One of my first orders of business after settling into boarding school was to find the closest Chinese restaurant to my school. Like most Hong Kong kids, I love indulging in unhealthy but gratifying fast-food such as pizza and burgers. But a steady stream of this American fare in my boarding school diet left me with a desire for a taste of home.
Thus, when an American student in my dorm suggested ordering some delivery from a local Chinese restaurant one weekend, I enthusiastically joined in.
“What kind of Chinese food is it?” I asked him.
“Just regular Chinese food. They have dumplings, scallion pancakes, rice, beef, pork, pretty much everything.”
That sounded pretty appetising. I placed my order and eagerly awaited its arrival, excited for my taste buds to be temporarily transported back to Hong Kong.
But when the food came, it looked all wrong. The scallion pancakes were deep-fried to the point of no return, and tasted like they had been left in an oil bath overnight. The chicken was also deep-fried and covered in a sweet yellow sauce. Even the rice was unfamiliar, with a hard and stringy texture.
Admittedly, the food did not taste terrible, once you were able to get past the mounds of MSG that had been liberally inserted. But what the food was not, however, was Chinese. It did not taste like anything I had ever eaten before, not in Hong Kong, not Taiwan or even in mainland China.
The ingredients were wrong, the condiments were wrong, and the style of cooking was completely wrong. Calling this deep-fried, artificially sweet bundle Chinese food was like calling a kindergartner’s tacky finger-painting van Gogh. I couldn’t believe that one of the most complex and varied of all cuisines could be so incorrectly diminished to something so inauthentic and tasteless.
Since that fateful meal, I have realised that deep-fried, MSG-heavy dishes such as General Tso’s Chicken and egg rolls are the norm in American “Chinese” food, and it’s perfectly fine to label it all as “Chinese food”. The ordinary American palate doesn’t understand how diverse and sophisticated real Chinese food is, just like how we in Hong Kong are unaware of regional American specialties such as jambalaya or biscuits and gravy.
But what this American version of Chinese food has given me – aside from searing and lingering stomach pain – is a new-found appreciation of the real, authentic Chinese food that is so commonplace for us Hongkongers.
When I was living in Hong Kong, I often complained to my mum that we always had Chinese food for dinner. But the more time I spend away, the more I find myself longing for Sichuan hotpot, Sunday dim sum, steaming hot bowls of niu-rou mian, and most of all, my grandma’s homemade dumplings.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a bowl of char siu fan that’s calling my name.