In the Melbourne neighbourhood where I grew up there was a local Chinese restaurant. In fact there were two. One was magical and delicious, and the other was poor man’s China. The first was called The Mandarin and was owned and operated by the very affable Peter – a mainland native who clearly did not start life with that name. Closer to home was the local take away joint where, just before my time, you could swing by with your own saucepan to take home your dinner and no doubt pretend you’d become an overnight MasterChef. A one-pot chop-chop shop stop.
The main thing that separated these two Imperial palaces was that The Mandarin’s fried rice was supreme, bursting with ingredients and all that sweet and saltiness. The other place was for quick dinner after school and the only place within walking distance from home. Importantly, their fried rice had peas, the mandatory ingredient in my young opinion, together with Chinese roast pork, prawns, bean shoots and egg.
In 1993 I had the great pleasure of meeting Elizabeth Chong, the veritable empress of Chinese food in Australia, at the Mask of China restaurant in Melbourne where she was hosting a dinner to launch her book, The Heritage of Chinese Cooking. Naturally she includes a fried rice recipe – Yangzhou fried rice and she has this to say:
“The people of Yangzhou have many variations of this dish. One of them has a generous amount of shrimp, and small pieces of meat, such as chicken and pork. The Cantonese, although notoriously reluctant to adopt customs and dialects from neighbouring provinces, have enthusiastically taken this recipe over as their own and have created a classic rice dish.”
The thing I miss the absolute most about Melbourne is Chinatown, in particular Yum Cha and restaurants like the Supper Inn. There are times when I pine for the smell of that street, and over the years attempt to mimic the dishes I miss most – special fried rice. So on a cold winter’s night I found myself on the streets of Bangalow, a small hinterland town behind Byron Bay. I was headed to see Clare Bowditch sing, dance and tell jokes at the nearby Bangalow A & I Hall.
Much to my surprise I realised that there was a Chinese Restaurant in this town, a notable absence in Byron. So I was amused and delighted to find a classic suburban take away where the food is to be expected and the novelty far outweighs the menu, in this case it is the so-kitsch-it’s-cool Chinese Zodiac paper placemats and no chopsticks. In the hope that I would hit the fried rice jackpot, I ordered that and also Sichuan Beef – one of the great classics.
Two mismatched serving bowls arrived. The first resembled a knock-off from an Italian bistro, brimmed with lacquer-red beef and vegetables, while the other was a simple white bowl filled with fried rice with mandatory peas, odd strips of ham, chicken, suspiciously soft shrimp and two pats of char sieu pork “more like old shoe than char sieu” my good friend later quipped.
“More like old shoe than char sieu”
Over in the Sichuan province, I was equally unconvinced. It looked OK, but the texture of the beef had that telling texture of artificial influence, probably with Adolph’s meat tenderiser, an interesting name for a Chinese pantry item don’t you think? It was soft and chewy but unlike a marshmallow that gets softer and sweeter, these little bovine pillows had a grisly centre. Still, I soldiered on like a Xi’an warrior because it was one of those occasions where the food might be average yet the overall experience was well worth the visit.
It just depends how homesick you are.