[My inspiration for what follows was a similarly-titled post by The Cranky Old Man. He is very much worth reading, even if you consider that he gave me the impetus to inflict more of my words upon you and you discount that pain. Tell him I sent you. He probably won't curse you out too much.]
Chinese food. That generic descriptive, by itself, begins my tummy rumbling with a yearning to be filled to the brim (and perhaps beyond.) And it fairly much matters not a whit what specific dishes may come my way. As long as they have vaguely Asian names, I will eat them and be happy.
This is not to say that all Chinese food is equal. Far from it. Some is exquisite. Some is lackluster and mediocre. I have yet to encounter a Chinese restaurant from whose menu I would not eat, however, and that is why Chinese food is my favorite gustatory guilty pleasure.
It needn't be a "guilty" pleasure, of course, as there are quite a few healthy items on most Chinese menus. My taste, though, runs to the cheap end of the spectrum. I admit it. I delight in the sort of Chinese food that many self-styled gourmets prefer to label "Americanized Chinese". We're talking the MSG-laden and the deep-fried; the sueys and meins, whether chop or chow; the items with animal names actually containing not even a slight morsel of said animal (I'm looking at you, delicious lobster sauce!); and any mystery meat wrapped in crispy dough. I'm drooling on my keyboard even as I type.
My love of Chinese food was slow in developing. I recall being taken to a Chinese restaurant by my paternal grandparents. I might have been five or six at the time. They were taking care of me while my parents enjoyed an evening divested of my particular charm. Anyway, I wouldn't eat anything that was ordered, would barely acknowledge its existence. My Grandfather, reacting as only a very loving (or, perhaps, mellowly drunk) older relative might have, asked the chinaman to bring me a steak sandwich. The kitchen staff cooked up some slices of beef and threw them between two slices of white bread, and I nibbled on that. The other delights on the table sat there unappreciated by my as yet virgin tongue.
(Yes, I realize that "chinaman" is horribly offensive to some. I would never say it now, but that was how we talked back then. By "we", of course I mean white folk. It was hideous how we treated the staff in Chinese restaurants. My childhood friends thought nothing of sitting at a table in a public restaurant and pulling at the corners of their eyes to make them somewhat slanty, then saying something along the lines of, "Ching chow me mau fixy fixy chinky chow" or something equally enlightened. Those waiters must have been the most patient and kind-hearted people ever to walk the earth. I would have had to have gone into the kitchen, gotten a bucket of hot grease, and come back to the table and poured it over us. In our defense, we didn't know any better. Every Chinese person we had ever seen, on TV or in cartoons, was a caricature; subservient, ever-smiling, perhaps full of avuncular wisdom [Charlie Chan], but still somehow a source of humor and just slightly less human. What a retarded world we lived in back then.)
(Yes, I realize that "retarded" isn't spectacularly nice, either, but it's the most apt word I can think of for how we were, so let it stand.)
It wasn't until a couple of years later that my lifelong love affair with Chinese food began. My folks ordered some as take out and... well, My Father's palette was limited when it came to Chinese, and that probably helped make me more susceptible to the blandishments of said food. Once I actually tasted some of what he always ordered (Sweet & Sour Chicken, Egg Rolls, Fried Rice, Pork Strips) I realized it was inoffensive for the most part and, following his lead, I found out that the liberal application of duck sauce pretty much turned any dish into a candy substitute.
(I'm not kidding when I say those four dishes were what he always ordered. Not once, in my entire time on this planet with him, did he ever vary from that order.)
(No, I'm lying, but only slightly. One time, on a trip to London, we made the mistake of going into a Szechuan restaurant and expecting it to be the same as all of the Cantonese/Polynesian/Low Rent restaurants back home. He looked at the odd menu and tried ordering the things he thought would be closest to his favorites, but when the food came, he took about two bites of one dish, grimly considered the other three, and then decided that some Wimpy burgers would be a better dinner.)
(I found the Wimpy burgers delightful, by the way, until they decided to do an encore appearance a couple of hours later back in our hotel room. This is about Chinese food, though, and not the greasiest hamburgers ever served, so I'll skip the details of my technicolor yawn.)
It’s interesting, as a sociological experiment, to ask folks what they order when they get Chinese food. From my experience, even people who aren't My Father tend to order the same things over and over. And they sometimes get very defensive about their choices, too, saying, "It isn’t really Chinese food unless you order [fill in the blank]."
(I occasionally try something new, but My Father's early influence on my tastes runs strong. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've ordered Chinese without including egg rolls in the order. It might take two hands to count the number of times I've skipped the fried rice, perhaps two hands and both feet for the pork strips. I can report with satisfaction that the sweet and sour chicken has been mostly absent from my plate for thirty years, but that's only because I can't find it as we used to get it. It seems to have devolved into a bunch of chicken fingers in a sickly sweet red sauce and nothing whatsoever "sour" to be found. If I still had teeth, they would be dissolving from just thinking about that goop. Yuck.)
