huzhou, mysterious ingredients

yes we have no bananas

07.27.09 | 5 Comments

You would never know it from the dreck served in American ‘Chinese’ restaurants, but there’s a lot of variety in Chinese cuisine. Traditional food varies widely from region to region, from fried cheese and Uighur bagels to hot pot and soup dumplings. There are also numerous different cooking methods, and my students get confused when I tell them that if it uses a wok, we just say ‘stir-fry.’

Depending on your view, it is either fortunate or unfortunate that so many foreign broadcasts came over to ‘expose’ the ‘secrets’ of Chinese food during the Olympics. They took viewers way beyond Kung Pao Chicken—so far beyond it, in fact, that they skipped over regional delicacies right to the exotic items: animal penises and insects and mysterious organs, things that people here don’t regularly eat. Does everyone in America eat Rocky Mountain Oysters? And neither is every Chinese person sucking down millipedes for an afternoon snack.

That said, adventurous eaters certainly have their noshing cut out for them over here. I pride myself on being adventurous—there’s not much I won’t try once. Given the aforementioned variation in cuisine over here, I’m frequently finding new things to try. And yesterday, I passed something on the shelf in Da Run Fa that made me stop and exclaim out loud, “What?! Are you kidding me? I have to try this.”

That doesn’t happen as much anymore, now that I’ve become desensitized to dried fish skin snacks, salty preserved plums, tomatoes as fruits, people carrying whole, freshly plucked chickens on the bus to Shanghai, and fish scales in the gutter. But this stopped me.

I always peruse the imported foods section, usually just for novelty’s sake, or to discover imports from Korea, Thailand, and Germany. And among the tropical fruit jellies and imported candies and packets of Italian tomato sauce, a bag of microwave popcorn stopped me? But I must tell you, some of the strangest-tasting things I’ve eaten have been Eastern twists on Western food. (See: ketchup on a pizza)

I’m sorry, did I read that right? Does that really say Banana flavored popcorn?

The Chinese tend to mix sugar into their popcorn, which doesn’t matter a mite to me because it tastes closer to lip-smacking kettle corn. But banana? There were also chocolate, peach, and strawberry flavors. Banana and peach tied for weirdest, but banana won out.

I thrive on mixing things that are salty and sweet, crunchy and mushy, and I bet that if you were to pair real banana with straightforward, lightly salted popcorn, it would be acceptably tasty (to my palate, anyway). But using any type of artificial banana flavor is like trying to disprove gravity: destined to fail.

Externally, the strangest thing was that on the bottom, between the word “Banana,” “American import” is written in Chinese, giving the impression that banana popcorn is as American as French fries. I bet I know more Americans who have eaten deep-fried Coca-cola than have eaten banana popcorn.

I haven’t eaten microwave popcorn in years, due in large part to its carcinogenic contents, but also because my mom is a popcorn fanatic and makes it stovetop (though she usually burns it. Sorry Mom, it’s true!). She is frequently content to make a dinner out of beer and popcorn, and does so every Thanksgiving. [Someone’s gotta pay homage to the plights of Sam Adams and Orville Redenbacher back in 1621.]

But back to Banana popcorn! The package gives detailed instructions on how to open the plastic, place the bag in the microwave, and press ‘cook.’ Now normally I would think that such instructions might be a wee bit overkill—this isn’t a nuclear warhead. But I literally lost count of the times that people in college set off the fire alarms in the dorms cooking popcorn. These girls weren’t just burning their popcorn a tad, they were setting the bag on fire and smoking up three floors. This usually happened around midnight, so that everyone in the dorm was forced to stand in the parking lot in the middle of February in their pajamas for the twenty minutes it took for the fire and police departments to arrive, go through the building, and fight popcorn fires. And if Wellesley students can’t microwave popcorn, I shudder to think the damage the rest of the population could inflict upon society.

In short: detailed instructions and numerous warnings in twelve languages?

Are you sure you’re protecting people enough? Maybe you should start selling microwave popcorn with fire extinguishers. Just saying.

The ingredients scared me a bit. Just what is ‘banana flavor’ made of?

I love the illustrations. Listen to your popcorn. Don’t just nod your head and think about what you need from the store or the score of the game. To prove that you’re really listening to what the popcorn has to say, repeat it back in your own words: “Okay, I’m hearing that you’re feeling combustive.”

If you open the bag incorrectly, you will be left with only four fingers.

The bag may explode next to your ear. Cup your hand around your ear to protect it. This is the cochlear equivalent of duck and cover beneath you school desk.

Somehow, I managed not to blow anything up.

Yep, that looks like popcorn, but, alas, no actual bananas.

It looked perfectly normal, but how did it taste?

Rather like I expected, actually. Like popcorn sprinkled with greasy, fake banana flavor. It was completely unappetizing. I think I’ll go wash it down with some centipedes and bull testicles.

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