Eating Our Way Through KL

The residence of KL are a mixed bag of ethnically different people. There are large populations of people from India, China (mostly Cantonese), and of course the native Malaysians. Even though there are different backgrounds represented, they all share one thing in common: an incredible respect and kindness for others. Not only is it an inspiring setting for world peace, but it is a foodie’s dream come true.

Did food somehow change when I wasn’t looking? I seem to be living in a world where food can no longer be bad. Spicy food is suddenly delicious instead of painful and burn-y. Foreign spices that once would have me wrinkling up my nose have a new savor to them. Am I losing my sense of taste? Or have I just been lucky enough to eat only amazing food on this journey? I’m guessing the latter, but the odds just seem so high against it that I’m starting to wonder if I’ve been transported to an alternate, more delicious dimension.

That’s right. Food in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is just as amazing as China. The flavor profile is entirely different, but everything I have put in my mouth has been one of the best things I have ever eaten. The only downside is that we’ve started a new diet, so we aren’t getting nearly as much of this deliciousness as we want!

The residents of KL are a mixed bag of ethnically different people. There are large populations of people from India, China (mostly Cantonese), and of course the native Malaysians. Even though there are different backgrounds represented, they all share one thing in common: an incredible respect and kindness for others. Not only is it an inspiring setting for world peace, but it is a foodie’s dream come true. This is just a taste of the amazing things we’ve eaten and places we’ve been.

Curry House

One of the more popular types of restaurants in KL are the Curry Houses. They seem to be everywhere, even right next door to our hotel. There are always groups of people sitting outside with tasty looking food, and others waiting in line inside, so we had to give it a try. We hopped in the line and watched everyone else order. Everything looked good, so I wasn’t too worried about trying to communicate exactly what I wanted. When it was my turn, I simply pointed to someone else’s dish and said I wanted that. I ended up with fried rice with a whole boiled egg in it, slow-cooked chicken, and a cucumber salad. It was buttery, juicy, and oh so good.

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The curry chicken is served on the bone. We used our utensils to eat it, but almost everyone just grabs the saucy mess with their hands.

Once we got our food, we grabbed some sodas from a vendor further inside the restaurant and sat down. A waiter came by and made sure we were comfortable, then pulled out his tablet (which seemed very out of place), totaled us up, and handed us a numbered card. After eating, we took our card up to the register near the front and were charged 17RM/$4.35 for our meal.

Little India

One of my favorite dining adventures so far was our trip to Little India in the Brickfields District. There were plenty of authentic restaurants to choose from, so we went with the first one we saw that looked easy to navigate (not all restaurants have menus or an obvious starting point). I got rice and fried chicken with a spicy sauce.

In several of the restaurants we have been to, we have seen scattered groups of people eating with their hands. At this restaurant nearly everyone was eating with their hands. Even the well-dressed young man sitting next to us in his pressed, purple button up and silk tie. So, we washed up and went for it. I had never considered how difficult it would be to eat rice with my hands. It was quite the challenge. If you’re feeling brave and not too self-conscious, I suggest you give it a try (at home, alone, where no one else will see you with sauce all over your face and fingers).

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I am very focused on getting the rice into my mouth without spilling it all over my lap.

New Meat: Sting Ray

To my lovely vegan, vegetarian, and meat-sensitive friends, please stop reading. Everyone has a weakness… this is mine.

Those of you that know me well will know that I set a goal for myself as a child to try as many different meats as possible. I’ve had the pleasure of trying all sorts of exotic meats like bear, snake, alligator, kangaroo, scorpions, worms, pigeons, shark, and even the Chinese delicacy that must not be named. But I have a new addition to add to my list: sting ray. Check out the video of this experience below:

We’ve only been here for a week, and already we are overwhelmed by the sheer number of food options available. We’ve had some amazing Chinese and Indian food already, and have picked out some Thai, Vietnamese, Moroccan, and other great looking restaurants and roadside stands. I can’t wait to try them all!

Sichuan Hot Pot

We enjoyed our first Sichuan hot pot experience last night. I’m so glad we went with someone who knew what they were doing. It would have been a little confusing otherwise.

