Intangible and Cultural: a Find from my Old Stomping Grounds

Over three decades ago, my search for Chinese, Japanese, or other Asian groceries in southwestern Connecticut would usually start and end in the yard-wide “Ethnic foods” shelf at Stop & Shop, where one could find little more than oversalted La Choy and Chun King products (I still remember the alluringly crunchy texture of the fried noodles from a can).

Such a time seems quaint when walking into the unassuming, boxy establishment simply marked as “Asian Supermarket” on the Boston Post Road in Milford. An aisle of frozen dumplings, a half dozen brands of Filipino stew seasoning packets, stacks of plastic soup spoons, and a jar of dried seahorses ($5 each) near the checkout counter lie among the crowded jam of goods. And not a can of metallic-tasting chop suey vegetables in sight.

So what sets apart one product from another in such a visual cacophony? Packaging, of course. Sometimes, a simple slogan or quote will do it, as was the case with the packet of Liuzhou River Snails Rice Noodle, whose bright yellow bag enticed me with “(A bite of China) Guangxi intangible cultural heritage.” I have a chance to taste the intangible? The cultural? Possibly some UNESCO-recognized heritage seeped in terroir? I was already considering making a purchase, but what finally won me over was the handwritten sign nearby stating that the soup packages were on sale for $4.25 apiece (save $1.25 — smart shopping!) because they were close to their expiration date.

Liuzhou River Snails Rice Noodle.

Thanks to all the ingredients having been vacuum-sealed into separate pouches, I figured I would be lunching on this southern Chinese specialty without spending much more preparation time than if had heated up a bowl of ramen. Would the snails remind me of the snail appetizers I washed down with beer in Cambodia, or would these little mollusks resemble the portabella-like meatiness of escargot?

The easy 1-2-3 steps would probably have been easy to follow had I been able to read Chinese, for unlike the quote that snagged me in the Asian Supermarket, the instructions had no English translation. We seem to share the same punctuation characters; I noticed a string of commas separating steps. Something like reduce heat, simmer, add noodle packet? The last instruction ended with an exclamation point. Was that a warning I should be concerned about? Don’t add the snails until the noodles are soft or you will overcook the snails and you will disgrace the heritage of Guangxi! Insure the rare, culturally significant vegetables grown only in our province are fully cooked or you will poison yourself! Or maybe it was just “Enjoy the soup!”

Upon opening the package, I was hit with an insistent scent that seemed as clinical as it did culinary, the scent of something being preserved, falling between dried squid and high school biology lab. But this was no time to allow a questionable smell to derail the mission; after all, there are stinky cheese connoisseurs out there who claim that once you get past the stench of unwiped ass, tasty bliss awaits.

I laid out the pouches to see what I was up against. It was an edible Ikea product without instructions. Here are the seven elements, and my attempts at identifying them:

Far left: rice noodles. That was the easy one. The other six, starting clockwise with the upper left hand pouch: a flavoring packet, somewhat sweet, containing little chunks of congealed fat; peanuts; string beans, green onions, and black strips of what could be snail meat; chili oil; fried strips of something—tripe? Wonton wrappers? Unknown at this time; radish-like vegetables.

In case you encounter your own packet of Liuzhou River Snails Rice Noodle and would like to know how I managed to prepare it, here is how I did it: I softened up the noodles in water and added them to boiling water, waited for the water to come to a boil again, added all the pouches to the pot, and simmered for a few minutes. That’s it. What I ended up with was a bright, fiery soup that could have been the latest composite picture of one of Saturn’s moons, complete with rectangular patches indicating artifacts of photo-stitching.

Due to process of elimination, the little black strips were most likely chopped river snails, and if so, the tiny portion seemed a little skimpy. But hey, I didn’t pay full price for the package, so it’s all good. In any case, the sharp heat from the chili oil overpowered almost everything else—the fried rectangles, the noodles, the sweetness I had detected in the flavor pouch. The snails were reduced to a texture, not a flavor. Only the green beans, which smelled surprisingly fresh for having been vacuum packed and shipped over in a months-long container ship—and had been approaching their expiration date—still retained some beaniness.

Would I try the soup again? Had I prepared it incorrectly, and I should give it another go? I’m afraid that won’t be possible. My wife forbade me from bringing Liuzhou River Snails Rice Noodle into our home again, owing to its smell that wouldn’t leave the apartment for a whole day—the vague scent of something being preserved. Preserved culture, perhaps.

Posted in Connecticut, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Succulent, Rollicking, Funny, Frenzied: the Reviews Are In!

Breakfast for Alligators

Stories from Guyana, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Panama, Canada, Trinidad & Tobago, and more countries in the Americas.

