A Pedacito of International Seafood
Updated: May 16, 2021
When I was twelve years old, my older brother became one of the first ten exchange students from America to live and study in The Soviet Union. At the same time, my family hosted the first Soviet exchange students to live in America.
A particular memory of this time was when we took the Soviet teenagers to eat at my favorite seafood restaurant. I ordered the fried shrimp, and to my amazement, the Russian teenagers were absolutely disgusted when the waiter brought the shrimp to the table. What had been a normal meal for me was a dish that these kids had never seen before. In their minds, I might as well have been eating a plateful of bugs.
When my brother returned from the U.S.S.R., he brought back a large tin of Beluga caviar. Beluga caviar in those days was incredibly expensive for Americans but relatively cheap for Russians, so I had never seen or even heard about people eating fish eggs before. I remember my mother putting some of the tiny black eggs on a piece of toast with butter for me to try. I was hooked from the first bite.
Growing up in Florida, seafood has always been a central component of my and my family’s diet. As I have grown older and have begun to travel to different countries, one of my favorite things to do is to try each country’s seafood. I think that the way a country prepares its seafood dishes often says a lot about that country as a whole.
Take squid, for example, If you order calamari at a restaurant in Florida, odds are that you will be served a plate of deep-fried rings and baby squids served with a ramekin of cocktail sauce. If you order calamari in Italy, on the other hand, odds are you will be served an entire large squid, grilled instead of fried. My poor mother made this mistake in Italy once, expecting to receive the fried version she was used to. Embarrassed by her mistake, she ended up sneaking bits of the squid to a hungry cat lurking nearby so as not to offend the Italian staff where she was eating.
One of the best seafood meals I have tried was in China. My Chinese friend once took me to a restaurant in Harbin where they serve fish. For less than $20, we were brought this rectangular cauldron of boiling oil and spices. Still cooking in the oil was a large fish, head and all. The fish was easily big enough to serve three people and was one of the most delicious dishes I have ever eaten. I remember remarking to my friend that if a restaurant were to serve the same dish in New York City, it could easily go for $200.
Still, my favorite seafood is always found at home. We have a tradition in my family. Anytime there is an occasion where we all meet as a family, we always have a shrimp boil to celebrate the occasion.
In large pots of boiling water, we place fresh shrimp, crab, sausage, corn, and potatoes and cook them together with old bay seasoning. On rare occasions, we throw in some crawfish or lobster into the mix. Once the seafood is cooked, we toss the whole mix onto tables lined with newspaper, and the whole family stands around the table and stuffs themselves.
These meals with my family are among some of my happiest memories. Helping each other crack crab claws and peel shrimp, we laugh at stories about unsuccessful fishing trips or make fun of my sister, who seems to have a never-ending stomach whenever she eats crab.
For me, seafood is another great way to explore a particular region. You can learn a lot about a country’s eating habits in general, just by the way they prepare seafood. Regardless of where I travel, I try to have at least one seafood meal while I am there. Even if the place I am visiting isn’t particularly known for its seafood.
More importantly, seafood is a constant connection to my home. Wherever I may be, eating seafood reminds me of the special moments with my family, standing over a table peeling shrimp, telling stories, and perhaps all laughing at the idea of my mom sneaking large portions of squid to hungry cats at a fancy Italian restaurant.
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