Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Duck Feet For Dinner

Yesterday afternoon, through a confluence of coincidences, I found myself in the Asian grocery in Kingsport looking for tamarind paste.

Kingsport is a neighboring city. I had an errand there, which is rare, and it happened to take me very near an Asian grocery store, which is something we don't have in Bristol. And that morning via email I'd gotten a recipe for homemade pad thai that promised me I really did need a bunch of odd ingredients. "Fish sauce" is pretty clear. What's a tamarind?

The Asian grocery smacked me upside the head with how many things humans can eat that I'd never heard of or considered eating before. They had packets of what looked like minnows, eyes and all, freeze-dried. I still can't imagine what you do with those. Toss 'em on a salad? Fish croutons?

I consider myself an adventurous eater. More than once I've had the checkout clerk at Food City hold up something from the produce section and ask, "Ma'am? What is this?" (Of course, one of those times it was parsley, but still.) I've been to some odd places--I recall a shabeen in South Africa where our guide, walking us through the buffet, tried hard to explain the concept of mealie pap, the basis of many South Africa meals. "That's grits," I said, looking at it. "Don't worry. We get it."

"Ah," the guide said, "Okay, to go on the mealie pap this is lamb curry, and this is vegetables, and this is--ah, this is a local delicacy. I don't think you'd like it." He does not say you white people but he thinks it pretty loud.

"What is it?" I asked, peering down at little white rings in a soupy gravy. Calamari?

"Goat intestine," the guide said.

He was right. Us white people skipped that one.

Anyway, back at the Asian market, I discovered that some people apparently eat duck feet. My Polish grandma used to make duck blood soup, pouring a quart of sickly sweet coagulating duck blood into the broth--it was the only delicacy of hers I couldn't eat, and that includes blood sausage--but I'd always assumed that, when cooking a duck, you ignored the feet. I was wrong. I looked up "cooking duck feet" on Google when I got home, and the instructions read, "boil until you can easily pull off a toe."

Ducks have toes?

Is any of this worse than Easy Cheez? Or non-dairy creamer? When my daughter and I were at the World Equestrian Games, we ran into a bunch of Australians who couldn't get over creamer. "Creamer," they kept saying, holding their sides with mirth. "Cream-er."

(At the Olympics in the Olympic park the Brits completely ignored a lovely multiethnic food court in favor of queueing for an hour at the World's Largest McDonald's, but I digress. Oh, except to say that this week I learned that McRib sandwiches are made from a ground combination of pork tripe, heart, and stomach. Yummy!)

Meanwhile, back at the grocery, I'd found fish sauce, rice noodles, mung bean spouts and palm sugar, but was drawing a blank at tamarind paste. One aisle of the Asian market had a list of canned sauces: red curry paste, green curry paste, yellow curry paste, thai noodle paste--no tamarind. I was forced to squint at all the cans, looking for the tiny English letters translating the label.

Finally I gave up. I found the sole employee, a man at the back whacking the feet off dead ducks, and asked him for tamarind paste. He obligingly walked down a different aisle and slapped a slightly squishy red-brown packet into my hand. Animal, vegetable, mineral? I've no idea. I hoped this stuff had no relationship with Tamarin monkeys. I bought it, and at home I looked it up. The tamarind is a tropical, mostly African, tree. It grows nuts. Tamarind nuts. Now you know, and so do I.