Some people may be addicted to drugs, some to gambling, but I'm pretty sure there's no 12-step program to rid me of my addiction to dried sweet plums from Chinese markets.
My introduction to these tasty tidbits occurred years ago, innocently enough, when I interviewed the Hong Kong Market store manager for a 2004 New Times story
on funky foods found in Asian grocery stores. I had every intention of walking out empty-handed, excepting a notebook full of scribbles, but he made me wait by the cash register as he plucked a bag from an aisle display and insisted I try its contents right then and there.
For the record, I'd probably eat rhino brains if I feared not doing so would insult a gracious host, so I popped one of the shriveled beige nuggets into my mouth after quickly assessing that they were probably harmless. Wrong.
My first nonverbalized reaction was, "Yum! These are so sweet!" immediately followed by "Holy crap! This is so bitter that I think it's burning my taste buds off!" then back to sweet, and back to tart. If only Willy Wonka were clever enough to come up with a treat like this.
Oft labeled "dry prunes" (isn't that an oxymoron?), they come in little plastic jars or bags containing about 30 pieces. Sometimes their packaging lists the ingredients in English -- one jar I picked up read "Plum, sugar, lemon acid, salt, licorice root" -- but other times deciphering the contents can be a crapshoot... unless you can read Chinese. Regardless of what's inside, no aroma will come billowing out when you open a container.
But each plum-pit-sized morsel does have a nice sparkle to it, owing to the sugar crystals sprinkled over the surface. Pop one in your mouth and let your tongue investigate. Be warned, however, that your salivary glands will start working overtime, providing a pool of spit that will serve as your only defense against the sour assault your mouth instinctively knows is on the way. Soon the fruit's flesh will begin to dissolve, leaving only a few meaty bits clinging to the pit. Gnaw off the rest of the meat gingerly and you'll be left with the hard center, a great bit to suck on, perfect for extracting every last trace of flavor. I recommend you take this time to appreciate the function of your various tooth types, for it's not often you get to do so for the entire set. Oh, and be aware that you won't look particularly attractive throughout this process. It would probably be sexier to watch someone chew tobacco and spit it into an empty Gatorade bottle, but who the hell do you need to impress?
Even if you take it one wrinkly bite at a time, you may turn into a dried-plum addict too.
One last bit of advice (you can consider me an authority since I've confessed my five-year dependence): dried plums, prunes, whatever, can give you an awful stomachache, so try not to plow through an entire bag in one sitting. Besides, you know what a handful of prunes does to Grandma.