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I've come to know my father as a confident and cultured man. He knows exactly who he is. Ever since I was born he's been showing me the world. All my life my family has been telling me stories about his adventures but the best stories come directly from him. Sometimes he and I will sit down on our couch and tell stories all night long. One of my favorites is the one about how he braved the Bering Sea.
"I was the lead scientist," he'd say," on a Japanese marine expedition off the coast of Alaska. I didn't speak Japanese so I had to rely on my awesome charade skills." I laughed imagining my incredibly reserved and distinguished father pushing his cheeks together with his hands because he didn't know the word for "fish." He resumed his story with a smile once I had calmed down. He was happy that he made me laugh.
"As I was saying," he said with a sarcastic cough in my direction, "I found the cook. He spoke some English and as you probably guessed, we got to know each other quite well. He would give me a slice of 'Shokupan' with every meal." (Shokupan is a Japanese white bread).
"It was an honor to receive Shokupan directly from the chef himself but the greatest gift he gave me was his special pair of silver chopsticks. I remember the weight of them in my hands and the respect he and I shared." We still have those chopsticks. I use them whenever we buy a loaf of Shokupan for Japanese French toast in the mornings.
Another of my favorite stories comes from that same trip. My dad was hungry after a long day of being tossed around like a rag doll by waves so huge and thunderous that they nearly capsized his entire ship. He saw a hole-in-the-wall Chinese place and decided to check it out.
"As I stepped into the restaurant the smell almost knocked me off my feet. The aroma of pungent chilies filled my nose. I saw tendrils of hot steam escape through the cracks in the thick wooden door to the kitchen, boisterous metallic clanging ever present. I knew immediately that this was where I was going to get my dinner that night." My dad is and always will be a chili-head so his enthusiasm is always genuine and amusing when he tells this particular story.
"So, I walked inside and sat down at a little table near a window with a view of the dark restless ocean. The waitress brought me a pot of green tea and a menu. I scanned through the dense lists of chicken, pork, beef, and other meats until 'Thai chili' caught my eye. Turns out that was the perfect dish: seafood chow mein made with chilies imported directly from Thailand. It was the spiciest item on the entire menu.
"The waitress came and took my order. I told her I wanted it five star. She said, 'Are you sure? That's the hottest thing we have,' with a skeptical look, informing me of what I already knew. I insisted and she took my order to the kitchen. I saw the head chef stick his head out the door and scan the tables, looking for the man who dared him to cook a five star dish. The waitress's hand popped out and pointed in my direction. I gave him a cheerful wave and smiled smugly, practically challenging him. He shook his head and looked at me like I was crazy before returning to the kitchen to prepare my meal. I tapped my foot excitedly, looking forward to the food. I was so sure that I would be able to handle whatever the chef could throw at me.
"A few minutes later the waitress came back out carrying an immense plate of noodles, prawns, squid, shrimp, and scallops, all drenched in a think crimson chili paste. The steam stung my eyes and my jaw dropped as she set it down in front of me. She returned my astonished gaze with the same smug smile that I had given the chef earlier. She strolled back to the kitchen and brought the chef just outside the door. They stood there leaning against a wall leisurely, watching me. I picked up some noodles, speared a shrimp with my chopsticks, and looked at them determinedly.
"'Cheers,' I whispered under my breath, nervously taking the first bite. The chef never took his eyes off me." I always get excited when he reaches this point in the story. It's my favorite part and he knows it.
"I knew before it even touched my tongue that it was going to hurt like h*ll. I began choking, coughing up chili paste. My throat burned like a mother effer." He censored himself with a chuckle.
"When I recovered I looked at the chef with tears in my eyes. He laughed. He laughed and laughed and laughed. I grinned and shook my head, looking back down at the food. He'd won and he enjoyed rubbing it in. I wasn't about to give up though. I sat there and ate the entire thing. Not out of spite but because it tasted really good!" He smiled, remembering the burn.
"But that was tough though. It took me two hours to down the whole thing. Each bite demanded my respect. I had met my match." That's my favorite line of the story. Still, to this day, he hasn't found another dish as intense as that one. Ever since, whenever we go to a restaurant he asks the chef to make it as hot as possible and for extra chili paste on the side. He'll always say to the waitress, "I like it sweaty-forehead hot," and she'll always shake her head and bring out the food and I'll always ask, "Is is better than Alaska?" and the answer is always no. I'm determined to join him on the rest of his adventures and help him find the dish that tops that legendary chow mein from Alaska.