Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Chinese Food

[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.]

[Photo from the website of The Golden Temple, without doubt the best Chinese restaurant in Greater Boston. I have no idea what this appetizer is, but I am absolutely certain it's delicious.]

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.


joeh said...

I am honored. Now I'm hungry, but i've got left overs from last week...another great thing about Chinese.

Now I have to go work on a post about softball.

Cranky old man

Anonymous said...

I only discovered Chinese (and other Asian food) in my 20s, so I'm way later than you. I haven't had Chinese in ages though. I tend to go for Vietnamese these days...

Jenny Woolf said...

I get an allergic rash when I eat chinese or Japanese and also something about it tastes strange to me, (which might be my body warning me that I will come out in a rash) so I wasn't exactly with you in your descriptions of the food but I was definitely accompanying you on the journey thru your memory and shaggy-dog thoughts. Do you have that expression in the US? Hope so, and you don't think shaggy dog is another kind of Chinese food. I believe it is some other nation from the Far East that eats dogs, isn't it? And I am not sure that "Far East" isn't another of those expressions people shouldn't use now, because it's far east of what? Australia? Borneo?

Now, Indian food is a different story. Do you like that? I really love it.

Buck said...

The Second Mrs. Pennington and I ate a LOT o' Chinese food in London in the early '80s, mainly coz British cuisine (if you could call it that) hadn't evolved much beyond bangers and mash. (It has evolved since that time. The last time I was in London was in the mid- to late- '90s and there were some spectacular restaurants there at the time. I can only imagine it's gotten better.)

I don't have a favorite dish when it comes to Chinese (I'm all over the map... err... menu), but I have a favorite style: Szechuan. I was also lucky enough to eat Chinese food in Beijing, where my hosts (the client) treated me to a genuine Chinese banquet. TSMP and I could hardly walk to the car after that extravaganza... it was an all-night affair.

Suldog said...

Jenny - Yes, "shaggy dog" is an apt description and one that is used over here :-)

Craig said...

Sweeeeeeet, Sully. And sour. . .

A group of guys at work used to make weekly lunch runs to a Chinese buffet (which had a name like 'The Emerald Garden', or somesuch, but we just called it 'The Chinese Buffet')

I could eat a whole meal composed of nothing but egg rolls (the more shrimp, the better), and that nose-clearing mustard sauce.

I'm also a fan of the Crab Rangoon, and those little dumplings that look like ravioli, and have this delicious spiced-chicken filling. And Hot-and-sour soup (especially if it has the long, stringy mushrooms in it).

On the entree-level stuff, I would just sort of peruse the steam trays, to find something with mushrooms and bamboo shoots and pea-pods in it, and no baby-corn. Or spicy-hot (but that starts moving toward the Szechuan and/or Thai places). Shrimp, chicken, beef, I didn't care (not a big fan of the pork, tho).

And, @Jenny - I LUUUUUVVVVV Indian food. Throw the rest away; just give me Indian. Love those spices. . .

And have you seen the latest Korean cookbook? '101 Ways to Wok Your Dog'. . .

messymimi said...

Being the weird eater that i am, if i find myself in an Oriental restaurant of any sort, i ask for nothing but vegetables stir fried in a bit of sesame oil and soy sauce. My Sweetie and sons, however, will eat anything there that doesn't eat them first.

Stephen Hayes said...

Now you've made me drool on my keyboard for an order of General Tsao's chicken, and I don't care whose army he fought for. I've tried to make this dish but it's rather complicated; can't get that crunchy exterior.

Jenn Flynn-Shon said...

Generally we always get appetizers (Peking ravs, egg roll), most important is crab rangoon (best in Mass is Changhai in Lexington - worth the drive!) and usually one rotating dinner item (Generals, cashew chicken...).

We moved out here to Phoenix & let's just say Chinese food is a little different than in Boston. When we had some friends out to visit one of them ordered a pu-pu platter and was dismayed to discover it was about 1/2 the size of what he was used to and it had no chicken fingers or spare ribs in sight. The lack of chicken fingers and his frustration over it became the joke of the night. I can never order a pu-pu platter without laughing now and it isn't even for the obvious reason!

Uncle Skip, said...

Sully - as soon as you mentioned duck sauce I started laughing, remembering Cranky's post.
There isn't much in the way of Chinese food, Mandarin, Cantonese, Szhezuan, you name it, that I don't at least try today. Though, as a kid, I'd have preferred a hot dog or grilled cheese.

