells, at once repulsive and beguiling.
My father worked Saturday mornings and when my mother felt I could be trusted to safely navigate the cross-harbour journey alone, I would go and meet him at his place of work. A bus from our apartment block in Kowloon Tong, in the shadow of the Lion Rock, took me to the Star Ferry terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui. From there, it was a short passage on one of the green-liveried ferries that criss-crossed the harbour to Hong Kong island. Finally, I was supposed to take one of the splendid teak-framed trams that ran from Wan Chai to Causeway Bay, but occasionally I dispensed with the services of the tram and pocketed the allocated coins instead.
On one such journey, my attention was diverted by a sweetmeat stall that fronted the entrance to a dim alleyway, full of activity. The stall was tended by an old woman with a solitary gold tooth that caught the rays of the morning sun as she cajoled passers-by. She squatted, hunkered down on top of heavy wooden sandals, beside a rickety table that bore an array of dried fruits: bright yellow mangoes, pale green starfruit, and mounds of sour plums. Like a mantis that has spotted its prey, the woman caught sight of my enquiring eyes and cried out, her voice shrivelled and cracked. She waved towards me with a hand that looked more like a talon, so long and curved were her fingernails. I inched closer and she thrust a dried plum into my hand.
I bit into the fruit and the sweet, sour, saltiness flooded my mouth.
She handed me a bag. ‘One dollar,’ she said, her claw outstretched.
I knew it was too much. I shook my head silently and offered her twenty cents. She cackled something I didn’t understand and waved me away. But she took my money and I took the plums.
Emboldened by my bargaining, I ventured deeper into the alley. A man leaned on a long metal crank that turned two heavy iron rollers, each twice as thick as one of his scrawny arms. Into one side of the rollers he fed bamboo-like sticks and out of the other side dribbled a stream of sugar cane water. He dipped a small tumbler into a pail and handed me a glass of the frothy green liquid. I drank it, relishing the earthy sweetness, and picked out stray pieces of cane fibre that tickled my tongue. Another ten cents. The tram was no longer an option even if I had wanted it.
There were stalls selling every type of produce imaginable, and many I couldn’t have imagined. Stalls piled high with water spinach and yard-long beans and bunches of flowering chives. Stalls with dozens of different dried fungi. One stall was lined with live chickens and ducks, hanging upside-down by feet bound with rattan twine. A woman pinched the birds to see how fat they were, and the chickens squawked with indignation.
Across the way was a teetering column of tanks filled with fish, crabs, prawns, and eels. I watched, mesmerised, as transparent ghost-prawns swam into the stream of bubbles made by the aeration tubes only to be flung aside by the force of the air, before righting themselves and charging in again. The fishmonger held a sleek, plump, grey river catfish, its whiskers twitching and its mouth opening and closing in racking sobs as it gasped for air. There was an argument with a second man, presumably over the price. Eventually, some sort of grudging agreement was reached. The fishmonger threw the fish onto a wooden block already thick with guts and slime and brought his cleaver crashing down, expertly dissecting the protesting animal. A mix of sea water and fish blood arced through the air and settled in pink droplets on my white shirt. With a horrified enthralment, I saw the still-beating heart exposed. The fishmonger laughed, indicating towards me with his bloody cleaver, and his customer laughed too. I don’t remember how I explained away the marks on my shirt.
It was that day, as an eight-year-old adventurer, that I first became curious about food. Not in eating, particularly, nor in taste as something to be sought out and coveted, and certainly not in the procurement and preparation of food; that was still some fifteen years off. But on that day, in an alley beside Hong Kong harbour, I started to think of things—plants and animals, but mostly animals—as food.
Published in Scottish Book Trust’s “Nourish” for Book Week Scotland 2017.