Our host took us out for a wonderful meal of Sichuan-style hot pot yesterday that she called Chuan Chuan. We met up with a couple of her friends and their kids, ate some delicious food, and had a blast. As we were all non-Chinese, I can not promise we ate this meal correctly, but the servers didn’t seem too thrown off by our behavior, so I’m guessing we came pretty close. If you’d like to try it yourself, or if you’re ever invited to one of these restaurants, here’s a quick breakdown of how it went:

Step One: Select a Broth

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The choices we were given for broth was Spicy and Not Spicy. We went with half and half. The Spicy side was very flavorful and included some of Sichuan’s famous prickly ash. It looks like a little black peppercorn and creates an almost numbing sensation instead of heat. I can hardly stand food that has a lot of ground pepper, but I really enjoyed this broth. It didn’t burn, it was simply packed with flavor. The Not Spicy side had an almost fruitiness to it and was absolutely delightful.

You may notice the packets of oil on the left side of the picture. Those come in handy for Step Two.

Step Two: Prepare Dipping Bowl

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The only thing better than oily food, is oily food dipped in more oil. Although we shared the large broth pot as a group, we each received our own dipping bowl. I filled mine with garlic, green onions, and oyster sauce. We then squeezed the packets of oil into each of our bowls and mixed them all together. After a few minutes, the oil absorbs the flavors of the other ingredients, creating a custom-made tastiness for the food to come.

Step Three: Select Skewers

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Next up, each person grabs a metal tray and collects the food that they want to cook and eat. There were two fridges of vegetables and two of meats. Josh and I went with sliced potatoes, broccoli, lamb sausage, imitation crab, mushrooms, pumpkin, pork wrapped mushroom sprouts, and Not Bacon (it looked and tasted like bacon, but the server insisted that it was not bacon).

Each adult ordered a bottle of beer and bowl of rice (then seconds). We also had our dipping dishes that we prepared earlier and a cup of tea. Our tray (pictured above) was enough food for Josh and I along with two bowls of rice each. Next time, however, I think we will reduce the amount of rice and instead collect 10-25% more sticks of food.

Step Four: Cook and Eat

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With Josh’s past working at The Melting Pot, the rest of the evening was a little more familiar. We cooked our sticks in the broth, similar to fondue. We occasionally ate each other’s sticks of food, but that added to the fun and variety. It’s a part of the meal, being laid-back about who eats what and sharing as a group.

Once I felt like my stick was done cooking, I took it out and dunked it in my dipping bowl. From there, it either went directly into my mouth or used as a lathering brush for my rice, then into my mouth. With the two styles, I was able to eat yummy sticks of food AND a deliciously saucy bowl of rice.

Step Five: Pay

I can see how this meal could easily take up half of the day. The amount of time it takes to cook each stick encourages conversation and drinking. The two other parties with us were traveling early in the morning, so we left out the heavy drinking part, but the conversation flowed easily and we spent more than an hour enjoying the food and each other’s company.

There was a small charge for the bowl of broth, beers, and rice. The remainder of the cost was charged by the number of sticks we collected. Our host told us that she has never spent more than ¥40 eating there and this meal didn’t turn out any different. We only got a look at half of the bill, but our portion came out to about ¥30/$5 each.

A new dish is always near the top of our Fun List, but a new dish that requires a new approach is even more fun. We had an amazing time with some great people, and can’t wait to try some different variations!

Adventures with Jen – Yangshuo

We’re just a few days away from moving to our next destination which means it’s that time again to tell the stories of my less-than-totally-epic adventures. Yangshuo was amazing in almost every way, but had its fair share of not so brag-worthy moments. Join me again for: Adventures With Jen! [cue theme music]

Downtown Art

West Street and the area surrounding it are fun and exciting at nearly all times of the day. With our daily walks, we were able to explore the area top to bottom, front to back. On top of all the fun shops, restaurants, and music/sounds loud enough to blow an eardrum, there is also a healthy amount of art. We had fun wandering around and taking pictures of the weird and wonderful.

