There used to be a pedagogical myth (perpetuated by books like Summerhill and Walden II) that education had to be fun to be effective. I dont believe that is so. Some education is definitely fun; for instance, learning about love. Other education is just as definitely not fun; for instance, learning Latin.
Dinner at Chinese Kitchen last Friday night was definitely like learning Latin.
The restaurant is, Im told, the only one in Chicago serving the cuisine of Fukien province, and for that reason, VI and RST made a generous effort to plan a truly memorable meal. Im glad they did, but not because I liked the food.
The first dish was shark skin soup. Now, I eat a lot of fish, but I usually skim off the skin after poaching or broiling. I just dont like it. This soup course consisted of a thin broth with a lot of vinegar, hunks of skin and bitter melon, and some unidentified floating objects. The flavors: sour and bitter. Western tongues are not accustomed to such flavors; in fact, we usually use descriptors like sour and bitter as negatives.
Shortly thereafter, we were served a large oval plate of offal: tripe/intestine, pig ears, and (I think) spleen. This was probably my favorite dish of the night. The ears were very good: sliced thin and chewy, they had a lovely golden/magenta color, and a sweetness almost like gummies I had seconds, thirds, and fourths. The spleen was quite meaty, though a little dry.
After the platter of guts, things went downhill in terms of edibility.
We were served a large plate of meat described as beef, but Im pretty sure it was basically intestine and other less identifiable organ meats in a burgundy-colored sauce. As soon as the steaming bowl was brought to the table, the smell shocked me. I tried a piece, another, and another and then I tried some with the Brooks catsup Rene had brought me and then had to give up. I just couldnt get it down. The smell was, to my Western nose, vile, as was the taste, and I say that with humility. Vile is relative.
There was a large serving of greens, which I understand RST specifically requested, which was a welcome respite, and I liked the jellyfish (I think that's what it was, but at first I thought it was a kind of shelf fungus).
The rabbit came next, in the same burgundy-colored, but there were a helluva lot of bones, and the sauce was such that I could not bear to taste another morsel.
I turned to CQ at one point and mentioned that each dish had a unique flavor, and that when eating dishes in such a relatively narrow flavor spectrum, no flavor predominated and so each flavor was distinct. I did feel, however, that very few of the flavors were good, and she seemed to concur.
But thats education for you.
During this dinner, my tongue picked up flavors combinations I had never tasted before. And although the flavors were not, to my taste buds, good, they were definitely not off or stale or rotten. They were just different REALLY different. And thats a good thing. My favorite foods are probably French, Mexican, and Italian, which are all basically from the same family of tastes. To become more than a culinary moron, a little education is required, and a dinner at a place like Chinese Kitchen is definitely an education. Actually, its a trial by fire. By the time the eel soup came, I could hardly eat another bite, and I had started to feel that the food was permeating my whole body in a way I did not like.
The flavors were still on my tongue this morning, and it was not a good. I took Dr. Ultimos advice. I went to Milwaukee to Sollys for a double on a pillow, with cheese, fried and raw (double cheese burger on sesame French bread, with fried and raw onions), extra crispy fries, and a Sprechers root beer. This meal normalized my innards. These were the flavors I know, the flavors of muscle meat and potatoes, dairy, bread, salt and sweet. I sought these tastes as a corrective, but I felt it was a little like playing songs you already know, because they feel good, but what you might or should be doing is learning new music. The only way to get better at anything is to challenge yourself, and I think the meal at Chinese Kitchen was definitely challenging. It pushed my conception of the edible in new directions, and I believe Im more food-smart for the experience. It hurt in a good way.
Thanks VI and RST for masterminding yet another palette-expanding experience. I would never hesitate to eat at any place where these two orchestrated the menu. I might not always like the selections, but thats okay. Its education.
2342 S. Wentworth Ave.
Chicago, IL 60616
4629 N. Port Washington Rd.
Milwaukee, WI 53212