Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

15.10.09

A shorter history of the Chinese cafe.

I can remember, but only just, those distant days of long ago when earlier civilisations - oblivious to the coming of a whole brave-new-world raft of hybrid, clichéd acronyms and abbreviations that were destined to stride the world’s consciousness like a tech-savvy hyper-eco-warrior driving a Toyota Prius to the airport to catch a Jumbo jet to an ETS and CPRS global warming conference on the other side of the world - walked to the Chinese takeaway on the corner and fetched fried rice in pots.

Yes. You took a vessel - a large saucepan was commonly used due to its utility in both fetching and serving, also it had a lid - to the Chinese takeaway and returned home with it full of steaming freshly-wokked fried rice, fragrant with spices and soy and slivers of peppery scrambled egg and cubes of salty ham and tiny piquant prawns and fat hot green peas that popped in your mouth like fuschias pressed between a finger and thumb. The ever-smiling Chinese takeaway man – or lady – would decide a price according to the size of your pot, and the price would vary every time, but that was part of the fun because it was always cheap. A whole pot of fried rice for $2.50! Or even $1.95!

That was then. The bureaucrats stamped on it pretty smartly, because of Regulations. For the next forty years you left your pot in the cupboard and your Chinese takeaway food came in plastic containers with lids, inside plastic bags. And lots of them, because a teenager can eat three plastic containers of fried rice and seven sesame toasts.

Then the bureaucrats stamped on plastic because of Regulations, again; and Chinese takeaway food came in glossy white open cardboard boxes with little swinging metal handles, about the size of a doll’s handbag - and looking just as ridiculous - and you needed five or six to feed a teenager.

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My favourite takeaway place for fried rice in the early days was Jan Chong in Bulla Road while, later, Smith Street’s Middle Kingdom made great butter chicken, and szechuan dishes that blew your skull off. Then there was Harvest Moon. No, that was a Neil Young album.

I dined at Middle Kingdom on the night Essendon defeated Hawthorn in a Grand Final. How do I remember this? Here's why: the owner, who used to walk around dispensing port to his favourite customers out of a Chinese tea pot ("Special Chinese tea," he explained, with a Jackie Chan grin) told me the chef was a Hawthorn fan and was very upset that night and might poison us if he found out we were celebrating. As it turned out, the szechuan chicken was particularly spicy that night. We dined at Middle Kingdom regularly and, one hot night the following summer, after a Test match at the MCG, the owner pointed out a diner at the next table to my eight-year-old son (William and Thomas’s much older brother) and asked him if he realised who the man was. He didn't. "It’s Clive Lloyd!" the owner revealed triumphantly, Jackie Chan grin frozen in place, waiting for the boy's reaction. Lloyd turned around genially, smiling, waiting for the inevitable request for an autograph, or at least a shaken hand. "Who’s Clive Lloyd?" replied my son, brow furrowed, chopsticks poised in mid-air. Clive Lloyd and Jackie Chan roared with laughter. Not be recognised by face or name during a Test in a cricket-mad city made Lloyd’s night. Then we all had some more special Chinese tea and my son had a banana fritter.

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Other Chinese cafes I’ve eaten at, or ordered takeaway from: Red Harvest, New Moon, Moon Harvest. Fu Lu, Num Fong. Red Emperor (or was that a fish?), Lucky Kingdom, Lucky Corner, Lucky Dragon, Lucky Lantern. Double Happiness, Happy Inn, Jade Inn, Jade Princess, Jade Valley, Dragon Valley, Dragon Temple, Bamboo Dragon, Old Panda, New Panda, Golden Panda, Golden Swan, Happy Swan, Happy Stork, Fairy Stork, Ping On, Chung On, Sing Tao, Chiew Yong, Sun Luk, Yu Palace, Orchid Garden, Silver Chopsticks, Lotus Pond, Ming Court.

There's at least one of these in every outer suburb and small town in every country of the world to which the Chinese migrated. It’s all about the name. That, and the flock wallpaper, and the oriental prints on the walls depicting Far East rivers and mountains, and the Chinese opera lady who sounds like a melodious cat in the tinny speaker in the ceiling, and the mysterious red curtain at the back that doesn’t quite conceal the roar and sizzle and alarming flashes of flame from the kitchen. These characteristics make a Chinese café. It’s not just about the food.

For example, I’ve never eaten at the Ivanhoe Chinese Restaurant in Upper Heidelberg Road. The appeal just isn’t there. Why couldn’t they call it the Happy Dragon?

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Sometimes the fragrance of that pot of original fried rice comes floating back through some intricate fifth-dimension conduit – like the Internet (famously, once, "a series of tubes"; laughed at as if it were ridiculous, but I thought it unpretentiously, naively poetic) that carries only cooking aromas, throughout the universe, back to those who smelled them once, long ago, in a saucepan.

