“The crab paste?” I know it’s crab paste, because I read the menu. I already know I like crab paste. But to accommodate him, I taste the crab paste. “Mmm. I like it. But… is that…?”
“Good!” he exclaims as he glides off towards the end of the miniscule bar to grab another customer’s tray of soup, which may or may not also feature a tiny speck of gold leaf atop a mountain of crab paste.
The bowl in front of me looks tangentially like the ramen I’m used to, but for the gold leaf and the fact that the broth is bleeding black from a shot of squid ink. Nobody thinks the fact that there is gold in the soup is weird, and upon further reflection, neither should I, given that I’m in Hong Kong, a city which appears to have more people than square feet and more jewelry stores than people.
My Kowloon hostel sat on a block with at least seven of them, several of them clones, despite the congested apartment blocks rising from those ground floors where people all lived jumbled on top of one another, their incense wafting into each other’s windows, the laundry on their lines fluttering against one another’s, their drying foodstuffs clogging the hallways, and their elevators sagging and clunking with illegal loads. Where are the people who are keeping these jewelry stores in business?
The gold leaf is decoration, of course, like gold anything, and goes down without comment or fanfare. The ramen, similarly, is more pomp than substance. While the squid ink bleeds dramatically, oil-like, into the pork bone broth, the whole thing tastes vaguely of iron. I muse in the background of my bites that I shouldn’t have mixed in the crab paste, that I should have eaten the whole pile of it in one mouthful.
The whole time I’m eating, the waiter and I are having a spirited conversation about what the best countries in the world to live in are (him: Germany; me: Taiwan) that takes a left turn into autism when he asks what I do. We speak easily. But when he asks me whether I like my bowl, I turn shy. “It’s interesting!” I say, as though that isn’t code for “Please don’t make me state an unequivocal opinion!”
“I can tell,” he replies, but I, for one, can’t tell whether he’s saying he can tell I like it or can tell I’m lying.