Some Like It Hot

Indian food is the best kind of food.

These aren’t my words but those of my mother. All my life, as I substituted salads for her cooking in an attempt to lose weight, she’d convince everyone at the table that I would never achieve my desired results until I started eating Indian food for every meal, every day. So, I rebelled, completely ditching my diet. I asked my dad, who was more open to a multicultural palette, if we could eat somewhere non-Indian.

I took my parents to eat some Thai, which has slightly similar flavours to Indian. My mum said she could make it at home. I took my parents to Chili’s to have some nachos. My mum said she could make it at home. I took my parents out for pasta at the best Italian restaurant in town. My mum said she could make it at home. I snapped. I challenged my mum to forego her regular schedule of cooking daal and rice to baking a batch of nachos. What happened next blew my mind.

Read More

You Can't Make Me: The Grinch Who Endures Christmas

Denise Balkissoon wishes she wasn’t so tortured about Christmas, but she is. “My Muslim relatives began to make the religious pilgrimage to Mecca. They became much more devout, and there went half my presents. Meanwhile, my Christian, Hindu and agnostic relatives realized that the size of our family was bankrupting everyone. There went the other half….Soon, putting up the (fake) tree just seemed like work. One year, we decorated a plant in the hallway instead.”

Read More

Missin' Mississauga

Missin' Mississauga

Romantic nostalgia for the 905? Yes indeed, via Chantal Braganza: "Want to watch 25-year-olds live out their 2001 dreams of The Fast and the Furious in neon-lit cars with wire spoilers? Wendy’s, Hurontario and Britannia. Or some helmeted daredevil stand on the handles of a motorcycle as he (or she, never found out) rips down Dundas at 140 km/h? Tim Hortons, Dundas and Winston Churchill. Make-out point? Wherever you could park a car." 

Read More

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

Top Ten Assumptions I Make Because I'm From Hong Kong

By Simon Yau

Oh sure, everybody knows that people make generalisations about other people based on ethnicity. I’m supposed to be good at math, for example, or be able to run atop a cedar forest (which I totally can do).

I’m not here to throw a pity party though. Let’s face it, we’re all human, we all make assumptions. So here are 10 things I take for granted about other people just because of where I’m from.

1) People know what HK is

What, you mean you don’t refer to Hong Kong by its initials? I thought that was a universally accepted colloquialism, like A.C. or the P.R.C. Maybe I should have just named this point “Chinese people love acronyms”.

2) Not everybody eats all of an animal

Sure, people might think I’m weird when I say I eat tripe or chicken feet on the regular. But you know what? If your entire diet consists of items I can order at a Firkin pub, I’m judging you just as much — so, you know. We’re square.

3) People have heard of ‘Infernal Affairs’

That’s INFERNAL with an F. What the heck is a Departed anyways?

4) Everyone is tiny

I make this assumption because in Canada, I buy clothes sized XS and they fit me perfectly. In Hong Kong, I am a size XL. That kind of disparity will confuse a dude.

5) Cups are redundant

True story: until about grade 10, my house had no cups. We only had mugs. I mean, I guess my parents figured why have separate vessels for hot and cold liquids when you could drink both out of a mug perfectly well? And the weird part is all my friends had no cups either! I swear cups weren’t in vogue amongst Hong Kong immigrants until 1997. I will believe this until the day I die.

6) Instant Noodles are an acceptable breakfast food

I’ve touched on this before in Ask a Chinese Person, but eating instant noodles will not make you a social pariah in Hong Kong. If you are scarfing down pre-packaged Beef Flavoured Ramen noodles at 9am, it does not signify that you need to get your shitty life together or that you’re still living like a college student. It means you are having a delicious brunch, particularly with a raw egg and some spam. Bon appetit.

7) Girls expect to be doted on

Speaking of generalisations, I feel I can safely say that in Hong Kong dating culture, men are… how shall we put this delicately… whipped? It’s very common to see a dude carrying his girl’s Gucci purse around the mall for her, even when she has nothing in her hands. Or standing beside her in a clothing store while she picks out dresses while holding her shopping bags. It’s weird. But it’s true.

8) Pizza Hut is a classy dinner

Ok, FIRST OFF, in HK people like thousand island dressing on their pizza. SECONDLY, Pizza Hut is a classy joint over there. I mean, it’s the same Pizza Hut, but it’s not the equivalent of Pizza Hut here, if that makes any sense. It has the cache of say, The Keg. It would be fine to take your parents to Pizza Hut for their birthday. So reverse that and imagine going somewhere The Keg was considered junk? Culture shock!

9) Parents do not show affection towards each other

Unless you mean helping each other do chores around the house. But no joke, I have never seen my parents kiss. Ever. Unless they were just accidentally head butting each other in the face reaching for the same item from the car cubby.

10) All kids live at home as long as they want

When I found out Western parents encouraged their kids to move out, I was blown away. If my folks had things their way, we’d be like a farm house with all my siblings raising their children in the same building. As it were, living at home into your 30′s is completely typical amongst many people I know. It’s cost efficient you know — mortgages are for the weak.