Eating Authors: JY Yang

No Comments » Written on September 25th, 2017 by
Categories: Plugs
Tags:
JY Yang

Regular readers of my work know that I’m very “old school” in my approach to writing speculative fiction. At some level this is doubtless shaped an unconscious attempt to recreate the “sense of wonder” from the stories and novels that I imprinted on in my youth. But tempus fugit, and just as the world around me has changed, my reading tastes have changed as well. I still very much enjoy reading that “classic” style in my SF, but there’s so much more out there now, stories from new voices with compellingly different backgrounds and world views and life experiences that have molded their fiction. And fortunately, there are markets that are bringing these works to readers, places like Light Speed Magazine and Uncanny Magazine and Clarkesworld.

This week’s EATING AUTHOR’s guest is a prime example of what I’m talking about. JY Yang writes from the experience of a journalist, a scientist, and an editor taking on issues of gender, race, and class. Their two novella Tensorate Series comes out tomorrow from Tor.com, and J has described it as “a melange of everything I wanted to see in epic fantasy: Adventure, romance, martial magic, megafauna.” And it won’t end there, as two additional novellas in the series are already scheduled for publication.

I’m not usually one to invoke the hackneyed “if you read only one book this year” line, but I’m tempted to here. Except, I’d amend it to tell you to read both of these novellas. The real question is, how do you decide which to read first?

LMS: Welcome, JY. Tell me about a memorable thing you’ve eaten.

JY: This is about salmiakki.

I went to the recent Worldcon that was held in Helsinki, Finland. Now, the two things they tell you when you are about to go to Finland are 1) saunas, do the sauna thing, and 2) you should eat salmiakki. Now, the Wikipedia page for salmiakki, or salty liquorice, has this to say about this particular Nordic delicacy, citations and all:

Salty liquorice, also known as salmiak or salmiakki (in Finland), is a variety of liquorice flavoured with ammonium chloride, common in the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, and northern Germany. Ammonium chloride gives salty liquorice an astringent, salty taste (hence the name), which has been described as “tongue-numbing” and “almost-stinging”. Salty liquorice is an acquired taste and people not familiar with ammonium chloride might find the taste physically overwhelming and unlikeable.

Waiting on a Bright Moon

You know when they put “acquired taste” in the first paragraph of the Wiki page that it’s got to be something special. I mean, I come from Southeast Asia, land of the durian, and the Wiki page for that only mentions that some people think it tastes objectionable in the third paragraph. What a food needs to do to tastebuds in order to have that information moved right to the opening, I can’t even guess.

So I was in Finland, and salmiakki was a thing that you could get at candy stands, which sold these footlong sticks of liquorice in various flavours. I have a rapacious sweet tooth, and I can chow through my body weight in candy in an astonishingly small amount of time. In Stockholm the week before Worldcon, my friend Grace and I each bought five sticks of liquorice in a bag from a stall by the marina, in an assortment of fruity flavours. By the end of the day I had demolished all but one stick of candy, while Grace had barely finished her first. She was impressed, and when I say “impressed” I really mean “mildly horrified.”

Well. You can imagine that I was tempted by the candy stall that was parked right outside the dealers’ room at Worldcon. Because I was. But everytime I looked at the tantalising, tar-black laces of salmiakki, I would remember the immortal words of my friend Lara, who had tasted salmiakki before. “It’s like eating a concentrated tablet of cat piss.”

I don’t have cats. I’ve helped a friend catsit while they were away for winter break. I am familiar with that particular tang. I was really not committing myself to eating an entire foot of candy that tasted like that. So: hard pass.

Worldcon rolled on. Every time I passed by the candy stand, I cast a furtive glance, then remembered the noxious fumes that rose from my friend’s litterbox. And quickly moved on.

The Black Tides of Heaven

It was now Sunday, the last day of the convention. I was hanging out with my agent sibling Alex Wells and their friend Corina. We were outside the convention center checking out the Viking blacksmiths, who were these rugged, shirtless Finnish men clad in scraps of fur and leather, stoking fires and swinging metal implements. Kind of like Mad Max, but Nordic. Our interest was purely in the knives and metal jewelry they were selling, of course. So while we were, ahem, examining their wares, I noticed that Corina was eating some kind of candy out of a clear bag.

I asked: “Is that… salmiakki?”

“It is,” she said.

“It’s disgusting,” Alex added, with the rawness of someone who’d tried some and did not come away unscathed.

I looked at the candy Corina was holding. My brain, that wretched little imp, was thinking: You can’t leave Finland without tasting this stuff. You need to know what its like. Just one bite. How bad can it be?

I looked at Corina again. She seemed fine eating this stuff. Pretty cheerful, in fact. If it was like swallowing cat piss, she wasn’t showing it.

I said: “…can I try some?”

As Alex frowned at my folly, Corina tore a chunk off the stick and handed it to me. It was soft. Malleable. I put it in my mouth.

I chewed. It was actually salty. Like it said on the lid. It was weird, having this texture between my teeth I associated with something sweet or tangy, and having it taste like the ocean. But not really. The saltiness was very mild. Gentle. It came with a slight whiff of ammonia, barely even noticeable.

The Red Threads of Fortune

Still, I was waiting for the shit to hit the fan. It had to be coming, like the way wasabi lets you think hey it’s not so bad after all, before punching right through the roof of your mouth and into your braincase. At some point, I was sure, the salmiakki would unleash its ammoniac power into my hapless being.

I continued chewing. Alex and Corina watched me carefully.

Nothing happened. I blinked. Was this it? Was this the entirety of what salmiakki tasted like?

“It’s… not bad?” I ventured, my voice lifted by disbelief. I chewed some more. No, this was definitely great. It was soft and chewy without being cloying, the taste of salt light in my mouth and the notes of ammonia somehow cleansing. “I… I actually like this.”

And I did. It was great. I wanted more.

Corina’s smile was a little smug as she held out more of the candy to me.

Alex said: “I’m disowning both of you.”

Anyway, that’s my story of eating salmiakki in Finland. I don’t think there’s a moral to it, except maybe “don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, because it may surprise you”. Or “tastebuds, what are they, we’ll never know”. One thing I do know, though:

Durian is delicious. I will fight you over it.

Thanks, JY. I had a similar experience with that licorice booth outside the dealers’ room. It took days, but I finally succumbed. So glad I did!

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

#SFWApro

Tags:

Leave a Reply