Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Chinese Food 1: First is Best

"What is it about the Asians
That fascinates Caucasians?"

lyric from "Message from a Nightingale", The Drowsy Chaperone

During the tense years running up to the "Red Chinese" takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, a wave of rather prosperous Asian immigrants flocked to our shores and nested in Toronto and Vancouver, "just in case".  I had the pleasure of teaching many of their children, some of whom were often left to fend for themselves while their parents flew back and forth across the Pacific, maintaining a perch in each camp, to mix a metaphor.  Back then, there was a genuine concern that prosperity, enterprise and even fine dining would be eradicated at the 'handover'.  It seemed like a logical theory, given the austerity suffered on the mainland during the previous decades.

(Who knew that, instead, 'consumption' would become the new mantra (do the Chinese have mantras?) and we would all soon be eating out of the rice bowls of the revolutionaries? But enough politics).

Back to the menu for today: Chinese cuisine.  Toronto has always enjoyed an excellent roster of Chinese restaurants.  Back in my childhood, we devoured what was later described to me by an esteemed Asian Maitre d' as 'railway food', cuisine favoured by the many exploited Chinese immigrant workers who built the railways that gave Gordon Lightfoot inspiration for his moving ditty, "Canadian Railway Trilogy". Delicacies like chow mein, barbecued ribs and sweet and sour anything, deep fried in batter and drenched in a gooey, sweet red sauce, were available in almost every neighbourhood, not just way downtown at Spadina and Dundas, Toronto's very own Chinatown.  Many Jewish families would often dine together regularly at a local spot.  For example, every Sunday night, lines of starving Forest Hillers formed outside China House or the House of Chan, two establishments which faced off from each other across Eglinton Avenue.  (In spite of their lengthy popularity, they are falling under the shovel of developers, even as I write).  On very special occasions, like the day you came home from summer camp, you might trek all the way downtown to Lichee Gardens to celebrate your return to civilization. (Civilization, to Jews, meant Chinese food, of course).

So I heard.

Not my family!.....we were too poor (or cheap) to go out to dinner much in those days.  My father was a musician and, between the daylong rehearsals and live evening TV broadcasts, the poor guy had to dine out almost every night with his bandmates at assorted steak houses downtown, so he was never interested in anything but a home cooked meal on the occasional night off.  My mother rarely had the initiative or even the cash to take us anywhere....and besides, in those olden days, we only had one car, so how were we to escape our suburban tract in the hinterlands of North York?

Fortunately, there was still 'takeout', so while my friends gave me reviews of such delicacies as honey garlic ribs and shrimps in lobster sauce, I had to content myself with watching for the delivery guy from the Cantonese Terrace, ripping open the heavy brown paper bag and battling for my share of cooled off egg rolls, beef chow mein, sweet and sour chicken balls with pineapple, steamed rice and the occasional won ton, all tasting predominantly of the small paper containers they came in.   Same menu, every time.  After dinner, we'd all break open our tasteless fortune cookies, read the puzzling contents and toss both into the garbage.

As with many other things about life, I suspected I was missing out on something significant.

Imagine my delight when, as a young bride, we were invited by my husband's agent, a Chinese food aficionado, to literally, round out his table at a banquet in honour of the Chinese New Year at Toronto's renowned "Sai Woo", in the heart of Chinatown.  A dozen assorted actors, actresses (they were differentiated in those days) and writers...and me, settled like a Caucasian island in the China Sea around a huge circular table.  In the centre of this table was a Lazy Susan to facilitate the distribution of the various dishes to the surrounding vultures. After a few multi-lingual welcomes and a fundraising pitch for a senior's home, the first dish was paraded in, with great reverence and ceremony.  It was a lobster extravaganza, and, as it spun around the centre of the table, each guest took a tiny amount.  The rationale was 'to save room', as the meal was rumoured to be composed of many courses.

My inclinations were, however, somewhat different.

"Lobster!"  I thought.  "What could be better than this?"  I took a generous helping and then, when  Susan spun around again to offer seconds, and the rest of the party shook their heads with regret, I graciously offered to clean the platter so it could be removed for the next course.
Platters piled high with shrimp prepared several ways followed and, again, portions were meted out delicately, followed by another round of comments expressing restraint.  Once again, I pitched in and, not wanting to insult the chefs, polished of what was left by the experts.

I was starting to lose my appetite.

To make a deliciously long story short, each subsequent course, although delightful and nutritious, seemed to be less unusual and, frankly, more economical, proceeding downwards from mundane chicken and pork to ubiquitous noodles and rice.  I was only able to snack on these dishes, while my table mates grabbed what they could, since, as I previously noted, they had 'saved themselves'.  They were ravenous.  I didn't like the way they were looking at me, remembering, I suppose, that I was stuffed with lobster and shrimp.

From this experience, I learned, early on, that when you see something you like, you shouldn't wait for something better to come along.  Sometimes, things don't improve with age.

Except me and you, of course......

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