In the early eighties, Chinese cooking was the culinary rage. Millions of white North Americans jumped on the bandwagon, purchasing cheap woks and bottles of sesame oil, producing passable stirfries for their families, and considered themselves masters of this ancient art.
And then there was my house.
My father may have come to this cooking style by chance, but it quickly gained a significant part of his heart and shaped a great deal of the rest of his life. While other families were learning how to burn things in cheap woks and then douse them in soya sauce, my father invested in the finest woks and the best cleavers money could buy.... the best cleavers, by the way, were usually sold for $8 in the back aisle of a Chinese grocery store, they were NOT the $70 stainless steel versions sold at the Bay to the unsuspecting masses.
The North American fascination with Chinese cooking was shortlived, just another trend-of-the-day. Not so much in my house.
My father, a brilliant cook, truly found his niche with Chinese cooking and the Chinese way of life. At the height of his infactuation with the culture, my Mom literally went years without having to cook us dinner: in the Chinese way, my father had decided that the highest honour a person could hold was to cook and provide nourishment for his family. To him, this was a daily interaction with The Sublime. Literally a quarter of our large kitchen was dedicated to his passion, the cupboards stocked with black beans, unfamiliar oils, unusual spices in jars without English labels, shrimp chips waiting to be fried, and Chinese whiskey.
My father had a deep disdain for what restaurants called "Chinese food", those types of buffets the average person would pay $15 for to eat poor imitations of the original. I'm sure that the Chinese restauranteurs were as frustrated as my dad was with this situation, forced to crank out streotypical but profitable dishes. And so they were always happy to see my father, a white guy who knew his shit, show up towards the end of the rush . He would take me along on occasion, and I would see him explain to the server that he didn't want the shit they were serving the masses, he wanted FOOD. And 30 or 45 minutes later, the most magical things would begin appearing at our table. Fragrant vegetables. Delicious tofu dishes with a stink that would get up your nose and stay there. Broccoli and beef, that typical buffet favourite, arrived at our table completely different from what others were having. They got what was popular. We got what was real.
There was a Chinese restaurant near our house, a takeout joint that produced gallons of chicken fried rice and buckets of fried wontons each day, food my father disdained. But I remember going in with him, seating ourselves at a Formica table with paper placemats and hearing the staff whisper to each other, "Dave here. Dave here! Make for Dave!" And soon, the most magical food would appear. Chicken dishes full of bones, but full of unbelievable flavour. Beef dishes with almost no meat but lots of delicious marrow... the regular crowd demanded meat, but they knew Dave wanted REAL Chinese food, dishes with only a smatteting of animal protein for flavour.
A true Chinese chef is actually horrified by the amount of animal protein North Americans consume, but twice I experienced Chinese gluttony: once it was because the chef had got his hands on some pigeon, and the other time was because he had managed to procure an ox penis. I remember my father stumbling over the explanation of the penis to me... he may have had residual male issues about eating the thing, but I didn't. It was delicious.
My father's obsession with Chinese cooking eventually waned, but it never left. My father learned to speak Mandarin (and well I remember the night Daddy tried to order our dinner in that language, only to discover the waitress "only" spoke Cantonese!)
A few years before he died, Mum suggested they take a sabbatical & live in China for a year, Surprisingly, my father said no. I suspect it was because he knew it would just be too emotional for him, he couldn't face such beauty. I understand that, truly I do. Somethings are just too large, too MUCH.
My parents' house, by the way, is today decorated in Chinese style. Ink drawings. Shadow boxes containing writing implements. Ink pens artfully displayed.
But, now that he has gone, my Mum is actually contemplating her first trip to China. I want her to go, and in many ways I NEED her to go. I want her to have the experience for herself, but I also want her to have it for Daddy.
I never did ask my father why Chinese culture affected him so deeply, and that is actually one of my life's regrets. Why, Daddy? What was it about Chinese cooking that changed you?