I’ve always prided myself on both my love of food and my adaptable palate. It seemed like a metaphor for the way I want to live my life: happy to try anything. But a recent trip to Hong Kong made me realize just how much there still is to sample – and it took me a little while to get my mind around the unfamiliar and actually put a piece of chicken gizzard into my mouth.
You might be thinking that sounds just awful, am I right? And, in fact, I found that I’m not the biggest fan of this particular tough little hunk of muscle, no matter how well seasoned. But in pursuit of the new, and in following through with my theory that trying new things makes me happy, I felt compelled to take a bite. It also led me to try a bunch of other strange things I hadn’t previously explored, including turtle soup (pretty good), fish maw (spongey air bladder, very chewy) and congealed blood rice (um, okay).
The coup de grace was a nine-course snake buffet I trudged out to the mountainous Hong Kong suburbs, along with three friends, to try. We sat at a large wooden table in the middle of a flea market shop, surrounded by antique carved wooden furniture and knicknacks, and were served dish after dish of unfamiliar items: snake stew and snake-liver stuffed chicken wings, chilled snake skin and fried spicy snake sections, and bile and mint liqueur jelly for dessert. Most of the dishes resembled either chicken (it’s true what they say!) or a meaty fish. The spicy snake was lightly battered and salted, and would have made for the perfect late-night bar food, if not for all of the tiny bones and threat of choking. And the snake balls, so dense and flavourful, were also very good. Less great? I couldn’t wrap my head around the consistency of the scaly skin drenched in sesame oil and gave up after a few bites.
None of these things had previously been on my radar – and I can’t say that any of them are now my favourite dish – but there is something really satisfying about leaping in and trying something new, even when you can’t eat more than a bite. Don’t get me wrong: I am a lover of the mundane. There are few things that I adore more than lying on my couch with a good book and a big mug of coffee, even though I’ve done exactly that a million times. But it’s the new things that create lasting memories for me, and that make my feel like my life is bigger and more inclusive.
When we got back to the city, we told everyone about the snake banquet and eagerly got out our cameras to show off the pictures of our unprecedented culinary experience. Up to that point, I’d been having a tremendous amount of fun visiting friends in Hong Kong; we had eaten noodles and dim sum nonstop, I was in possession of a beloved new pair of shoes (snake skin, coincidentally) and we had stayed out late almost every night, drinking cocktails and catching up. But trekking out to what felt like the middle of nowhere to eat snake was an undeniably original experience – something none of us had ever done before or were likely to do again. And having that experience, something so unique and unexpected, made me really happy.