Monday, May 7, 2012

Living to Eat

I do--I live to eat, I travel to eat, I eat to remember where I've been. Like most travelers, I've found that the easiest way to make connections and to join communities is to eat the local food, whether you like it or not.

In Penang, I grew to heartily dislike the food that place is famous for--except for one dish. When I first arrived and needed to buy a pillow to replace the block of granite that I was trying to sleep on, I interrupted the lunch of the young women who were working in the mattress shop. One of them was extracting pieces of fruit from a plate that was covered in something that looked like molasses. "It's rojak," she told me and I went off to find it for myself.

It wasn't a difficult quest, since rojak is one of Penang's signature dishes. It's weird--one of my friends admitted after the fact that he didn't care for it very much. Essentially it's pineapple, mango, bananas, cucumber, and jicama covered with a dressing made of dark sweet soy sauce, ground chile, maybe some tamarind and of course shrimp paste. The soy sauce looks and tastes like molasses, with a kick to it. The fruit and vegetables offer a combination of crunchy and soft, fresh and sweet. It was one of the few things about Penang that I loved.

Yesterday the sun was bright and warm, I went for a walk, and suddenly I wanted rojak. With a fair amount of trepidation, I walked through the door of Malay Satay Hut. Was this going to make me unendurably sad on a beautiful day?

It didn't. The mango and pineapple were sweet, the cucumber and jicama were fresh, and the sauce tasted like Penang. "It's made in Penang and sent to us," the waitress told me. I scraped up every drop and had to force myself not to lick my plate. And the memories that came to mind were the parts of Penang that I enjoyed, fresh and sweet and strong, just like the food I was eating.

We have to search hard for ways to be connected to each other--not to our family and friends but to the world around us, to the bodies that move past us on the street.

I go to a restaurant in my neighborhood owned by two people who have made their small space a community for those who go there. On Saturday afternoon, Mark and Pichaya at Thai Curry Simple in Seattle's ID make special dishes that usually I only eat in Thailand. A couple of weeks ago, a Thai expat and I bonded heavily over our plates of kanom jeen nam ngiow, with the dried herb that Pichaya brought back in a huge bag from Chiang Mai. Last week I gave a stranger a sip of my navy-blue nam dork an jahn (butterfly pea juice) and got in such a passionate conversation with the couple on my other side that I had to take part of my chicken larb home with me. Meals at this place are extraordinary because they breed connections.

Books are another way I was connected to the world, as a bookseller, and I've missed that conduit ever since I returned. At the end of April, World Book Night gave me an opportunity to approach total strangers with a book in my hand, as I gave away twenty copies of Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. I looked at people carefully as I walked past them, wondering if they would welcome the gift of a book and had brief conversations with people I would ordinarily pass by in silence. I came home feeling sad that this doesn't happen every day of my life.

Eating, reading, sharing, telling stories, forging connections--I've never loved a book without wanting to lend it to someone afterward; I've never tasted a meal without wanting to eat it again in the company of someone  to share it with me.

I eat. I live. I remember.

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