While living in Taipei, we got many opportunities to try new and (to us) strange foods, especially at the night markets. I was game for tasting most things at least once. But sometimes it took me a little while to work up my nerve—like when I waited a few years before trying “stinky tofu.” (Ends up it’s not as bad as it sounds, or smells.)
For a long time, I’d seen mounds of small black spiral shells sold as a snack at night markets, and I wondered what they tasted like. Actually, I also wondered how you’d eat them. I figured a snail, or some sort of other creature, was cooked inside, so maybe you sucked the meat out, or maybe the shell was cooked to the point where it was soft and you were supposed to eat the whole thing. I didn’t know, but I saw the locals walking around with plastic bags full of them, so I assumed they tasted good.
One evening I finally gave in to my curiosity and confidently walked over to the lady selling the black shells. It’s the custom for vendors at the markets to provide a small bowl of samples for potential customers to try. This lady was no exception, as she had a paper bowl holding a few shells sitting on the front of the table. I grabbed one of the samples, put it in my mouth, and sucked on it as I walked away. While the shells looked spicy piled up on display—with a few peppers mixed in—I tasted nothing. Flavorless. And I was disappointed to find no meat inside.
The next night, I was at the same market, and I wanted to try one more time. So I grabbed another sample from the shell lady. Again, no matter how much I worked it around in my mouth, no meat, no flavor, just a shell. Come on. Why do people buy those things? I walked back to my family and told them how I’d wasted my time and was glad I hadn’t wasted my money.
That’s when my son looked back at the table . . . and said, “Dad, that’s not the bowl for samples. That’s where people put the shell after they’ve tried one and need to throw it away.”