How Do You Say Horseradish in Cantonese?
It is late in the day before the first Seder. I am not having guests until the next evening and I stop to marvel at how organized my kitchen looks. Nearly everything is ready. I climb onto my kitchen counter to get our Seder plate from the cabinets up top (life in Hong Kong often means finding interesting ways to deal with space).
I place it on the table in the dining room and my son asks if he can place the small dishes around it. As he does, he reads the words out loud while I climb on yet another counter top to rescue my Passover placemats.
I hear him in the background: karpas, charoset, zeroah, marror… When suddenly it occurs to me, I have forgotten horseradish!
Now in my defense, I have returned from a quick work-related trip to New York in the last week, celebrated my older son’s bar mitzvah and am entertaining my parents and my husband’s parents who are both in town.
I leap down from the countertop and yell to our amah (housekeeper), “I’ve got to run. I have forgotten the horseradish.”
To which she responds, “The JCC closes early today. You can get marror at the wet market.”
If I had time, I would stop to marvel at the fact that, though she isn’t Jewish and is from the Philippines, she has just referred to horseradish as marror.
I put on my running shoes which are kept outside the door as this will need to be a literal run down Central and back.
I head straight to the Graham Street Market. Unfortunately, I run into a friend along the way and lose five minutes. I opt to run down a cross street to avoid some of the pedestrian congestion in the outdoor street market in order to make up for my lost five minutes.
My running looks strange but as a Westerner in Hong Kong, I have given up on not looking strange long ago.
While my choice to avoid the area most congested by old ladies overladen with plastic bags who slowly saunter down the road, inspecting goods and haggling over prices, was wise but risky. I have to run through the narrow street where the butcher shops are. A large battered truck roles by forcing me onto the sidewalk and into the line of fire of men who hack away at unidentifiable meats and carelessly send splatters of bits into the air, which I take care to avoid. Twelve years here and I am still not sure why there are black chickens but now is not the time to ask.
The truck door springs open as I pass. I can’t help but glance in. That was a mistake. I am vegetarian, kosher and have read Charlotte’s Web more than once.
My gasps, shock and horror at seeing the giant carcasses inside has now cost me another two minutes. A man inside one of the stalls reaches for a hose and begins to wash away the waste from his shop. Brackish water and bits begin to race towards me. I regain my focus and leap over the water in the direction of Graham Street.
Hose water from the other direction quickly gets me back on track while the two butchers duel it out.
On Graham Street and away from the meat, I head to the stall I usually stop at first. I race in and grab a fistful of parsley (it can’t hurt to have more). I glance around at the produce. I don’t see horseradish anywhere.
As I thrust my parsley onto the counter, I look at the woman and say, “horseradish.”
She looks at me quizzically. I do tend to speak rather quickly, so I repeat it again. This was most definitely not the problem.
I try to describe it to her. I find myself essentially playing a game of charades with the two women behind the counter and two women who happen to be in the shop.
While I do love a good game of charades and have played many impromptu games when trying to communicate here, I am really short on time.
Pointing to a radish while “neighing” seems like it won’t get me what I need. I even resort now to saying the word marror and contemplate singing part of the Four Questions but am doubtful that will help me either.
While one does pick up some Cantonese as a natural consequence of living here (though foreigners generally only study Mandarin), words seem to be limited to greetings, numbers, addresses, bathroom, water, garbage and other basics. I assure you that the word for horseradish is not on a rudimentary vocabulary list.
The game of charades, while mildly entertaining to me and apparently enthralling to them, gets me nowhere.
I pull out my phone and google a photo of horseradish. They all seem to recognize this and direct me two blocks down the street to an old woman, describing what she looks like in great detail. I thank them and race down the road abandoning my extra parsley. I am hopeful. I reach the corner and find a woman who meets their collective, rather unflattering, description. I scan her stall of dried Chinese medicines; this most definitely was not a step in the right direction.
I make eye contact with a man at an adjacent stall and essentially repeat my game of charades. I do this again and again covering all five stalls on the block. I am sent in one direction or another. I am always hopeful each time I see a nod or glimmer of recognition at the photo.
While leaping over a brackish puddle to the next street, I google the word for horseradish.
I give up on speaking and on charades at the next two stalls and instead present my phone screen. A fellow shopper looks at the screen.
“What are you looking for? ”
I show her the Chinese characters.
“What is this?”
“Laaht gan,” I say, which unbeknownst to me just means “spicy root.”
“No, but what exactly are you looking for?”
I again offer the characters on the phone screen and repeat, “spicy root.”
She looks perplexed.
“Spicy root,” I repeat.
“I know that. That is what it says.”
Apparently, when you google horseradish in Cantonese, the word for spicy root comes up. Six stalls later, I will tell you that there are many spicy roots on offer. I am offered the same odd-looking Thai root several times. Apparently, the characters Spicy Root are not helpful.
Exacerbated, I call my husband and explain the story to him.
I am now joined by the women from stall one, apparently amused by my quest. They clearly do not have to make it to a Seder this evening.
My husband says to me, “You know it technically doesn’t even have to be horseradish.”
“Yes,” I respond, “but I have little time for a discussion of Mishnah. Besides I am firmly rooted in tradition. Pun intended,” because there is always time for an attempt at wit.
My husband puts me on hold while he goes to ask his secretary for help.
He gets back on the phone and says, “Got it. She even wrote it out, I am sending you a photo of the paper.”
“It doesn’t say spicy root, does it?” I ask.
“Yes. Spicy root, why?” he asks.
“That one doesn’t work,” I try to explain but have to run and return to my quest.
I launched a linguistics debate in my husband’s office among the Cantonese speakers that would last for the remainder of the afternoon. I have now stumped a bilingual English/Cantonese speaker.
I try two more stalls with a band of curious fellow shoppers now in tow.
I glance at my watch. That is it. Fourteen stalls and I am out of time.
“Must have your spicy root?” One of the women says to me.
“I guess not tonight.” I respond dejectedly.
“Maybe you try another recipe.”
I nod in agreement as this is not the time to begin to start to explain Pesach, Ashkenazi tradition, Judaism or retell stories of my Hungarian grandmother’s ability at a Seder to effortlessly consume handfuls of marror that would make a grown man weep.
As I head back up the hill towards home, I see one shop slightly off the main road and decide I will give it one last try, though I clearly have no expectations of success.
I dejectedly show the screen with the characters for “spicy root” and say laaht gan.
She looks at me and simply says, “Oh, you need the horseradish.” And she points to two remaining pieces on a shelf.
I pay and run home carrying it like one would with the Olympic torch.
I burst through the door and triumphantly place my spicy root on the counter.
“I did it! Victory!” I shout.
My housekeeper looks at me seemingly unimpressed and asks, “You bought it from the shop off the main road with the Nepalese girls working inside?”
Amazing, I think to myself.
“How did you know?” I ask as I begin to grate it.
“It’s the only shop that sells horseradish on Graham Street,” she responds matter of factly.
“L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim!” is all I can say in response.