Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Father's Influence

Today is my father's birthday; he's 72. This year has included for him a battle with colorectal cancer, producing a lot of worry for us kids.  He completed his last round of chemo last week and we're all so happy that he came through everything so well.

Dad has always been a big influence in my appreciation for exotic foods.  And by "exotic," I mean foods that wouldn't ordinarily be served in my Polish-American household.  I was almost five when my brother was born, and to get us out of her hair once in a while as she dealt with the new baby, my mother would send my father and I out on a "date." I remember vividly our experience at a hole in the wall 2nd floor restaurant, in what was then Baltimore's Chinatown, called Mee Jun Lo.  The stairwell was a little dark and intimidating, and the restaurant wasn't particularly well-lit itself, but I can still taste the wonderous salty-garlicky flavor of the shrimp in black bean sauce that Dad ordered for us, on my mind's palate. I've not had that flavor experience since, and I've given up ordering the dish in Chinese restaurants.

Dad also introduced me to Japanese cuisine, first with the thrilling spectacle of teppanyaki dinners at Nichi Bei Kai, and later to tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets) and tempura at home.  He cooked Chinese food for us too.  When my mother went into the hospital for three weeks in the early 80s, Dad bought a new wok and a Chinese cookbook and proceeded to prepare my brother's favorite dish, Chicken Ding, or chicken with almonds.  Later, I would use the wok to make tempura, which would scare the heck out of Mom who thought I was going to burn the house down.  But Dad had given me the confidence to prepare the exotic dish in my early teens.

I'm pretty sure I had my first taste of Indian food with Dad, when we tried out the new Bombay Grill on Madison Avenue. Thai food too, possibly, but I can't remember. Korean, definitely, as exactly once Dad took my brother and I to Purim Oak (before it was called that) in Towson.  We tried bulgogi cooked on little table top burners, and I remember being dismayed at the unsubtle taste of sugar and garlic and not much else.  Only later did I become enamored of the flavors of Korea.

Today we're having a simple spread of grilled meats, because chemo has effected Dad's tastebuds quite a bit.  I hope that someday in the near future, however, he will be able to join us in a customarily exotic meal, perhaps something we've never tried before.