Friday, May 14, 2004


Recent visits to Chinese restaurants present great mysteries:

First, what happened to hot mustard? I remember quite clearly visiting fancier Chinese restaurants in my youth (fancier meaning a stab at exoticism, overwhelming red, thick menus with tassels and gaudy, gold-plated decor) and being served delicate little platters of a sweet red sauce and hot mustard arranged in a culinary yin-yang. The red sauce was a waste; our table would lunge for the mustard, quickly depleting it and just as quickly asking for more. This was given grudgingly, again with the red sauce, throughout the meal until the waiters finally gave up and brought an entire dish or two of the yellow. Inevitably, we would be finishing by then and leave the small platters virtually untouched, which surely had them gnashing their teeth at the servers’ station.

The mustard still comes with dim sum, and they still are stingy with it. But it has been years since I’ve been treated to the more-mustard-please ritual at lunch and dinner, although almost everything else about these sumptuous Chinese restaurants remains. (Except for those red-speckled almond cookies, but I shrug off their disappearance as an economic consideration. I’m guessing fortune cookies are cheaper and more, um, fun. But there was a time, children, when at the end of a Chinese meal you got both kinds of cookies!)

The second mystery involves white rice. It’s parceled out with such stinginess at Asian restaurants that one would almost suspect it was worth something, rather than being the staple food of 67 percent of the Earth’s population, much of it impoverished. Dinner a few hours ago was $26 for a single plate of food (honey-glazed walnut jumbo shrimp), a glass of merlot and rice for two, and I suspect it was the rice that was priced obscenely. If the shrimp hadn’t been so good, perhaps I’d have been paying more attention to the fact that my wallet was being raped.

I’ve been told that in Asian nations, rice is the main dish and the meats, sauces, vegetables and so on are frills offered to soften the hard fact that you’re having rice again, as you have every day, for every meal, for your entire life. Here it’s the other way around, in an insupportably frustrating way, but it points out far removed from China our Chinese food is.

Fortune cookies were invented in Los Angeles in the early 1900s and apparently are still unpopular in China. (A wise people.) General Tso’s chicken was probably invented in the 1970s in New York. Chop suey at least stretches back to the 1800s, but was still first made in the United States.

I’d give them all up for some damn rice. And some hot mustard.

And maybe some more honey-glazed walnut jumbo shrimp.

Hmm. I’m hungry again.

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