‘Tis the season of Big Tradition. I’d like to pause and reflect on the merits of small traditions. For instance: we all have some way of commemorating the places we visit, some tradition or ritual with which we stamp adventures as our own. Some people collect shot glasses, others buy postcards. In my family, we eat Chinese.
It all started in Ecuador. We were on our honeymoon and I had a touch of tourista, so D. spent the day out and about while I was just down and out. He returned with exciting news – there was a Chinese restaurant nearby that offered potential sustenance that might sit better in my tender tummy than what we’d been eating. Thrilled at this prospect, I got my wobbly self up and off we went.
I was rewarded with a lovely bowl of wanton soup. The best wonton soup ever. Beyond being delicious, the soup was comfortingly familiar. I was feeling better already. We went back the next day and luxuriated in fried rice with eggs. Time and distance folded in on themselves. It was like being home.
And so, there in the South American Andes, a North American family tradition was born: in every country we visit, we eat Chinese.
So far, we’ve made good on the tradition in Greece, Turkey, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Ste. Maarten, France, Italy, and the airport in Germany. And because they seemed at least as exotic as some non-domestic locales, we included Hawaii and South Dakota for consistency’s sake. Last month we added Taiwan, Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia and Japan. (Truth to tell: the thrill is a little muted when you’re already living by chopsticks, but we had a tradition to uphold.)
It’s always something of an adventure. Travel guides don’t always give much attention to Chinese restaurants in, say, Istanbul or Costa Rica, but we find them anyway. And they’re all charmingly similar and decidedly different. Festive red paper decorations are pretty universal, as are unevenly reliable photo-illustrated menus. The clientele, invariably a delightful cross-section of wherever we are. We’re always relieved to encounter actual ethic Chinese, especially if they’re eating.
We like to speculate on what alchemy of native practices, host country culture, current trends, immigration path and the tourism vortex accounts for the dishes before us. Each restaurant seems to reflect its surroundings in ways that are always interesting and often funny. Turns out the wantons in Nicaragua’s soup are fried. We had ginger chicken in Ste. Maarten that was equal parts chicken and ginger – and the ginger chunks way outsized the chicken bits. Our Hungarian Chinese meal seemed suspiciously Japanese.
In Cambodia, the tuk-tuk driver looked skeptical when we insisted the restaurant we were seeking was down that dirt alley he’d just passed. “You want go here?” he asked, pointing with this chin and clearly unconvinced, as he executed a breath-taking U-turn. We nodded earnestly, none too sure ourselves as we considered the dark lane. But, as always, we were rewarded. At the end of the road the Lucky Star Leisure Restaurant awaited, complete with cavorting kittens to climb on the table, lanterns at our feet to keep the mosquitoes at bay and some amazing fried dumplings.
“chī chī chī” 吃吃吃 (eat, eat, eat!)