Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Evolution of a Foodie OR An Ode to My Nephew


Since coming into my life about 7.5 years ago, my nephew has been one of my favorite people in the world (the other favorite being his sister who followed him a year and a half later).

One of the things that makes him especially awesome? The fact that he will pause mid-bite in whatever he is consuming with nary a complaint, just to let me take a picture.


Of course I would love him to bits regardless of his aptitude for being a featured subject in my food photography habit. But seriously, here he is about to chow down on an ice cream mooncake (kind of like an ice cream mochi), and he barely batted an eyelid when asked to delay his gratification so that I could take this picture.

Since I've never lived in the same city as him for more than a couple of months, I don't get to witness the evolution of his food tastes firsthand very often. Of course I know that he loves chocolate cake, and that he will eat almost anything wrapped in a tortilla. I know that when he's about to garnish his pumpkin pie with whipped cream, you'd better make sure he takes his finger off the trigger at some point. But usually these are things that I learn ex post facto, seeing the culmination of several experiences into one preference that I can identify, but don't know the origins of. I'm rarely there at the actual moment of discovery, the moment when he takes a bite of something and realizes that this is not just anything in his mouth, but something that he wants more of, something revelatory and magical that transcends the current meal to become a food memory.

Maybe it's the age he's at or the experience of being in a foreign place, or some combination of the two, but our trip to Hong Kong at the end of July proved an especially ripe occasion for memory-making. Like the night we had three dinners.

Dinner number one

My sister could only take a week off of work, so for the first few days of my two-week trip in Hong Kong, it was just me, my parents, and my niece and nephew. We started the evening at the Kowloon-side outpost of Mak's, a won ton mein place known for their noodles made the old-fashioned way: with a bamboo pole and plenty of elbow grease. (Do yourself a favor and hunt down the No Reservations episode where Anthony Bourdain watches the guy making these noodles. It's nothing short of pure poetry).


Crammed into a utilitarian booth, knocking knees at the very back of this postage stamp-sized restaurant, my dad ordered plain noodles, sans won ton, for the kids, and three house specialties for the rest of us. My niece will readily slurp up anything involving noodles or soup, but my nephew can require a bit of prodding at times; he's more rice than ramen. Ever one to share, however, I proffered one of my won ton for him to try.

Like many of the male sex, my nephew is rarely exuberant in displaying his emotions. Unlike my niece -- who will charm you with an over-the-top display of closing her eyes in rapture, licking her lips, and declaring, "Yummy!" when she likes something -- you have to look for the more subtle clues of his delight. Like him readily accepting the rest of my won ton mein. And then proceeding to ask for more.


Bowls of noodles at Mak's are pretty small, and my parents had been discussing a place my grandparents had visited that purportedly had massive won ton. Since this other place was just a few blocks away, we decided to continue on to dinner number two -- because that's how we roll.


That this new place's won tons were significantly larger than at Mak's did not escape my nephew's attention. Having just discovered that he did, indeed, like won ton mein, he readily attacked his second dinner of the evening.


Then, to finish things off, my dad suggested a stop at Yee Shun Milk Company.


Famous for their steamed puddings, this "cha chaan teng" (kind of like a "tea diner") also serves the usual suspects of cheap and easy food: HK style milk tea, Ovaltine, and, my favorite, corned beef sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off.


My dad's intention was just to get dessert, but faced with an assortment of delectables that I never eat in DC, I couldn't resist making this dinner #3. I ordered a sandwich and milk tea, while my mom shared a "sai daw", or Chinese French toast, with my nephew.


This is perhaps one of my favorite pictures of the trip. Though my mom and nephew dutifully posed for a more typical picture celebrating their third dinner, I feel like this one captures the shared intensity of grandmother and grandson eating something especially delicious. Completely focused on the food, they're oblivious to anything else around them. For my mom, this was but one of many sai daws she's consumed, dating back to her own childhood, through her kids' childhood (though I prefer mine with peanut butter in the middle), and now through her grandchildren's childhood. For my nephew, this was the beginning of what I hope to be a long line of French toasts. And given the epic nature of the night, I wouldn't be surprised if he remembers exactly when he first discovered the wonders of a sai daw.

By special request, sai daw for lunch again the next day

But if, by chance, he forgets, if, by chance, this night fades into a blur of won ton meins and American, French, and Chinese French toasts accumulating over a lifetime, I suppose I'll at least have these pictures to remind him. Dear nephew, THIS is when we turned you into a foodie.


That my family is preoccupied with food, especially in the context of traveling, is something that I both identify and take for granted as an adult with a fancy piece of paper that attests to my research background in food and culture. Yet it still kind of bowls me over to have this preoccupation pointed out to me by my nephew's innocuous remarks.

He recently returned from a trip to France (where he spent the first few years of his life), and when I asked him if he had missed home during the two weeks he was gone, he said yes.

"What did you miss?" I asked, imagining that he might mention his mom, or his grandparents, or his friends at school.

"You know, Stacks [a local breakfast joint], Fresh Choice, things like that."

"Oh. And now that you're back in San Francisco, what do you miss about France?"

"Duguesclin [a restaurant]."

While in France, his dad took the family to a beach resort in Spain. When they Skyped me, I asked very generally how things were going.

"You know," he said, in a tone of amazement, "There's actually really good food in Spain."

Kids say the darnedest things...

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