Uncle Skip, said...

I'll probably have to look at a menu to remember all of the dishes I like, but I won't forget where I actually acquired my taste for Chinese.
I used to spend about one weekend a month with distant relations to a cousin, by marriage (not mine) when I was stationed at Pearl Harbor many years ago. It was a tradition to go out for dinner on Sunday to a local Chinese restaurant in Kaimuki called Fong Fong Chop Suey. There were always at least seven or eight of us and everyone ordered their favorite item from the menu, or it seemed like it anyway. That way there was ample opportunity to try a little of everything. The Chinese family who operated the restaurant were good friends and always had time to explain various menu items.
About the only bad experience I had was with some ginger chicken, ;when I got some ginger instead of chicken. That stuff will make your nose run and eyes water.

Hilary said...

Yum! We have a great Chinese buffet where you we taste a little bit of dozens of different dishes. But when ordering in, my must-haves include an egg roll with plum sauce, chicken fried rice and honey garlic spare ribs (mostly for the sauce which goes great with the rice). We always tend to order one or two favourites each, and one or two items new to us. Of course is we love that item, we can never remember which one it was, last time.

Ami said...

I am soooo allergic to MSG. I toss ballast from both ends and get a six to eight day migraine.

So enjoy your next Chinese meal for me, m'kay?


Cleary Squared said...

The best Chinese food that existed, at least in my view, was Chef Chang's House in Brookline.

Every time I came home for the weekend in college from UMass Dartmouth, I would make a bee-line for there. $5 (in 1993 - when it closed in 2010 is was around $8) bought a huge plate of sweet and sour chicken, with freshly cut veggies, pineapple, and cherries. For a college kid with very little spending money, it was a giant treat away from the college food.

Liane's was the standard in Hyde Park - both when it was on Hyde Park Avenue and then after it moved to River Street; King's House was better but much more expensive. Now that I'm in West Roxbury, PuPu Chinese (on Centre St) is very good.

silly rabbit said...

I love Chinese and other Asian dishes. Its also my favorite sort of restaurant if I go out to eat.
I like everything I've tried for the most part.

But recently I have developed a passion for the Chicken Chow Mien I used to get as a kid. The kind that was mostly bean sprouts, celery and onions over Hong Kong Style pan fried noodles. The kind of noodles that are not cooked with the veggies or mixed in... they come in a separate box and sometimes are a bit scorched together, which is my favorite part. Of course once you pull the noodles onto your plate and ladle the chow mien over them, then you can busy yourself mixing them together if you want and twirl it all onto your fork. YUM!
I love this dish so much that I have learned how to cook it, the noodles and egg foo yon myself. Mmmmmm... I make a mean fried rice and egg drop soup too.
Wow. I am so hungry now! Great post!

silly rabbit said...

lol You guys really were awful weren't you? We didn't do that sort of thing. My mother's knuckle would have sent stars into the tops of our heads!
But my father worked in an area of town where there was a melting pot of cultures... cheap rent area. He delighted in meeting his neighbors there and sampling their foods... which lead to friendships. I can't recall a time when I did not know Asian, Armenian, Black, Greek or Italian folk and others too once I was about four years old. They were just the neighbors there. My grandfather was a total bigot, but my parents sheltered us from him as much as possible. Ironically, the older my father has become, the more he seems to lean toward his father's bigotry now.

Jackie said...

Jim...I honestly think that you can see from your computer screen into my kitchen! Paul and I had Chinese food last night for supper (do you say "supper" for your evening meal..or "dinner" ..?)
Anyhoo, our evening meal of the day was take out from Lin's Garden. We had Sesame Chicken with House Fried Rice and Egg Rolls. (Of course, don't forget the fortune cookie!) They always give us so much that we eat more than one meal from it. Hence: dinner today!) :))
I've never tried Lobster Sauce. My bad, eh.
Great blog, my friend.

flutterby said...

I personally enjoy a good Vegetable Fresh Roll with Thai Peanut Sauce.

Once you get past the feeling that you have a rather large, slightly floppy penis in hand, it's actually quite good. lol

Maggie May said...

I love Chinese food and Harry and I have a Chinese take away every Saturday.
Maggie X

Nuts in May

Cricket said...

My dad and yours have a lot in common.

For me it's hot & sour soup, maybe some ma po tofu, any sort of dumpling at all, but I'm kind of partial to the szechuan wontons. Hot, basically.

I like all the standard fare, too, though not quite as much.

