I think I’ve mentioned it before but if I haven’t: I really miss Chinese food. Country Chinese just doesn’t cut it. It’s ok once in a while, like when I’m feeling nostalgic for the food I ate at Chinese restaurants as a child: the sweet and sour that looked radioactive, ‘combination’ chow mein, beef and black bean, lazy susans, back pages of menus that listed ‘Australian’ meals of steaks and chips. They probably knew what they were doing. Not everyone would embrace the food. There would invariably be someone who turned up their nose at the bright red sauces and the battered pieces of goodness-knows-what, not for reasons of taste but to demand something with which their palate was familiar. As kids we used to wonder why you would turn your nose up at Chinese. You would have to be mad.
Some adults went too far in the opposite direction, wearing their imitation cheongsams in an embarrassing attempt to…do I don’t know what. Fit in? Send them up? When in Rome? Who knows. Whatever they were doing seemed denigrating and small.
As kids a big treat for us was to go to the food halls in Chinatown when we visited relatives in Sydney. Usually we would end up eating from the “all you can cram on a plate” buffets because it was all so good and we didn’t want to miss anything. And probably because it was food like that we were used to in the country. And then there was the bbq pork. Dad used to buy a kilo or so and we’d sit in the back of the Kombi, Mum doling it out on pieces of paper. We’d demand more and guzzle and fight until it was gone and we’d be at Hornsby on our way back up the coast. Our parting gift from Sydney.
It wasn’t until I was older that I began to appreciate the finer tastes of pure, exhilirating wonton soup, rice cooked in stock and served with various bits of bbq and roast meats and steamed chicken with ginger and shallots. Simple dishes with strong and honest flavours that I used to calm and comfort myself at some points, indulge and wallow in at others. (I’m talking Chinese here so I won’t even mention my love affair with pho).
When I moved closer to Ashfield I became more appreciative of buns, dumplings and dim sum in general. A few times I walked out of yet another Chinese joint in Ashfield knowing I’d overdone it. It’s just hard to resist. When I left Sydney I knew it was the dumpling houses of Ashfield that I would miss immediately. And I did.
The other day though I found a restaurant that is approaching those I used to visit in Sydney. The staff speak very little English. They have a choice of over 30 dim sum, including dumplings, buns and green onion pie. They give you tea when you sit down. They play suitably bad 80s music (Roxette was churning away when I visited). The excitement I felt when I stumbled upon it was embarrassing.
The first time I went in I ordered some Shanghai vegetable and pork buns to takeaway. I wanted to try them to make sure they were real. It was lunch and I had an hour. I ordered, figuring I would get the food within ten minutes. I sat there for 15 minutes in which time there were various problems with food orders. There were four floor staff standing at the counter pointing at menus, at customers, looking at what they had written on their pieces of paper. Of course, I couldn’t understand what they were saying, except that things weren’t going as smoothly as they would hope. A customer, frustrated at overhearing their discussions, started translating for them.
When they started another discussion and were pointing at me I knew there was a problem. Two of them came over and told me that there was an issue: my buns had been given to another table and they had started eating them. The waitress mimed putting a bun in her mouth and chomping up and down. I looked around the restaurant and saw an older lady biting into a bun and nodding at her friend. They said they would cook more. When I asked how long the first waitress looked at me searchingly then looked at her colleague who translated what I had said. I said no, sorry, I had to go back to work. They offered to give me the buns uncooked and started to give me instructions for cooking them at home. I declined, knowing I could no doubt cock it up. So I left and no doubt they thought I would not be back. I wasn’t going to give in that easily. I was intrigued.
I went back today and ordered the same buns and some short soup. They recognised me. The waitress who had last time been given the job of telling me my food was being eaten by someone else rushed off without giving me a menu. She was back in a flash with a freshly made cup of instant coffee, a silver cup of sugar and a silver jug of milk. On the house she said. I looked sideways at the table next to me, they had tea. I had been commanded to enjoy my coffee, I didn’t have the guts to ask them to bring me some green tea instead.
The buns were soft and bouncy, but not too much. They tasted just the way I thought they would. I had two and couldn’t move. When I got back to work I was so full I was almost puffing and my colleague asked if I’d been running. No, it’s probably not good for me but I don’t care.
(Update: Thanks to Zoe for taking this and running with it over at Progressive Dinner Party).