Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

CHINESE ON THE MENU

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Chinese-food addicts like me will know the queasiness that, when you enter a Chinese restaurant, has nothing to do with food and everything to do with language. Splayed across the walls are sheets of vividly coloured paper crowded with big black characters. You know they’re naming the dishes being offered. Now, these dishes could be identical to the ones numbered in the English menu you’re holding in your hands. But the feeling that grows in the pit of your stomach is the fear that they could be more authentic, tastier, much, much better. And you can’t do anything about it: you neither read nor speak Chinese, and you’re too embarrassed to admit it. When the server takes your order, you could wave vaguely at the wall but what you’d get might be, not the pea pods with garlic scapes you wanted, but what the characters on the wall say: “soya pig’s stomach.”

Even if you trust the English menu, a more insidious paranoia is operative. You order the spiciest, fiercest, most incendiary dish on the menu, the triple little red pepper symbols next to its name signifying that it’s of the best. Your server dutifully warns you that it’s very hot. You say that’s fine, you like hot, the hotter the better: you’re a little offended that she questions your Scovill Scale credentials. She leaves. Then suddenly the fear sets in. Somehow you know that she will go into the kitchen and, perhaps employing a codeword used in such circumstances, tell the cook: “1 Fiery Furnace Tofu. A whitey at the table. Dumb it down.”

3 comments

Rat may have been served at the restaurant; afterall, it was the Year Of The Rat Infestation in the neighbourhood. The dishes, of course, would have been given gastronomically-enticing names, like: Tom & Jerk Jerry; Ratatoille a la blackbean sauce; or Fievel's Chinese Tail...

Lip-synch (sorry, I mean Karaoke), I intended no opprobrium of pig's stomach, merely that a lily-white diner might have preferred a vegetarian alternative. I'm sure it's delicious. As for writing at greater length about food, I fear that my garrulous stint as Writer in Residence is drawing to a close, so there will be little room left to offer more than snacks. For more substantial fare, I direct my readers to your coyly pseudonymous blog, with its nostalgic recollection of days and nights in China China restaurant, and how the eyes of its proprietor would "mist over" as he recalled succulent Dog Brain Soup. Part of the loving account reminded me of a news account I once read about a rat restaurant in Beijing, not a Mafia hangout but one that specialized in the namesake rodent: deep-fried,stir-fried and, for all I know, braised in teriyaki sauce. Odd that China China's Korean owner-manager did not add it to his menu.

Dear Chef Sutherland, you should know there is nothing wrong with pig's stomach poached, for however long, in soya sauce. You seem to be implying that there is something inherently disgusting about it in your piece. The Europeans have been making pig's stomach palatable ever since the asthmatic wolf himself tried to cook the three of them in a pot. If you want some truly stomach-turning descriptions of Chinese food, you should read a recent post in one (anonymous) Toronto writer's blog, where he discusses how Asian cooks really pull the wool over a gaijin's eyes. It's called "Chinese, Japanese- Not Difference." You might want to check it out. www.karaokecowboy.blogspot.com
Enjoying your pieces. Do write longer ones on food, please...

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Fraser Sutherland

At last count, Fraser Sutherland has published fifteen books: one of them short fiction, four nonfiction and ten poetry, His most recent poetry collection is The Philosophy of As If. A freelance editor, he may be the only Canadian poet who is also a lexicographer. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, he lives in Toronto.

Go to Fraser Sutherland’s Author Page