Dial up the crunch fac­tor for dishes sure to please

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS -

Chew on this

In 1988, in my early days of food writ­ing, I was in­vited to the open­ing of Huashan Lu’s Hil­ton Ho­tel in Shang­hai. This was the first Hil­ton to open in main­land China and, back then, a one-night stay would have cost the av­er­age worker the equiv­a­lent of 20 months’ salary.

I ar­rived to a red-car­pet wel­come (lit­er­ally a me­tre-wide red car­pet was rolled out as I ex­ited the cab and I had to pace my­self to not walk faster than they were lay­ing it out). The PR man­ager, Rosa Lau, es­corted me to a suite with a stun­ning view look­ing out to the newly form­ing city be­low. At that stage the Hil­ton was the tallest build­ing on the land­scape.

A bot­tle of Cristal Cham­pagne sat chill­ing in an flashy ice bucket, and a five-lay­ered black lac­quered tray set of in­tri­cately sliced meats and veg­eta­bles formed into col­lages of var­i­ous an­i­mals awaited my en­joy­ment (these were hal­cyon days in which to be writ­ing about food).

On the sec­ond night of my visit the ho­tel threw a spec­tac­u­lar cock­tail party to an­nounce its open­ing. Some 500 peo­ple were packed into a glam­orous State Room. A tray came around, stacked high with tiny golden fried things, so I popped one into my mouth. A mil­lisec­ond af­ter the ini­tial crunch, ev­ery ounce of my be­ing went into re­bel­lion as the crisp­ness dis­in­te­grated into an limpid slime in my mouth. Rosa beamed. “Roasted silk­worms,” she said, “such a del­i­cacy.” I re­turned her look blankly, a mouth­ful of worms rolling around in my mouth. There was no chance to run, the room was packed tight. Grab­bing a neatly pressed linen nap­kin from the hand of a pass­ing wait­ress, I emp­tied the con­tents of my mouth be­fore they could make any fur­ther head­way into my body. The mem­ory is so po­tent, it al­most makes me puke just to re­call it.

When it comes to what we con­sider okay to eat or not okay to eat, what is a del­i­cacy and what is an ab­hor­rence, it all comes down to cul­ture. In the case of my worm ex­pe­ri­ence, never has the adage “one man’s poi­son is an­other’s plea­sure” been truer.

Within my own cul­tural bound­aries, the no­tion of what stands as ac­cept­able when it comes to tex­ture rarely reaches slime or slither. Sea­weed yes, jel­ly­fish not re­ally, worms no. Crisp and crunchy, on the other hand, pretty much tick ev­ery box. The ad­di­tion of a pleas­ing crunch – be it chopped peanuts or crispy shal­lots, a crunchy let­tuce leaf wrap­per, or crisp pick­les – cre­ates a tex­tu­ral coun­ter­point in a dish that never fails to please. This week’s recipes are a cel­e­bra­tion of the crunch fac­tor.

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