The surprising part is that I am not a food person but gastronomic interjections have always been lurking in the background. In the 1970s while in the midst of understanding the nuances of the Romantic poets P B Shelly, Keats and William Wordsworth ( for Bachelors at Allahabad University) I would willingly miss lectures to gormandize on Sweet & Sour soup followed by Chicken noodles twirled in Chicken sweet ‘n’ sour.
Indian-Chinese food, especially the three mentioned dishes, was the ultimate in food luxury, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut were nowhere near Allahabad’s ambit, with restaurants and roadside food stalls were in business, forget the authenticity. Even our helper dreamt of returning to his native village in Bihar to open a noodle shop,even Maggie noodles would do and worked hard to invest in woks, ladles and packets of Maggi noodles. The ‘Genuine Fake’, as a salesperson on Nathan Road (Kowloon) would say, was gaining popularity.
Marriage and travels did not lessen the craving for Chinese food, in all its avatars, and my first choice in whichever part of India or world I would be in, would be noodles and Chilli Chicken or Sweet & Sour and second choice Indian Mughlai preparations. Our five-year stay (1995-2000) in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman was a diversion with Middle Eastern cuisine, especially Lebanese shawarma*, taking precedence.
In July 2008 I found myself driving down from Hong Kong International Airport to Kowloon. It was soon going to into a food voyage aka the distinct aroma that trailed us on our walks in the malls, lanes and markets of the Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. My initiation into the wet markets, discovered by chance, was lamentable and urbane in turns. Initially, the raw meat smell forced me to walk away from the forked hanging pigs, the bloated ducks, the flowing tanks of unknown fish, prawns, scallops, colored crabs, clams, oysters and carts of dried seafood and chicken claws. But then curiosity always killed the cat and soon my olfactory senses propelled me to the markets and lanes of Sai Kung, North Point ferry station, Peng Chau and Cheng Chau islands, Tai Po, to Hung Hom lanes and Yau Ma Tai food streets and food vendors.
On occasions food masqueraded as outings on the stony trails of Ng Tung Chai waterfalls scrunched between bare rocks and tropical vegetation on the northern slopes of the cone-shaped Tai Mo Shan in Kowloon; on tram rides to the Peak and its surrounding attractions; ferried us to Discovery Bay, Lamma, Lantau, Peng Chau and Cheng Chau, Tung Lung Chau (off Clearwater Bay) and Tap Mun the Grass Island on the northern part of Sai Kung ( would be asked whether I had tried “iceless” cold milk tea, sun-dried fish and boiled squid and shrimp); on the Buddhist path to Diamond Hill and the Nunnery, the Monastery of Ten Thousand Buddhas (Man Fat Sze); the Jumbo Kingdom floating restaurant in Aberdeen; Tai Ho, where I had gone to watch the Dragon Boat Race, famous for its gourmet delicacies the Loh Mai chee glutinous handmade rice balls stuffed with sesame and peanut paste or Cha Gwoh rice dumplings stuffed with mixture of Chinese herbs; Po Lin Monastery for its popular vegetarian fare and the concrete jungles of Central, Causeway Bay, Shueng Wan, Kowloon, Wan Chai for their pubs, cafeterias, fast evolving eateries and Michelin starred restaurants.
The Chin-India cuisine was replaced by Cantonese, Anhui, Fujian, Hunan, Szechuan, Jiangsu, Shandong and Zhejiang cuisine originating from different regions of China. The closest to Indian-Chinese is Szechuan, spicy and oily, though by now I was developing a taste for soup noodles and dim sums. In Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai I stuck to McDonald’s and KFC. The one time I tried traditional Chinese cuisine was a post wedding lunch at a village near Taizho situated south of Ningbo on the eastern coast of Zhejiang province, Mainland China. We had accompanied the groom’s friends and family to bring his wife from her parental home and were treated to a lavish wedding feast prepared by village cooks in the backyard. I had never tasted or seen so much exotic fish and would ask my friend the names every time a new dish was served.
My one grouse is that I can never walk into a Chinese food place on my own as the menu is mostly in Cantonese. Somehow learning languages has never been my forte and in six-years stay could manage ‘wai’ or Hello and that too because it is the most frequently used word. The goof up happened in Shanghai where I tried all possible actions, flapping wings, quacking, doodling to get across the ‘chicken’ word to the waitress. The girl, probably in a rush, as it was nearing closing time, came with our order that looked and smelled beefy. Our doubts confirmed by a young man had to be content with side veggies. Another impossible venture is using chopsticks as my fingers seem stuck in the ‘two left feet’ syndrome no matter what the encouragement or admonishment, ‘See…it is so simple..place it between thumb and fingers and voila the grain is in your mouth’. I wish it was so easy.
In between there were trips to USA, Canada, Japan and I preferred to try local temptations than the five-star presentations. In Hiroshima it was the ‘Japanese Pizza’ the ‘Okonomiyaki’ a thin layer of batter and a generous amount of cabbage on top of yakisoba noodles. One can opt for toppings of oysters, squid and cheese with bonito flakes, green laver and okonomiyaki sauce and optional extras, mayonnaise, pickled ginger, and seaweed. We were seated at a counter facing the chef preparing the okonomiyaki on a large griddle and could see other eaters drooling as he speed-chopped, layered, topped and presented the precursor of a snack called ‘issen yōshoku’ or “one-cent Western meal”.
‘Poutine’ was another luck-in was in Calgary, Canada, on a cold, snowy day. ‘Poutine’ or simply piping hot crispy fries and cheese curd cut into pieces dunked in gravy of choice, to meld in a unique flavor. Initially, I was hesitant in trying it out but then the first few bites had me scrapping till last bite.
Every city has its own aroma, sometimes familiar, and six years down the line the ‘Chinese Takeaway’, in words of Betty Mullard* has become more than a city to explore, it has become a way of life via the gourmet trail.
* Kowloon Tong. A novel of Hong Kong by Paul Theroux