This is Asia’s first official UNESCO ‘Creative City of Gastronomy’.
Chillies, ginger and garlic are used in abundance. This city is no place for the timid of taste.
I venture gingerly into a small-but-not-too-small restaurant in what has been ‘my local neighbourhood’ for just a few days now. Scanning the menu, I settle on tofu and meat strips with rice. You can’t go too far wrong with anything accompanied by plain rice, can you?
The boss waits. I place my order. She looks at me with a raised eyebrow.
“Can you handle local flavours?”
I look her in the eye. “Of course I can ‘handle local flavours’.” I lower my gaze. “But … er … perhaps you could tone it down just a little. I am new here, after all.”
A slender young waitress pours a cup of fragrant tea. I sip it, relaxed, soaking up the noise of whirring fans, eavesdropping on a group of chattering young women, inhaling the pungent fragrance of the frying peppercorn named for this part of the world, and watching the playful kitten tied up by the front door which leaps in the air to bat small buzzing mosquitoes. I’ve seen an inordinate number of cats in local restaurants. The pretend cats with the waving arms on the counter are common in Asian restaurants in my home country, but here they have the real thing.
The boss brings a wooden pail of rice to my table as well as a bowl of red soup.
Closer inspection reveals tofu, pork strips and peanuts … swimming in a bowl of chilli soup. I take a deep breath, thank the good Lord for bringing me to this part of the world and consciously choose to enjoy my dinner.
My mouth burns; my nose streams; I suspect steam may be coming out of my ears. Despite frequently mopping my face, rivulets of perspiration drip from my face and neck, running down my back.
Boss lady watches, grinning broadly. Catching her eye, I give her the thumbs up. She approaches the table, reaches across me and pulls a string hanging from the wall. The fan directly above my head leaps into life and a welcome breeze wafts across my wet neck.
“Is your meal tasty?”
“Full of flavour – thank you.”
Under the boss’ watchful eye, I finish all the tofu and meat as well as half the rice. I wonder about the calorific value of the meal given that surely the body’s reaction to the chillies should count for energy expenditure? I’d gone as light as possible on the carbs too.
Making the most of each outing (so as to minimize the frequency of climbing the 85 steps to my front door), I’d also planned a haircut on this exploration of my local neighbourhood. First, however, a quiet ten minutes in the small park on the corner are called for because my head is still dripping with sweat.
I sit on a low wall, watching elderly folk, young children and middle aged folk alike enjoy the exercise equipment placed in this park. No gyms are needed here. Obesity is not the epidemic that it is in the west, although it is reportedly becoming a problem in modern cities.
At the hairdressers, they don’t even ask – washing my sweaty scalp is the obvious precursor to the requested trim. I lay back under the air-conditioner with my head cooled by a stream of lukewarm water. A friendly crowd, the three women chat like hairdressers anywhere in the world. “Where are you from? What are you doing here? Why are westerners so often fat?”
What?! Before I can think through an adequate answer to this frank question, another hairdresser responds. “It’s because they eat high-calorie foods. Steak and potatoes, followed by cake.”
I want to defend the nutritional value of steak. Yet they have a point. I for one have struggled for years bouncing from one diet to another, with only limited success, and often involving steak and vegetables.
Here, in this Asian UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, however, I have a new diet plan. It involves plenty of local food, ‘step aerobics’ every time I go out from my sixth floor apartment and riding my bicycle whenever I run errands. Time will tell but, unlike most other diets I’ve tried in my life, I have a good gut feeling about this one.
Or perhaps that is chillies I can feel burning in my gut?
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