Dial up the crunch factor for dishes sure to please
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.