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.
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.
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?
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.