For many years I was the traveler in the family. My job overseas required a fair amount of international travel, and I didn’t mind that. It was sometimes tiring and I would miss my family, but I still loved being able to say I had been to such-and-such a country, even if most of my time there was spent inside a meeting room. Though I was in the air a good bit, most of the places I went were accessible in just a few hours and a couple of connections.
It was a different story for The Wife. Travel was not her thing, but every now and then she took a turn. But while I was flying next door (if you consider across the Red Sea to another continent “next door”), she would go places that took two days to get to, either because of distance (like Thailand) or bizarre flight schedules (like Cyprus, whose motto might as well be, “You can’t get here from there.”) This time she crossed the space-time continuum, lost a day in the process (but got it back later), and went to China, all just to bring me snacks. What a woman.
Okay, she did see the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and a really big Apple Store. But she didn’t bring any of that back home. She did bring snacks. To be fair, I also got a nice t-shirt that proved extra-large is not a universal size, a carved pig head on a string (for the barbecue lover in me), and a wire sculpture of a man playing a drum set. All awesome. And she brought snacks.
One of the things I learned in our years abroad (which you can also learn in the tasting room at the World of Coca-Cola) is that tastes vary from country to country. The formula for Coca-Cola is not necessarily the same in Djibouti (and they drink a lot of it) as it is in Jamaica or Japan. In the Middle East we got Mango Tang. Not only does it taste delicious, it also rhymes. Some of the fun stuff The Wife brought back from Beijing fits the same pattern: familiar name, unfamiliar flavor. For instance, Daughter got a roll of grape-flavored Mentos. Mine was called “Fresh Cola.” That was a bit scary, given that a roll of minty Mentos dropped in a Diet Coke will produce an instant fountain. (Kids, do try this at home, but only with adult supervision.) What would happen in my mouth if the Mento and cola were already combined?
Same song, different verse for the Lay’s potato chips. The barbecued steak flavor was very similar to our barbecue chips here. The cucumber chips tasted pretty authentic. The “Little Tomato” chips reminded me very much of the ketchup-flavored chips we used to get at the same store where we bought the Mango Tang. Then there was the Cheese Lobster bag. They were cheesy. And lobstery. Not awful. And much better than the Fried Prawn chips. Insert full body shiver here.
I also got a bag of something labeled “Hawthorn Pearls.” The picture of the fruit on the bag looks something akin to a cherry. The candy inside turned out to be a narrow fruit roll-up kind of thing. The flavor was fruity – that’s all I could say – and according to the ingredient list it consists mostly of Hawthorn. And my research assistant (we’ll just call her Siri) found out that the Chinese Hawthorn is very much like our Mayhaw, seen every now and then in jelly form.
The prize for most interesting, however, had to be the duck wings. Yes, I got a bag of individually wrapped duck wings. I opened the first one and took a small bite. Not bad, but before taking another bite I rinsed off the gel in which it was encased. If you are not familiar with this kind of gel, buy a cheap canned ham. You’ll figure it out. And after a few bites I realized, that’s what these duck wings taste like: cheap canned ham.
I was really proud of The Wife for thinking so far outside the box with these souvenirs. Then she began to tell me the tales of what she had eaten. I admit that I was a bit jealous. Let’s see if you are, too.
We didn’t get to talk a lot while she was gone, but when we did, we made it count. Like the time she said, “I ate dog today.” As the story goes, some of her traveling companions decided they wanted to try it and set out to find some. It wasn’t easy, but they eventually found a place that served it. She said it tasted like greasy roast. And if you are wondering, these are not just random pooches hijacked from the street – they are raised for food. That may not make you feel better, but it was worth a try.
I didn’t think she could possibly top that, but I was so, so wrong. An American they met while there took them out to eat, and ordered a meat-filled dumpling. They asked her not to reveal the type of meat it was until they’d finished it. And it was donkey. Donkey dumpling. Nice ring to it.
She did a lot of shopping at outdoor markets, where she found just about anything in the world that can be found. Apparently you can find just about anything edible the world has to offer as well. She could have had starfish, but it was too expensive. Not so for the scorpion on a stick. Or the seahorse on a stick. Those were more affordable, and didn’t taste too bad. And you thought I would deep-fry anything.