On a recent trip to Florida, Team FIN farmer Jeff Ryan explores an Asian food market where he finds quite a few unfamiliar items on the shelves.
Let's face it, I don't get out much. It's good to get out in the world and see some things once in a while. A guy can get a little too sheltered if he stays on the farm all the time and doesn't see how the rest of the world lives. As you may have noticed, most of my foreign travel involves trips to World Showcase at Epcot every once in a while. Sure, that's not exactly the same experience as actually going to a foreign country, but it's way more than I'd get if I stayed in Iowa the whole time.
We branched out a bit on a recent trip to Florida. A friend is a professor at a university in central Florida, so we stopped by to see her for a few days. We went to a local place featured on The Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives" program and had some great food. I can honestly say that it was the best octopus I've ever had. That led to the option of going to one of my friend's favorite Thai restaurants. Spice is good, in my opinion, so Thai food with some heat was right up my alley. The best part of this particular location, my friend felt, was the fact that it was close to a really good Asian market. Much like octopus consumption, my lifetime exposure to Asian markets was, let me think, zero at that point, so I decided to jump on this bandwagon and see what was out there.
You want to talk about stepping into another world! The second we got in the door, it was completely different than I imagined. The layout was a bit more similar to a regular grocery store you'd find anywhere in America, but the product choices were incredibly diverse. I started snapping pictures right away as Sherill started to laugh. She knew this was too good not to end up as one of these stories.
I was making a mental list of all the "Well, I can't get ________ at my local grocery store," when the hard drive in my brain started to squeal and then smoke. Perhaps I'd have to go back to the vehicle and get another memory card for my phone! There were way too many cool food items for me to be able to properly document this adventure. (By the time I wad done, I had taken more than 120 photos.) And it wasn't just foods I hadn't seen before. It was food containers I hadn't seen. There were papayas that looked like they were wrapped in paper the way you'd store stuff before moving from your college apartment to your first house. They were next to a variety of pears (Korean Pears, Ya Pears, Sweet Pears) that were in some sort of individual fiber mesh bag. At anywhere from $1.20 to $2.99 per pear, I wasn't sure how much of that cost was for the actual pear and how much was for the pear papoose. You'd have though both Harry & David were packaging consultants to this store. There had to be structural or civil engineers involved in that deal somehow. They probably had some long-lasting psychological effect from growing up in a house with a lot of macrame plant hangers, deep shag carpet and olive appliances in the 1970's.
Too bad Sigmund Freud couldn't be with us to explain a few things.
Then we moved to the section where we found banana blossoms, lotus seeds, quail eggs (in water, of course, because who wants them dry and flaky?), kimchi (You just thought of that episode of "M*A*S*H" like I did, I bet.), roasted young coconut juice in a jar, coconut water (in a can like a Diet Pepsi), pickled ginger, preserved duck eggs, minced ginger and dried apricot seeds, just to name a few of things on the shelves in that area.
So what will you use for a staple in your diet when you go to an Asian grocery store to make a meal? Rice is going to figure into a lot of items, based on the math I did. We came around a corner and saw what looked like the bagged feed warehouse at my local co-op. They had plain rice, they had sweet rice, they had jasmine rice, they had new crop 2014 rice. It was in stacks and stacks of 50-lb. bags. There were hundreds of them. Uncle Ben was nowhere to be seen. All that rice and probably still less than two tablespoons of flavor total.
Ben always was my favorite Uncle in the Rice family.
At the end of one aisle was sort of an open cooler with some giant items inside mesh bags. I'd call them just slightly smaller than a watermelon and bigger than a cantaloupe. They are called durian and have an outer texture that almost looks like a dinosaur or an alligator. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be to say that it looks like a porcupine in need of some Rogaine.
The inner yellowish-red fruit / flesh of the durian has sort of a custard-like texture and a sweet fragrance to some people. Others find it quite revolting, to the point of being tough to position at the market. Durian can give off a strong odor, so the spot right by the front door won't always work for the non-durian fans. ("Hi. Welcome to our home. Please step over the skunk and come on in!") Some people will find it to be a great flavor while others will ask if the rendering truck hasn't yet to stopped to pick up some dead animals . . . from several days before.
Looks to me like we could consider durian to be the lutefisk of southeast Asia!
At $2.79 per pound, and an average weight of about 5 to 10 pounds, we decided not to gamble on a durian purchase. Had they had some durian cut up and packaged, we'd have done it, but my friend wasn't anxious to haul a durian back to her house in the car and then gut it once we got there.
Far and away the best part of the whole store adventure was what you'd call the meat counter, I guess. To be honest, I walked along and kind of made a mental note as I looked at each item. I had this mental coin I was flipping in my brain. It wasn't "heads" or "tails." It was "food" or "bait."
One area had swordfish steaks, dried anchovies, cooked snails, cooked clams, squid tubes, mackerel shad, lizard fish, dried shrimp, pork intestines, pork stomach, pork kidneys, cubes of goat meat (with the skin on, of course), beef oxtail, and one of the most bizarre items I'd ever seen. There were two, actually.
Chicken feet. Yep, packages of chicken feet, all cleaned up and ready to, um, I'm hoping . . . cook . . . thoroughly. They come in Regular and Spicy. If plain old chicken feet just don't do it for you, kick it up a notch and try the spicy version. You won't regret it. Although, if you're eating chicken feet, your list of regrets can't be all that long.
Ever been to Red Lobster and picked out your own lobster for the main course? You can do that at this market, too. There were a variety of fresh fish, shrimp, lobsters and crab. But we need a drumroll here for the pièce de résistance, folks. You could also pick out your very own FRESH EEL to take home with you!
(Big shocker here. That mental coin came up "BAIT" in my head. Big time.)
A live eel for supper? As a cattle feeder, all I could think was, "Hmmm . . . . all the slippery, slimy, weaseliness of a snake without carrying the finish a snake does."
I couldn't drink enough roasted young coconut juice (even with extra pulp) to wash the idea of a plate full of eel out of my head.
The minute we got on the ground back home in the Midwest again, I drove straight to The Nook in St. Paul to get myself a burger stuffed with cheese and some onion rings on the side.
Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.
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