Markets

There are several markets in town. There are two small ones right near our hostel, one large one downtown, and a huge one in the next town over. The small markets near our hostel are fun to walk by. They mostly sell fruits and vegetables, but there are a couple that offer duck or fish. The large market downtown takes up the first floor space of two large buildings. There are stalls for everything from nuts and herbs to fish and snake.

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On one of the sunny days, we rented an electric scooter again and rode about half an hour out of town to the neighboring town of Fuli. They host a large market every few days and had good reviews on all the travel sites. The drive took us through busy, loud traffic, but the market itself was pretty cool. I was particularly happy that we went at this time of year because the whole place was filled with red shops selling goodies for Chinese New Year.

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Hike – Xi Lang Shan

There are so many beautiful mountains throughout Yanghuo, most with pagodas perched on top. It isn’t always easy to find the way up, however. There was one mountain in particular with a nice pagoda on top that looked like it gave a view of the whole city. We walked around nearly the entire thing looking for the stairs. There were several sets of stairs that led up to little caves and hobo camping spots. After several attempts, we did find the right stairs and worked our way to the top.

It was free, not too high up, and did indeed have an excellent view. Although physically easy to climb, it was a mental challenge with stairs that were not well maintained and clinging to some sketchy cliff edges. We worked our way up and down very carefully and celebrated a successful climb when we safely reached the bottom.

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Yangshuo’s been a great home, but it’s time for us to move on. We’re heading up to Chengdu next, home of pandas and spicy food, where we’ll be house-sitting for a few weeks. Chengdu is quite a bit bigger than Yangshuo, and I’ve got a lot more little fun adventures planned!

Eating All of the Things – Yangshuo

Our adventure with food continues. We love to eat, and there is plenty of food to love here in China.

For breakfast, Josh collects two buns from our favorite steamer place down the road. The man that works at the shop is very enthusiastic to have some new foreign friends and has some of the best tasting buns we have ever had. Josh bags them up and brings them back to the hostel, where I meet him down in the common area with one cup of Americano coffee to split and our thermoses refilled with fresh hot water. Breakfast is small, but filling, and only costs $2 (the one cup of coffee eats up $1.60 of the cost of breakfast).

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We ate at the shop once, but the tiny table and stools that are common at shop fronts in China are just way too small for our big American bodies. Also, the bowl is full of the best soy milk we have ever had. Perfect temperature, texture, and sweetness. Yum!

Our favorite stop for lunch is a place we call “The Good Build Your Own”. At the front of the shop, there is a case of fresh vegetables and meats. We are given a bowl and some tongs, then left to our leisure. We fill our bowl with the ingredients we want, then hand it off to the cook, who asks us whether we want rice or noodles. There are four identical restaurants of this style all on the same block, but there is one in particular that always serves us a larger portion than the others, hence the word “Good” in the title. Depending on the amount of meat you put in the bowl, the price will vary between $2.30 and $2.60.

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This is a $2.30 bowl with rice. It has broccoli, mushrooms, carrots, and bacon.
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This is a $2.60 bowl because it includes pork AND and egg. It also has noodles, snap peas, carrots, and mushrooms.

For dinner, we usually enjoy a more traditional sit-down restaurant. We named our favorite place “Paper Lantern” because of the restaurant’s choice of lighting decorations. We haven’t ordered the same thing twice because everything has been delicious. My favorite has been the sweet and sour eggplant, but Josh’s favorite was the beef and potatoes. With one or two dishes and a big bowl of rice, we are usually charged about $6 for dinner.

At the sit-down restaurants in South China, it is common to wash your dishes before you eat. Most of the time, the dishes have already been professionally washed, packed, and sealed in wrap, but the tradition lives on.

Yesterday, we made a friend down in the common room and invited him out to join us for Yangshuo’s most popular dish, Beer Fish. We had a great time chatting with someone new and enjoyed a good meal with good company. The fish was delicious, but nothing to write home about (although I guess that is exactly what I am doing!). It came in a large, hot dish with a candle underneath to keep it warm. The tomatoes made it a little saucy and gave it an almost Spanish flavor.

