Name that Food


Living as I do on the edge of Chinatown in San Francisco, I often find myself surrounded by large crowds of short, cheerful people who clearly think I’m some kind of gaijin idiot. And to a very large extent, they may be correct.

Take the word “gaijin.” It’s Japanese and according to Wikipedia it’s a semi-pejorative word meaning “non-Japanese,” or “alien.” But the dudes I’m living among aren’t Japanese: they’re Chinese. I think. But are they Mandarins or Szechuan? Do those regions even mean anything?

Beautiful Michelle Yeoh is a Malaysian who plays Chinese and (at least one) Vietnamese characters. Also she can disembowel you with her feet, so be polite.

Beautiful Michelle Yeoh is a Malaysian who plays Chinese and (at least one) Vietnamese characters. She can disembowel you with her feet, so be polite. (I think she’s flashing the secret devil sign.)

It’s not like I can go up to some random impatient shopkeeper and demand to be told their genealogy. Hell, maybe some are Korean. Or they’re from Hong Kong. But that’s part of China now, isn’t it? Are the Hong Kong dudes happy about that or angry? Would they be insulted if I lumped them in with other Chinese?

And who the hell are the Hmong? This is difficult.

Now you might reasonably point out that “People of Asian extraction don’t all look alike, you moron. There are clear, distinct differences in physical characteristics, languages, dress and attitude – Tibetans aren’t like Vietnamese, nor are Japanese like Koreans or Chinese. What’s the matter with you?”

Well, in my defense I did acknowledge earlier that I might be an idiot. But in truth, it’s more complex than that. The fact is, I live largely in my own head, thinking deep thoughts, and most of the world passes by without ruffling my consciousness in the slightest. That’s why it generally takes me about ten years to learn all of my co-workers’ names, and why I can barely pick my own dogs out of a photo lineup. My wife suggests that it’s because I’m inherently lazy and never pay any attention to anything, whereas I like to think that I just operate on a higher plane, like Einstein. That dude probably didn’t know who the Hmong were, either.

Anyway, whoever they are, I presume my neighbors have their own word for “sad, clumsy oaf who doesn’t know the difference between any of the six different sweet-potato-looking tubers for sale at the [Incomprehensible Asian Characters] Market down the street, and God help him if he tries to buy some kind of tasty dried fish shingle-looking thing.”

This is "Simply Asia" in the same sense that I am "Simply a Pro Basketball Player."

This is “Simply Asia” in the same sense that I am “Simply a Pro Basketball Player.” The pink packet contained a flavor puck composed of dried vegetable nubbins and MSG powder. Noms!

But I do like fresh vegetables, and the food in Chinatown is amazingly cheap. So I periodically shuffle nervously into a dimly-lit, hugely-crowded vegetable market and buy the stuff that I recognize – onions, mushrooms, broccoli, zucchini, ginger, and so forth. And there’s no real problem, as long as you understand the locals’ opinions about standing patiently in lines (It’s “lol”) and accept that the shopkeepers are just not going to admit they speak English under any circumstances.

Today, as I was looking around the market, bouncing from angry old lady to angry old lady in the narrow store aisles, I saw a big bag of leafy greens. “Ah, spinach!” I thought, feeling superior for recognizing a food product that I’d only been eating for 50 years. And after a brief, bitter fight with a crowd of angry grandmothers at the register, I bought it and triumphantly ambled off to the Walgreens for ice cream.

At the pharmacy checkout, this kindly Asian woman behind the counter pointed at my vegetables and exclaimed, “Ah, those are very good! Very healthy!”

“They are!” I agreed. “I love spinach!”

“Oh, those are not spinach!” she responded, shaking her head and smiling.

“Really?” I said, nibbling one questioningly. “They sure look like spinach…”

“Yes! They are Chinese vegetable. My sister uses them for sore throat. They are very slimy inside! Very soothing! Not good for eating uncooked!”

I'll take, "Potentially Lethal Asian Vegetables" for 200, Alex!

I’ll take, “Potentially Lethal Asian Vegetables” for 200, Alex!

“I see,” I said, ceasing my nibbling. “What are they called?”

“I don’t know the English name,” she replied, giving me my change. “But you’ll like them!”

So here I am with a bag full of beautiful green, leafy vegetables, God knows what they are.

Do I dare eat them?

What’s Mandarin for, “Pardon me, but are these vegetables a powerful emetic? I’m asking for a sad, clueless friend.”

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3 Responses to “Name that Food”

  1. Jeff Says:

    Great stuff, al.

  2. Li Keqiang Says:

    We can only hope that in Guangzhou or Chengdu there are Chinese people going through a Western supermarket, picking up chicken fingers or fried mozzarella sticks and asking staff people what they are. And these round-eyes are telling them, “American meat, you like!” or “Europe fried food, very good. But no put in nose!” And now we can send them Twinkies again…

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