Fried rice with ham, peas and shrimps.

Boil rice. You need four cups of boiled, cooked, cooled rice. I figure that to be one and one half cups of uncooked rice.

Lightly beat two eggs with salt and pepper, pour into a small pan and scramble lightly, drawing uncooked egg with fork; switch off heat when egg starts to set. Place lid on pan to complete setting process. Tear or cut into strips when set.

Chop some good ham into small strips or cubes. A little less than a cupful of chopped ham should be enough. Cook a cup of peas. Chop two spring onions into small rounds. Open a can of shrimps, if you can’t be bothered obtaining fresh small prawns. The canned ones are fine for fried rice.

Peel a medium onion and chop it through its axis into slender segments. Heat peanut oil in a wok and fry the onion over high heat, tossing it around. Add ham, fry a minute. Add rice and peas, stir through over heat for two minutes or until rice is hot.

Now add the egg, the spring onions and the prawns; toss in two tablespoons of good soy sauce. Heat through well and serve.

10 comments:

A Melbourne Girl said...

I was only thinking of takeaway Chinese food recently and how my Mum and Dad would take the "billy" to the shop to get the sub-gum on a Friday night.

We lived in Fitzroy when I was little and I still remember the crispy noodles piled on top of the fragrant chicken and vegetables, as well as the serve of fried rice we all got as well.

It's a smell and taste that I can still conjure, 40+ years later

Lesley

3 hungry tummies said...

yupe the owner of old kingdom is hilarious

kitchen hand said...

Lesley, do you remember the name of the cafe?

3HT, is he still there? I haven't been there for years, at least since it changed from 'Middle' to 'Old'.

A Melbourne Girl said...

I was tiny back then kitchen hand, maybe 4 or 5, possibly younger, I'll check with Mum though, you never know she may remember.

jo said...

First: The title immediately made joni Mitchell's Chinese Cafe play in my head. It was a fabulous relief since for some unknown awful reason Rick James Superfreak had been on repeat in my brain and I was looking for an ice pick to relieve the pain.

Second:
I am about to head to work where we are hosting a corporate team building cooking event. The menu? Asian. Yesterday I made two rice cookers full of rice which is cooled and waiting to be turned into...great minds and all that

Dr. Alice said...

I love fried rice! I usually scramble the egg by clearing the rice to the sides of the pan when it is nearly done, then pour the egg into the bottom and scramble it there, then stir it into the rice. Sloppy, but faster.

I was left with a large pan of leftover cooked rice after a dinner meeting once and froze it. It makes great fried rice.

A Melbourne Girl said...

Eureka kitchen hand

The name of the Chinese cafe was Man Fong. It was in Brunswick street, not far from where we lived. Mum remembers how wonderful their dim sims were, home made of course and their food was delicious.

neil said...

I remember that we took several pots of different sizes and that the pot holding dim sims was always raided on the way home.

Kids attire for the journey, pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers - after dinner it was off to bed.

stickyfingers said...

When we arrived in Australia it was the in-between stage, where pots and pans had been replaced by foil containers with cardboard, foil lined lids. Then the Asian eateries of the Melbourne south eastern suburbs adopted the ubiquitous plastic containers.

The paper boxes became fashionable after an excess of American TV invaded our lives. That's what the Yanks always had. Bugger those small leaky vessels of inferiority! Trendy - yes, practical - not!

I remember in grade 6 at my WASPy suburban girls school I was the only wog in the class - being half Chinese. One term we had a food and wine project. I poured hours into making a detailed map of the wines of Europe - having spent most of my childhood holidays up to that point visiting wineries - but one of my classmates simply brought an electric frypan to class and made Aussie style fried rice. Indignantly I stood up and said "That's not fried rice! That's an insult to my culture" LOL

My Mum used to give Chinese cooking classes and would do shopping centre demonstrations in the middle of suburban malls. Her food was quite different to what the Chinese resto's of the era served up and although people lapped it up, it took a very long time for a wider sudience of Aussies to discover real Chinese tucker.

Even now I have people telling me that they hate Chinese food, but I know that's because they have no idea what constitutes authentic Chinese food. It's like judging Italian food based on a life of eating at Pizza Hut.

kitchen hand said...

Jo, gald to have been of assistance. I hate it when I get a tune in my head I can't get rid of.

Dr. A, I'll try your way nest time. It's probably more authentic and, of course, easier. One less pan.

Lelsey, there goes everbody's theory of Baker's being the first cafe in Brunswick Street.

Neil, straight to bed and a little respite for the parents. And maybe half a leftover dim sim.

Stickyfingers you must have felt like thousands of years of culinary refinement had been annexed. And how could anyone hate Chinese food?