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It didn’t taste anything like beer. We think it was a grilled carp, cut in half then served in the dish with oil, tomatoes, beef stock(?), garlic, bamboo shoots, and chives.

 

We only have a few days left in Yangshuo and I know I will miss all my favorite stops. But the only thing better than the food I like, is more food I like. Can’t wait to see what our next stop tastes like!

Bike Ride – Yangshuo’s Ten Mile Gallery

The sun finally came out and we have been trying to cram in as much fun as possible while we still have it. One of the first things on my to-do list was a bicycle along the portion of the ten mile gallery that we missed during our last excursion. This loop portion splits off at the bridge and follows the river instead of the valley.

The sun finally came out and we have been trying to cram in as much fun as possible while we still have it. One of the first things on my to-do list was to cycle along the portion of the Ten Mile Gallery that we missed during our last excursion, which took us through a little valley. This time, instead of crossing the river into the valley, we turned at the bridge and followed the river.

We rented bikes from our hostel for $0.75 each. My bike was missing front brakes and was stuck in high gear. Josh’s was stuck in low gear and had a persistent squeak if he touched the back brakes. But overall, I was quite happy with the bikes and enjoyed a comfortable ride.

Our first adventure was to get to the Gallery’s gate, where traffic becomes limited. This requires a 15 minute journey through the busy streets of our small town. I took the lead. The key seems to be: ride like you aren’t scared to death and just go with the flow.

Once through the gate, it was smooth sailing, with only a few cars, scooters, or cyclists along the way. Rather than an “out and back” like last time, our route took us off on a small street that runs along the river, eventually looping back into town. The wind and rain from the day before pushed out most of the pollution, and the sun finally made an appearance, so the day was beautiful! The colors were vibrant and clear. The majority of the road was very scenic, winding between the mountains and rivers, but there were also large sections of farmland dotted with small villages that were super cute. Everything about it was amazing! Best Day Ever!

Yangshuo, China karst mountains behind bike on road

Each place had a small collection of people going about their business. Some would shout at us to stop and check their menus, some were doing laundry in the farm canals, kids were playing with dogs, and men were washing their cars using buckets of water and rags.

[Tangent Alert] I’ve noticed a real lack of hoses in China. For example, there is a farm outside of my window at the hostel. Since I am a horrible snoop, I spend much of my morning watching the neighbor woman attend the farm. It is the same routine each day. She walks through her fields, bends over every so often to either collect something or discard something, then fills a bucket with water from the central well. The bucket has a rope attached that she wears across her chest. She lumbers from one patch of green to the next and ladles out water to the plants using a large soup ladle. It takes her nearly all day to get through her small patch of land. I am sure she isn’t a representation of all farmers here, but it struck my curiosity and really made me consider the farming fields surrounding the path we were riding on. There were well-planned canals webbed throughout the fields, but I didn’t see any sprinklers or tractors. Do they all water the fields by hand?

Farm and karst mountains with bike on road in Yangshuo China

Of course, my favorite part was the mountains! I have been looking at these strangely shaped pimples on the earth for a month now and I am still mesmerized by nearly every one. My camera is full of pictures of this mountain, and that mountain, and the one next to it. I think Josh is over the glamour (or maybe never had it to begin with), but I am still in love and have found my bliss.

riding bicycle bike in Yangshu China at 10 Mile Gallery. Karst mountain and farm

Although the ride took a few hours due to my constant need for pictures, the trip was only a little over three miles and dropped us off on the other end of town. The plan was to have lunch at a popular expat pub on the way, but it looked like they were closed for the season (seems to be the case at many places). So, we followed our noses and found a block of Chinese fast food restaurants.

We enjoyed some beef and potatoes, green beans with sausage and chilies, egg-wrapped pork meatballs, a giant bowl of noodle soup, and two bowls of rice. All this for only $2! We left stuffed and happy.

Somehow, we were able to drag our full, tired bodies back home, and finished off the afternoon with a nap. What a day!