Until I was ten years old, I had no idea that any other types of Chinese food existed other than what My Mom and Dad ordered. Then one Saturday, after Stephen Murphy and I had attended a kiddy matinee at our local movie house (The Oriental, coincidentally enough), we found ourselves hungry and Stephen suggested we go to Cathay Village, which was just around the corner and which was also where our respective parents always bought their respective take out. On the way, we discussed what we might afford, as we each had about 75 cents. I figured that would be good enough for an egg roll, at least, but Stephen suggested we might be able to pool our money and get something called a Poo-Poo Platter. Well, of course, I laughed and laughed. Poo-Poo! There couldn’t possibly be something to eat that was named after poop! Stephen swore up and down that there was such a thing. And he was right, although I found out, from looking at the menu, that it was spelled Pu-Pu. I also found out that we couldn’t afford it, so we ended up ordering the "Businessman’s Special", which was Pork Fried Rice and an Egg Roll for 55 cents, and thus my palate was not yet truly expanded as that was basically half of what My Father always ordered. We enjoyed it immensely while making our eyes slanty and speaking in racist tongues.
(MY WIFE reminded me of a funny story concerning the ordering of the same thing every time. She worked with a fellow who always ordered from the ‘dinner specials’ section of the menu; you know, where there are plates containing three or four specific items, and you order by the number assigned to that plate? Well, anyway, without variation, this guy always ordered a number 13 from the Chinese restaurant he frequented.
One day, while out of town on business, he found himself at a local Chinese restaurant with his business associates. Without looking at the menu, he ordered special number 13. When it arrived, he found himself staring at something totally unexpected and foreign to him. It seems he was under the impression that all of the numbered dishes were the same at every Chinese restaurant in the world. He had no idea what he had just been served, either. He had to ask the waiter what it was.)
It wasn’t until I started smoking dope that I tried anything different at a Chinese restaurant. On an excursion into Boston’s Chinatown with my stoned buddies, they all ordered something called Beef & Broccoli. Not wanting to look weird, I ordered it, too. And, when it arrived, I ate it with great gusto and delight. I quickly found out, on various stoned outings to local Chinese eateries, about such treats as Chicken Chow Mein, Lobster Sauce, and Egg Fu Yung (which, for some reason, my pals all laughingly referred to as ‘brains in gravy’, and that’s what I still think of every time I see it.) Ever since those days, I’ve been an avid aficionado - and defender of - the sort of foods that are scoffed at by the cognoscenti.
The toughest one to defend in the face of scorn is, of course, lobster sauce. It contains no lobster, has never been known to adorn a lobster, and there is no way to justify calling it that other than ignorant tradition.
I once ordered from a very high-end Chinese restaurant – The Golden Temple, mentioned at the beginning of this piece - for a get together which included my good friend, Fast Freddy Goodman. The lobster sauce from that place is easily the best I have ever tasted, ambrosia-like for the true lumpy brown sauce connoisseur, and Fred pretty much concurred with that assessment when he tried it. When I informed him that the menu stated the stuff was actually "lobster infused"”, he said – with the same lifetime of knowledge concerning lobster sauce as I have – "Yeah, right. The closest a lobster has been to this is when they held one over the pot and he pissed in it." Quick comeback, and that’s why he’s called Fast Freddy. However, he was probably close to the truth. I suspect they boil lobsters for other purposes and then use some of that water for the prep of the lobster sauce. It is fantastic, in any case.
(As an aside - which this entire piece is, really, so I have no idea why I'm putting this bit in parentheses - the second-best lobster sauce in Boston and environs can be had at Tahiti in Dedham, from which place I purloined the photo of the Pu-Pu Platter. Rich, thick, dark, delightful. I am absolutely jonesing for some at this moment.)
Lobster Sauce and Fried Rice is a partnership made by God in Heaven. Egg Rolls (which, by the way, the test of a good one is generally how much cabbage is in it, with less of that vegetable and more of some sort of meat being preferred) are wonderful because you can kid yourself into thinking they are healthy, what with being comprised of much greenery, but you should ignore the fact that if you have them left over you might have to de-grease them. Spare Ribs, Chicken Wings, and Beef Teriyaki. Chicken Chop Suey. Beef Chow Yoke. Crab Rangoon (which, to my ear, always sounds like a really grouchy Asian wrestler.) General Gau’s Chicken (which I’ve seen listed on other menus as General Zau’s Chicken and General Tsao’s Chicken, so it’s either a bogus name invented to fool Americans or, as I prefer to believe, so delicious that, during some time in ancient Chinese history, three generals actually shed blood for the honor of having the dish named after them.) Won Ton Soup. That stuff that comes with not enough pancakes for you to wrap it up in (what in hell is the name of that? I honestly can't remember.) Peking Ravioli (which, if even one of those things has ever been seen within the city limits of the place whose name they bear, I'll give up Fortune Cookies for life.) Oh My God I Am So Freeeeeeeakin' Hungry Right Now!!! I'm outta here. I'm hitting the nearest joint, no matter how much it looks like the board of health must have the chef on their ten-most-wanted list.
I'll end this by asking what YOUR ‘must-have’ items are when ordering Chinese food. Don’t feel constrained to limit yourself to Cantonese or American Chinese, if that’s not your favorite style. If your taste runs to the more exotic, I’d love to hear about it. And, if the things I’ve talked about are literally foreign to you, please expound about your particular region. I have no idea, for instance, whether some of you have even the slightest notion what I'm jabbering about when I mention Lobster Sauce. If you haven’t ever had any, you’re probably healthier than I am but you are most definitely not happier.
OK, that's it. I'm gone.
Soon, with a bigger belly.
P.S. I just remembered the Seinfeld episode wherein Kramer calls to order Chinese food and instead of asking them to fix his order without MSG, as some folks request, he asks them to add extra MSG to his order. He is my hero.