One night on "Millionaire..." Regis gave the following choices for the question: which is the name of a popular Chinese menu item?

a) Pu Pu Platter
b) Du Du Deluxe
c) Ka Ka Kombo
d) The Grand Canyon

Ok. I made that last one up, but not the first 3.

Candy's daily Dandy said...

Golden Temple is the BEST! There's a place in Sudbury called Lotus Blossom that gives them a run for their money.

SueAnn Lommler said...

My hubby, when he was a wee chinese food virgin..ordered spaghetti!!
It was watery and bland...he gagged it down! Ha
Loved this piece...great fun

Daryl Edelstein said...

Toonman always orders shrimp fried rice, egg roll, wonton soup and beef with broccoli ... always ... come visit and we'll to Hunan Cottage (which as a child my friend's son call HUMAN Cottage)

Cricket said...

p.s. - most of the restaurants in Chinatown keep the MSG on the table in a shaker, should you want to go for extra. Srsly.

Karen said...

I like Chinese food, but a couple times a year will do it for me. I end up ordering something with shrimp and always some kind of noodles - then I'm happy for another 6 months.

Michelle H. said...

I'm not sure if anyone answered your question on what the Chinese food is that has the pancakes, but it is Moo Shu.

Chinese food order: Chicken Lo Mein, Shrimp fried rice, and eggrolls. I am also a fan of chicken broccoli.

I'm also into Thai: Pad Thai, chicken satay. I don't mind ordering new stuff to try out.

Craig said...

My kids LUUURRVV the Hunan Chicken. There's a Chinese take-out place near us, that'll sell you a giant lasagna-pan of the stuff for, like, $25. We get one of those things about every other month. . .

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Anonymous said...

You pretty much know my favorites. I'm always up for a buffet. Haven't been to one in quite some time (hint.hint)

I do have a story about a Chinese wedding I attended. They served birdnest soup, which I understand is quite a delicacy and EXPENSIVE.

Well, somehow mine got spilled all over my dress. What a mess!! It was the gooeyest soup I have ever seen in my life.

IT (aka Ivan Toblog) said...

Moo shu pork ...for the image it congers up
Broccoli beef or Mongolian beef
Kung pao chicken
Cashew shlimp shrimp

Ya made me hungry ...twice

the fly in the web said...

When I was a student in London there was a Chinese restaurant behind the Swiss centre whose menu featured - in translation - tangerine flavoured, long simmered ox penis.
None of us could afford it...well, that was our excuse.

Joanna Jenkins said...

Your dad sounds a lot like mine when it came to Chinese food. He only ever ordered 4 things too! Fortunately I spent time in San Francisco and was introduced to "real" Chinese food. Now I'm a total junkie!

Jeni said...

I will chow down on just about any kind of Asian cuisine! It's been years since I have ordered a meal at a Chinese establishment though as the closest place to us serving Chinese dishes is a buffet place and I love it mainly because I get a plate loaded with a little of this, a little of that several times in my first pass through. (And I wonder why I have a weight problem, huh?) My daughter and I don't get to go to that place very ofte these days though because the grand kids will only eat the pudding on the dessert buffet but the place still charges us for a full meal price for each of them and I'm not paying $8 per child for them to have a bowl of chocolate pudding! Now you have made me hungry for oriental food too and doing that to me when it is 1:30 in the a.m. is just wrong!

i beati said...

I wish I could understand why it is a darn sight better when ordered as take out or home delivery !!A hit every time !!

rhea said...

I always order hot and sour soup. I have a mental encyclopedia of all the hot and sours I've ever eaten.

Anonymous said...

Chicken in Foil, Chicken Fried Rice, and Chicken Chow Mein. Always! :)

lime said...

well i am late to dinner but i almost always get chicken and cashews and i ask for it to be made spicy. crab rangoons and spring rolls are also yummy. not a fan of egg rolls but i love a good spring roll. i have to say i am a bigger fan of thai food than of chinese food though and when i was last in your fine city my cousin introduced me to vietnamese food and i thought that was quite yummy too!

lime said...

i am also a fan of veggie lo mein, fried rice, and sweet & sour chicken if the sauce isn't overly sweet.

Mich said...

...You beat me to it; I was going to quote The Big Lebowski when you said "Chinaman."

I never thought about that--pretty much everyone I know (myself included) orders the same thing every time they get Chinese.
Except at P.F. Chang's. Do you have those by you? FREAKING DELICIOUS.