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‘Messy’ is subjective: Eating with bones & shells

I made this Chinese Trinidadian stir-fry shrimp over the weekend. The recipe instructs you to cook the shrimp Chinese-style– leaving the shells on. (The Trinidadian part of the recipe instructs you to use lime juice to wash the shrimp before cooking, which apparently removes the ‘fishy’ taste.) If eating with bones on your fish, or shells on your shrimp would be anxiety-inducing, then I won’t push it on you–eating shouldn’t make you anxious.

However, I grew up in a family that served fish whole, and shrimps still in their shells. Doing so helps to preserve flavor during the cooking process.

But not everybody grew up in a Chinese household. To some, seeing bones and shells left in their food would dissuade the appetite.

When I studied abroad in China, I noticed that it was a hard adjustment for some of the exchange students to be served a whole fish, as opposed to a fillet. One time, while dining-out with my classmates, the server brought out the steamed fish we had ordered, served whole–head still in tact, with its buggy eyes open and judging, even in its death. My classmate, unimpressed by the presentation, remarked, “Chinese people are too lazy to debone fish.” I should have corrected her because now I am shuddering at the thought of her being back in the States, spreading misinformation about why Chinese people eat fish whole.

Although I don’t want to feed into the model minority stereotype, when it comes to food, Chinese people are not lazy. Think about it–eating foods with all the bones and shells left on takes time, effort and even skill. But it comes with enjoyment. Isn’t the mess of eating chicken wings and ribs part of the fun and experience?

My gong gong’s (maternal grandpa) favorite part of a fish was its head–mostly bones, very little meat, but of what’s there, it would be the silkiest and most flavorful part of the fish. I loved eating flesh from the fish head, especially the cheek. But I lacked my gong gong’s grace and bravery when it came to dissecting all those tiny bones. Sometimes my po po(maternal grandma) would dote on me by removing the meat for me, and placing it in my rice bowl.

My gong gong loved to savor his food. I can still conjure a vivid image of my gramps sitting at the dinner table, sucking the juices and meat off of the fish bones, and then spitting the bones out, creating a small discarded heap on a separate plate.

When my grandpa’s alzheimer was severe, he forgot once-familiar words and sometimes the names of close family members. But he still remembered and enjoyed the not-so-easy task of eating fish head. Of course he was less dexterous in his old age, which met that he was also a lot messier at the table. And though I could have ‘helped-out’ by pulling the meat off the bones and placing it on his plate, why would I? Gramps didn’t mind the mess.

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