Breakfast for Alligators was released only five months ago, and I feel blessed that the Kindle version has reached #1 in Amazon’s Central America category twice. Meanwhile, the book has received a handsome collection of reviews. Here are a few excerpts:

“Succulent travel writing.”
  —Publishers Weekly

“An anthology of rollicking, sometimes baffling adventures (and plenty of misadventures)….A bunch of great stories.”
  —Spud Hilton, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Gritty, funny, street-savvy, boisterous, and informative.”
  —William Caverlee, Perceptive Travel

“Read Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas for the loving attention to detail, the frenzied trips through muddy fields, in backs of SWAT vans, in boats, even submarines. Read it for the food, familiar and weird, but most of all, read it for the journey that one man takes, and his observations of the mundane in a world that is familiar, and yet unknown.”
  —Madhushree Ghosh, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel

For those in the New York City area, I will be signing copies of Breakfast for Alligators at the Astoria Market’s final Holiday Event this Sunday, December 18, 2016 from 12 noon to 6 pm in Astoria, Queens at the Bohemian Hall. More information on the event can be found here.


Posted in books, San Francisco Chronicle | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter: friend or foe? It depends on your latitude

Dogsledding on Ile d'Orleans, Quebec

For New Yorkers like me, the recent drop in temperature is a reminder to prepare for the mess of unshoveled sidewalks and grumpy faces that will reliably arrive in a few months. A couple winters ago, my wife and I traveled to Quebec, a place with deeper snowstorms and far chillier days, so we could experience a place where winter is not merely tolerated, but also put into one’s service, even embraced. The result is Learning to Befriend Winter in Quebec, a piece I wrote for The Expeditioner, in which I take in the city’s appreciation of the season via dogsledding, a night in an ice hotel, and a visit to a winery where frozen apples were being crushed to make ice cider. Put on a warm coat and enjoy!

Posted in Quebec | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Back-To-Back Anthologies

Travelers Tales Best Travel Writing Volume 11
Look what arrived in the mail: Travelers’ Tales Best Travel Writing Volume 11!

For years, I’ve been inspired by stories in the Best Travel Writing compilations. I’ve found the stories engaging, moving, insightful, entertaining, hilarious, or some delicious combination thereof.

This inspired reader is now also a stoked contributor. My story narrating a quest to replace a Panamanian hat appears in Volume 11. In the introduction, Rolf Potts describes my quest as “quixotic.” I cannot disagree.

I’m thrilled to appear in the same pages as Amy Butcher, James Dorsey, Christina Ammon, Thomas Swick, Mara Gorman, Marcia DeSanctis, Kimberley Lovato, Erin Byrne, Jill K Robinson, Don George, Keith Skinner, and other talented storytellers. You can check out the introduction here:

For those in the Bay Area who want to hear some of the stories read by the contributors on Thursday, October 6, head over to Hotel Rex (562 Sutter St., San Francisco). I cannot make the reading, but if you go, you can say hi to Christina Ammon, Keith Skinner, James Dorsey, and editor Larry Habegger.

…and there is more:

Vignettes & Postcards from Morocco - edited by Erin Byrne

In late August, Vignettes & Postcards from Morocco, edited by Erin Byrne, was released. Already praised by Tim Cahill as “a recommended read, unless you’re going there in the near future, it which case it is mandatory,” contains stories by Michael Chabon, Paul Bowles, Suzanna Clarke, James Dorsey, Rolf Potts, and yours truly. In the piece I contributed, I reflect on the array of emotions my 2002 journey to Morocco had invoked–an eye-opening cocktail of shock, warmth, and delight.

Posted in Anthology, Morocco, Panama | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

This Week in Latin American Eats


The realm of mole sauce resists quantification, no matter what the authoritative tourist literature attempts to state. That is one of the takeaways I hold with me from my experience making black mole with Pilar Cabrera, an Iron Chef competitor, in Oaxaca, Mexico. Perceptive Travel just published my account, Crossing the Mole Barrier in Oaxaca, in which I endeavor to separate truth from tall tale in the story of Oaxacan mole.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Guatemala, macadamia nuts have taken root, thanks to the efforts of Lawrence Gottschamer, a retired fireman who moved to Guatemala’s highlands near the city of Antigua. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Gottschamer at his farm some years back to find out more about his sustainable project. The resulting story, in which I almost become hypnotized by macadamia nuts, appears in Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns, and Revelations in the Americas. Gonomad just reprinted the chapter here. If you have been wondering where I took that picture of nuts in this blog’s title banner (on the top of the page), then wonder no more.

Posted in books, Guatemala, Mexico | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment