Friday, January 8, 2010

Ugly Food

During my holiday visit to Utah I met a friend at one of Salt Lake City’s few teahouses for dim sum. We ordered dish after dish, most of them standards, including ha gow (shrimp dumplings, siu my (pork dumplings), and cha siu bao (roasted pork buns). All of these tasty bites came to the table in traditional wooden baskets looking cute and delectable. There is something very festive-feeling about dim sum. Just about everything comes wrapped like a present inside a dumpling, bun, roll, ball, or wonton.

We also ordered a dish the Cantonese speakers call "ha chong fun". In English it translates as “shrimp rice roll”. Consisting of shrimp wrapped inside a roll made of ground rice, there is nothing cute or attractive about this dish. In fact, it usually looks sort of wet, slimy, and inedible. I’ve been out with many friends who refuse to eat this dish, complaining about the slippery, gelatinous texture.

But today my friend and I are feeling tolerant and will eat just about anything (although this time we decided to forgo the highly hideous-looking chicken feet).

My chopsticks nervously attempted to transfer one of the long, white rolls to my plate. This dish is as stubborn as it is unattractive. After many badgering attempts I had a mutilated clump of ha chong fun on my plate. It now looked even uglier sitting there in a puddle of soy sauce with pieces of shrimp exposed through the roll’s puncture wounds. The unsightly appearance of the roll took away any excitement I had about eating it.

Like many dim sums before, I had forgotten everything about the way it looked as soon as the roll got to my mouth. The shrimp was surprisingly fresh and crisp while the ground rice was perfectly chewy and gummy. Clean and precise flavors filled the mouth as this ugly duckling of a rice roll transformed to reveal its true value.

Are we willing to forgive our food for being drab, unattractive, or messy? Does an attractive presentation enhance a meal or does it confuse the eater into thinking something will taste better because it comes wrapped in a dainty-looking dumpling? Ugly food can be the most delicious food to grace our palates but many are unwilling to look past the appearance of food.

After leaving the restaurant I thought about wearing a blindfold the next time I sit down for dim sum. I might even give chicken feet a second chance.

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