December 31, 2009

Aiyi's Big Fish

Today we were made a gift of Aiyi's favorite food from her home Anhui Province.  This was the second time that we've had it.  The first time we had it, Aiyi came in the door, very excited, with a red plastic bag.  When she showed me the contents, I wasn't exactly sure what to think.  There in the red lit bag were two enormous brownish-reddish dried fish, eyes bulging, complete with scales and fins and a very strong smell. (The picture at the top resembles it, but is not the actual thing)  She proclaimed with excitement that it was "da yu" (leaving room for different tones, I think that it means "big fish") and announced that she was going to prepare it for us.  I was very thankful that I would not have to pretend that I knew how to prepare that fish.  It was as dry and hard as a bone.

She began cooking and foreign odors started drifting from the kitchen.  I peeked into the the massive simmering pot (full to the brim) at one point.  I was surprised to see that the only moderations she had made to the fish were to hack them into massive pieces (with bones, scales, fins and eyes) and then boil it with onions.  Eventually it was done and she presented us with massive bowls of rice with the hunks of fish on top.  James and I bit into our first taste of "da yu".

Strong salty flavor burst through our mouths, so strong that our cheek linings, tongues and lips burned with it.  Quick!  Take a bite of rice!  She is watching us!

"Hao chi Aiyi!  Hao chi!" (Delicious Aiyi!  Delicious!)

Thankfully, she does not speak any English and James and I were able to analyze the taste to each other (with smiles of appreciation on our faces and the occasional "Hao chi!").  She beamed, watching us.

"Yikes!  That is salty!".   "I think there is another flavor in there, but I can't tell".  "There are so many bones!".  "Its not so strong if you take ten bites of rice for every bite of fish".  "I don't think I have enough rice in my bowl to do that".  "Do you think there is this much salt to cover up the mud flavor?"  "I think that is just the fat".

We ate our fill, regardless of our reservations, and by the end had decided that not only was it edible, it even had a little charm of its own.  But after three straight meals of eating "da yu" (and still having not made a dent in the massive pot) we decided to freeze the rest.  For all of its charms, I had happily forgotten that it existed.

Today another batch came in the door.  It seems that a fresh delivery arrived from Anhui in the last 24 hours and Aiyi has sacrificially given us some of her favorite food, as a special gift for us.  So we cooked it up and ate it for supper tonight.  I contemplated that the taste seemed even stronger than last time (my mouth was burning with salt) while James concluded that it was less strong. I was completely unaware that I was eating it with a deep grimace on my face until James burst out laughing at me.  As we ate it, we made a ranked list of people who we thought would absolutely hate it.  Here is that list:
  1. Leonard Gerbrandt (My dad, whose combined displeasure for seafood and Chinese food would collide in this tasty dish.)
  2. Char Kenemy (My close friend, and a vegetarian - although there are many more reasons than animal flesh that would stand in the way of enjoyment.)
  3. Diana Stahl (James' sister, also a vegetarian who once read the back of a package of bologna, only to scream in horror, "There are turkey hearts in here!")
  4. You, the reader, whoever you are... guaranteed.
However, James was quick to decide that there was, at least, someone who would undoubtedly like it.  This is of course, Steven Frey (his dad).  James went on to elaborate that even if he didn't "like" it, he would steadfastly swallow every bite, determined not to allow his face to display even a hint of displeasure, and defending it as "good eating".  He would then make a few comments along the lines of, "After all, we're not eating at the Ritz", or "I'm not saying I'd want to eat it for breakfast", or alternately, "Sure, it doesn't taste like candy".  But he wouldn't skip a bite.

Following this categorization of our loved ones, we went through the full range of analysis again. "Is there a subtly unsubtle taste of BBQ in here?"  "I don't think so" .  The final conclusion yet again was "It has its own strange charm".

And that is the story of our last charming meal of 2009.  I'm sure that 2010 bring more such charming meals.

Happy New Year!

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