I was scared for being a fussy eater

By Yaqi Yang

May 2022

It’s past 6pm, and the faint, powerless sun has long been swallowed by the endless winter night. We’re sitting on the wood floor in the Quanzhou Banfan Guan, or the Jeonju Bibimbap restaurant, in Yanji, a city, or rather a town, that functions as the capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China’s northeastern Jilin province close to the Russian and North Korean borders.

We’ve made our orders. The plump waitress in her 20s has served us “banchan” — cabbage kimchi and radish and cucumber kimchi — with a shy smile and a glimpse at Dan, praising him for being handsome. We are now waiting for our main dishes to come.

This isn’t a meal that I was really looking forward to.

The restaurant is fine — neat and warm with clearly hospitable services. The thing is, I’m not a fan of Korean cuisine, and I was once mocked by my friend as being racist for not liking it.

A lot of Korean dishes have bright colors, making them look appetizing. But what I don’t like is the “gochujang,” or Korean red chili paste, the tangy, salty, spicy and slightly sweet fermented condiment that is a core part of the cuisine.

I don’t like, to be more specific, the sweetness of the paste. For me, sweetness is pleasant in dessert, but not so much in a proper meal. For the same reason, I find it difficult to appreciate Jiangsu cuisine, one of the eight culinary traditions of Chinese cuisine that is commonly known for its sweetness.

But I’m now getting used to trying things I don’t like.

Back in the summer of 2019, when I finished my surreal — not in the way that I did all the crazy things like a normal university student, but quite the opposite that I didn’t do anything other than stay in my dormitory and watch movies and series — four years of university studies in Beijing, my food map was still rather narrow.

It’s not true that I didn’t try different things at all. I tried. But the majority of my food consumption was either on the third floor of the only dining hall on my campus or through Meituan or, the two dominant food delivery apps in mainland China. And Xinjiang and Sichuan food — my two regional cuisines, one from the place I was born and the other from the province where I was raised — were still my only favorites.

Then I met this guy, Daniel Alan Bey, who said in his moments on WeChat — the most widely used social media in mainland China — that he has “absolutely zero tolerance for fussy eaters”.

“I’d go as far as saying that behind racists, fascists, classists, sexists, homophobes & the judgmental & pompous, these are the people that most get under my skin,” he said, adding that he used to get into fist fights with his own brother whom he deemed as “mad fussy”.

“There is absolutely no excuse for it. It’s lazy philistinism that refuses to embrace the magic and diversity of the culinary world…” he went on and on.

Dan proposed, No, Dan notified me that we would have our first date at Siji Minfu, a popular chain restaurant specializing in Peking duck, a signature dish in Beijing cuisine.

He didn’t ask, neither did I dare to say, that duck is my least favorite meat on earth.

Then the day came. After waiting for one hour or so, we watched the waiter put the roasted duck on the table after slicing it in front of us. Dan gave him a thumbs-up, eyes stuck to the duck. He picked up a pancake, put the duck meat and fatty caramel skin together with green onion, cucumber and sweet bean sauce on top, and wrapped it up.

He took a massive bite. His eyes immediately widened, with a large smile appearing on his face.

I tried the same without green onion — another thing I’m fussy about. It was actually quite satisfying. The meat part which I don’t like can be covered by the crispy skin containing the unique aroma created by the Maillard reaction, the browning of the sugars in the food. The cucumber balanced the fat with the sweet bean sauce playing the role as a mediator.

It’s still not my favorite, but acceptable.

During the past year and a half, my food map has been radically broadened. Warm Russian stew, rich Indian masala chai, refreshing Thai tom yum and Vietnamese pho are all added to my favorite list.

Now, in Quanzhou Banfan Guan, our food is placed on the low table.

The blood sausage “sundae”, a popular street food in both Koreas, is not particularly interesting, but the pungent dipping sauce does give it a kick. The classic bibimbap is great, with mushrooms, spinach, carrot, bean sprout, zucchini and a sunny-side-up egg mixed up with soft rice and gochujang. It tastes like a complete universe itself. The stir-fried octopus is amazing, with each piece evenly coated with the spicy red sauce. The octopus itself is soft and has a natural sweetness that one can only taste in fresh seafood. As for the spicy deep-fried chicken wings, we ordered it twice before we left the town.

“The first time I knew Korean food could be as delicious as such, I cried,” I wrote in my moment on WeChat.

But what about the sweet gochujang?

Who cares about a little bit of sweetness if she’s overwhelmed by a sea of different ingredients, flavors and textures in a single meal?

Dan has introduced, or forced, me into a brand-new world. In this world, food has gone beyond one dish or another that fuels my body, into an area where I can challenge myself; I can explore things I like, or I don’t; I can expand my knowledge and imagination about the world.

Now, I know I’m not a real fussy eater.

He didn’t ask, neither did I dare to say, that duck is my least favorite meat on earth.