Signature dish

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2012, 9:49am

A couple of weeks ago, a little beagle came sniffing around me. Normally, I would be on my knees attempting to pet the dog, which is one of my favourite breeds. This time, I stared at it, hoping that if I concentrated hard enough, it would just go away.

The dog was being led around by a customs official at Los Angeles airport, and it was sniffing my bags for contraband items. I had packed a fair amount of food for my parents and relatives: dried scallops, dried mushrooms and fried lotus seeds.

None of it, to my knowledge, was contraband. The problem is that the US changes its list of illicit products so often that I never know from one trip to the next if what I'm bringing in is still legal.

After questioning me about what the beagle had found in my luggage that was so interesting, the customs official went away without making me open my bags.

I've never smuggled food into the US - smuggling is, by definition, a deliberate attempt to bring in illegal items.

I have been caught with food that I had to throw in the bin, such as pork floss and prawn crackers from Thailand,
laap yuk (Chinese bacon) and Yunnan ham. But because I had declared these on the customs form, I wasn't fined. I wouldn't have tried to bring them into the US if I had known they were going to make me throw them away.

But often, the list of illegal items doesn't make sense. Why, for instance, have I been able to import
laap cheung (Chinese wind-dried sausages) but not
laap yuk?

Visiting people abroad can be a trial when it comes to gifts.

When I went to France in July, I packed lychees at the request of a friend. I worried about it, because we weren't sure if it was legal to bring fresh fruit into the EU. But nobody at customs asked me any questions or checked my luggage.

I know that when travelling to Australia, it's best not to bring in any food at all. They'll just make you throw it away. It's understandable, because they want to ensure that the continent is safeguarded against the intrusion of non-native wildlife, which they worry will decimate the native plants and animals.

But the officials tend to treat people like criminals, asking the same thing over and over again, thinking that they'll trick you into admitting something.

After a holiday, it's such a relief to come back to Hong Kong, where the only prohibited items (that I know of) are raw meat and plants with soil.

When I'm getting ready for the return trip home, I pack my bags without worrying.