 

Adventures With Jen – Guilin

Not every adventure can be epic, so here is a montage of some of my less than totally awesome Adventures With Jen.

After breakfast, the routine is for me to take a shower, then either spend some time doing research or hit the street for an adventure. Besides for the Fubo Mountain hike, most of my adventures haven’t been blog worthy. Not every adventure can be epic, so here is a montage of some of my less-than-totally-awesome Adventures With Jen:

One adventure I was particularly excited about was the Bird and Flower Market, located a little ways Northeast from where we are staying. Unfortunately, when I arrived, I found there was nothing particularly special about it. It was more of a collection of plant and pet shops. As with any pet shop, some were nice and I could tell the animals were loved and well taken care of. Others (most) were quite difficult to see, with cages packed to the brim with birds or tanks so full of fish that they were constantly getting flicked out by other fish.

The most noteworthy part of the walk happened while I passed a middle eastern food truck. I, of course, walked by just as the stall worker decided to kill a large sheep right in the middle of the sidewalk. I have a good appreciation and understanding of how my food is made, but I’m not sure if I will ever get used to seeing the moment of passing right before my eyes. Not the best way to end an adventure.

I caught Josh’s cold the following morning and was pretty well bedridden. I still got up for meals, though, and went for short walks through some side streets near the hotel to get some air. I particularly enjoyed one walk where we stumbled across the wholesale food market.

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I love looking at all of the interesting fruits and vegetables, the dried herbs, and the variety of meats. As someone who has had a food handler’s card for the last 20 years, I also find the food safety to be quite… interesting. Meats are stored on the same table as vegetables, and fruit baskets may or may not be stored directly on the ground. It is a nice reminder of just how resilient to germs the human body can be.

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The variety of fresh meat is so interesting to look at.

After a couple of days, I was feeling better and back on the road. I spent most of my time researching and filming a walking tour (get excited), but I did take a break to hit another new stop: The Botanical Garden.

Guilin’s Botanical Garden is located at the South end of town and costs ¥32, but apparently that only applies to me. I watched everyone else just walk through the gate. They didn’t flash a pass to the guard or anything, they simply walked in like it was no big thing. I, of course, got stopped and was forced to pay. This is one of the few times being a foreigner in China didn’t pay off.

As a garden, I would say the place was pretty “meh”. It did make for a decent park, though. It was quite large and had quiet little hide-outs all over the place for people to be loud in… yes, that is what I meant to say. Everywhere I went, there was a little courtyard or hidden picnic bench with someone either practicing the trumpet, singing into a microphone (with the speaker turned on full blast, of course), dancing to loud music, or jamming with their friends. I do have to admit, it was the perfect place to find a quiet spot and fill it with noise.

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The “European Garden” was much quieter and filled mostly with exercisers.

I would guess the place is quite nice and full of flowers in the summer time, but in the middle of January, it mostly just looked like bushes to me. I did enjoy the long walk through the park, and managed to get in some people watching and bird spotting.

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A lone Koi fish heading upstream to visit a child throwing crackers.

 

My favorite thing to do in Guilin was to walk along the rivers. I walked at least four miles per day while we were there, and most days it was done along one of the many rivers or lakes. Where the rivers run through the city, there are beautifully decorated water-side paths. I really enjoyed checking out the variety of bridges, the excitement of the tourists (mostly from other cities around China), and watching the occasional fisherman. If it wasn’t for the air pollution, I would guess these river walks would make amazing river runs.

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Also, have I mentioned we’re famous? There are still many Chinese people who have either never seen or met a foreigner. We are still a pretty rare sight outside of Shanghai and Beijing. We get a lot of stares and children shouting “Look, foreigners!” On some rare occasions, we even get asked for pictures… which usually leads to more people asking for pictures… which turns into a full-on paparazzi moment. It is a little weird, but kind of fun.

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So there you have it, my less than successful but still noteworthy adventures in Guilin! I really enjoyed it there and feel so lucky to have had the chance to live somewhere so beautiful and full of adventure. Stay tuned for the next installment of Adventures with Jen!

