What's Beef?

Visiting India as a 13-year-old was a nightmare realized. Bad things happened: being groped by skeezed-out men in crowded places, disembarking a congested train by jumping as it pulled away from the platform, traveler’s diarrhea, seeing a giant cockroach in a hotel bathroom (my first roach!), getting a bag of chips snatched from my hand by a hissing monkey, screaming at an overly persistent street vendor from a hot, cramped car, blowing smog-blackened snot from my nose in New Delhi. I can go on (but I won’t). My reaction to all of these things was very visceral: Ugh.

Read More

The Problem with Food and Authenticity, Part Two: Your Mom

There is a blog post by Lea Zeltserman I keep returning to when I think about this. She was reacting to a New York Times review of a hip, nostalgic and probably quite nice Brooklyn deli called Mile End. The kind of place that makes noodles for its kasha varnishkes by hand, because that’s the way the owner’s great-grandmother made it, and was therefore the right way. Neither would ever buy their bow tie-shaped pasta at a store.

Read More

The Problem With Food and Authenticity, Part One: The Restaurant

By Chantal Braganza

A year ago I interviewed a brilliant and incredibly nice woman named Lily about a book she wrote. It’s called Eating Chinese; a perceptive look at how Chinese-owned restaurants in Canada both invigorated the country’s restaurant industry in the early 1900’s and, in some cases, created cuisines of their own. If you’re interested in food, immigration issues and Canadian history, this is a read I would suggest. Among many things, what Lily’s book does remarkably well is make a case for North American-Chinese cooking as a legitimate cuisine. And by North American-Chinese cooking, I mean the stuff no one ever thinks of as “authentic” anymore: egg rolls, chop suey, sweet & sour and moo shoo pork.

With time, our ideas in this part of the world about what food is change. Fifty years ago we’d go on dates and bring our kids to restaurants with such sino-colourful names as Gold Mountain or Red Dragon, awkwardly slurp a bowl of egg foo yong with these newfangled things called chopsticks and tell ourselves we were eating something exotic—the way everyone, every person, from all over the most populated country in the world, ate at home in China.

By the late nineties, and definitely now, to certain types of food lovers there is no such thing as Chinese (and yes, rightly so). There’s Szechuan, Hong Kong and Hunan, sure. Double points if you can pin what you’re eating to a specific city. Triple if the person who made it is actually from there.

Lily told me funny research stories about poring over archived menus, photos, even grocery orders while working on the thesis that later became a book. None of these made it to the story, which was kind of a shame.

One time, she looked at the grocery orders from a migrant Chinese cook who worked for a wealthy family in Alberta a long time ago. I never wrote down when. It wasn’t in a major city, so he would have had to send out orders weekly for the household’s food. She looked at what the cook was ordering and could figure out what kind of dishes the cook was making based on the ingredients. When more vinegar was being ordered, more sweet and sour dishes were happening. Bell peppers and onions for improvised stir-fries were a common occurrence. As with a number of Chinese restaurant owners who by the Second World War no longer felt they had to serve canned spaghetti and hot beef sandwiches to stay in business, this cook was simply using ingredients available with techniques he knew to make what he could.

“What’s so interesting about these kinds of Chinese restaurants,” Lily told me, “is that they take what that question of ‘What is Chinese?’ reveals, and they give it back to them. They say, well, ‘Here’s what you think real Chinese food is, and this is what we think you want.’ They were incredibly perceptive, these restaurant owners, at reading the communities they were in, and giving back to people a version of it.”

And you know what? That version’s actually pretty great if you know where to go. Try the chicken balls at China Gourmet, and tell me I’m wrong.

Insensitive to Gluten

I’ve seen my mother on the brink of death. It was my first and only visit to El Salvador. I was nine years old.

We’d gone out to dinner at a restaurant that specialized in fruits from the sea. My mother ate a stew of mariscos. Seafood medley in a bowl, essentially. She’d been told she was allergic to shellfish in the past, but one little rash and slightly laboured breathing wasn’t enough to stop her. Shrimp is just that good.

Read More

Khao Swe

Khao swe. It’s one of those lyrical food words I enjoy most. Like rooh afza, which is a rose syrup mixed with milk or water. Or sashimi and Darjeeling. Khao swe is a Burmese dish made with noodles and chicken in a spicy coconut milk broth. In my family, my mother and her sister make khao swe on special occasions. My mom’s is slightly spicier and her sister’s somewhat tempered, kind of like their respective temperaments. My mom’s is also always more pungent, which is the way I’ve grown to like it. They both garnish it with spring onions, cilantro and green chilies and drizzle lime for some added zest.

Read More

Ghost Men Like Dumplings, Too

Gold Stone Noodle Restaurant on Spadina has been the source of my weekly Chinese food fix since before I can remember. When I started going there, it was a homely Chinatown hub that served up a cheap abundance of Southern Chinese delights. These days, it’s the same homely hub with the same delights, for only slightly more money. Over the years, I’ve developed that sought-after server-customer relationship: I say “the usual,” she brings me a steaming bowl of noodle soup with succulent Sui Kau dumplings stuffed with shrimp, pork and black fungus, alongside a light green bulb of bok choy and thick slices of barbecued pork and duck.

Read More