Eating the Red Berries

I read somewhere that chimpanzees won’t eat unfamiliar red berries unless they see another chimp do it first. It’s a self-preservation instinct, and it makes sense; some berries are poisonous. But others are not, and can be a plentiful food source, so it’s definitely a risk-reward situation. This also means that if a troop wants to take advantage of that particular food source, one of those chimps has got to step up and try the berries, assuming a personal risk for the good of the group.

I’ve always been risk-averse, and while it’s paid off pretty well, it also means I’ve missed out on a few things in life. And so, in the spirit of our grand adventure, I’m trying to get better at throwing caution to the wind and just jumping in; in other words, I wanna be the chimp who’s brave enough to eat the red berries. It worked out well in Barcelona, where we got to try a bunch of unfamiliar foods that all ended up being delicious. The same was true in Morocco, and for the most part has been true in China, too.

Unfortunately, this behavior is not without consequences.

In a previous post, we talked about our bus ride to Yangshuo, and the tour guide who doubled as a salesman. It seemed very strange to us that this should be a part of our tour, having someone pitch to a captive audience like that. If I could have understood him, I probably would have been a bit more annoyed, but because it was all in Chinese, it was fairly easy to tune him out. We got the gist: he had stuff to buy, and he wanted us to buy it.

Then came time for the free samples. The guy had been rambling on for a fair few minutes about this particular product. It came in a fancy white box, with some nice calligraphy on the side, and a picture of some kind of fruit on the front. He put down the box and started down the aisle with a basket, handing out little samples on the way. We had eaten an early breakfast and hadn’t yet had lunch, so we were ready for snack time. The tour guy got to us, gave us his best salesman smile, and put a small white package in my hand. Without even thinking about it, I ripped it open to see what was inside.

What came out was a weird looking snack, although everything is kinda weird over here, so that was par for the course. It looked like a bunch of roasted pumpkin seeds glued together with a hard, brownish-orange paste. I shrugged, broke it in half, gave a piece to Jen, and popped it in my mouth.

It was bizarre. The pumpkin seeds still had the hulls on them, so they were very hard and fibrous. However, that’s not too out of the ordinary for plant-based snacks here; I thought nothing of it. The paste stuff was tea flavored, which, again, is pretty normal for China. However, this was very powerful, so strong that I could feel my mouth starting to burn from the intensity. They like their spices, but for the most part the flavors here are kind of bland, especially when it comes to sweets, which this kind of was. Jen and I looked at each other, noses wrinkled. It was, all in all, pretty gross, and guaranteed that we would not be buying this particular treat. Who would?

We looked around the bus, wanting to see how it was being received by the other tourists, when we noticed that no one was eating theirs. They’d all just set theirs down or stashed them away in their bags. “Wow,” I thought, “this guy must be a crap salesman. They won’t even eat his free samples.”

Jen had also noticed that no one was eating the treat. “Why is nobody else eating their snack?” she asked. Comprehension slowly dawned as we realized that the thing we’d eaten tasted like concentrated tea resin, because that’s exactly what it was. While everyone else got a packet of fancy tea to try when they got home, we got a strange new treat that we couldn’t resist eating right away. We laughed, realizing our mistake and how ridiculous we must look to the other tourists.

The tour guide brought another free sample, this time two packets, one he described as spicy, and one not spicy. This time, instead of ripping them right open, we decided to investigate a little bit more closely. There was a picture of a nicely cooked fish on the front, and in English the words “Fish scent, lingering eternally”. We poked and squeezed the stuff inside, and decided it must be a fish-flavored soup stock concentrate, another thing to try when you get home. Into the bag they went. We turned back to look out the windows, only to be met with the sight of a bus full of Chinese tourists chowing down on preserved fishy snacks. And yes, the package was correct: fish scent, lingering eternally.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that the chimps have got a good thing going. If you don’t know if a thing is food, maybe wait a bit and see how the other apes behave. Be patient. Let someone else eat the berries from time to time. Otherwise, you might end up with a mouthful of pumpkin husk slivers and a tea-scalded mouth.