Friday, April 23, 2010

Inauthentic Western Food

I'm off to a writer's retreat out of LA this week, but stopped off in Vancouver to visit with my long-time friend and now brother-in-law, Philip. We spent a wonderful day catching up and sharing news from our respective disciplines. Philip is teaching an IB course on "The Theory of Knowledge", which is the sort of course you wish had been available back when you were in high school. Philip is primarily a physics teacher -- indeed, just won the 2010 Canadian Association of Physicists' Award for Excellence in Teaching High School/CEGEP Physics for British Columbia --but is clearly relishing the opportunity of teaching such a wide-open, 'big ideas' course to students at the exact age when the 'big idea' can really capture their imagination. So discussing issues from his course ("to what extent should one rely on experts? Does it differ between disciplines? How do you know who is an expert? ) was a great discussion starter, and inevitably ended with us watching TED videos late into the night. Good times!

But one of the more interesting bits was trying to decide where to eat. Philip suggested going out for some inauthentic Western food, so naturally, I said, "Huh?"

"Remember how when we were growing up in Edmonton and we'd go out for 'Chinese food' at the Bamboo Palace, but it was all pineapple chicken balls and beef and broccoli and wasn't really like authentic Chinese food at all?"

"But I liked the Bamboo Place," I complained.

"Just so! It was often really good food, but I'm just saying it wasn't Chinese food. If someone from China ate there, they wouldn't recognize it as Chinese food at all."

"But I like Americanized Chinese food. 'Chinese influenced' cuisine, if you insist. When you and the others tried to drag me away to what you called 'authentic' Chinese food, it was usually awful. Dreadful! Chicken feet for example. They just hand you this chicken food. And I'm telling you, there is nothing you can eat on that thing. They might as well hand you a stick."

"Well, I'm not a fan of chicken feet myself, actually. But you're missing my point. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with Americanized Chinese dishes, or that you should prefer authentic Chinese dishes just because they are authentic. On the contrary, my argument is that they are completely separate cuisines, with just perhaps some vague historical influences.

"Okay," I allow, following his argument, but increasingly suspicious he's going to try to get me to eat Dim Sum.

(The last time I had Dim Sum in Richmond, I almost starved. The servers took one look at me, and didn't even bother wheeling 3/4 of the carts past our table. "What's that one?" I'd shout as the cart shot past. "You not like that one!" the waiter would explain. "I might!" I would argue, game to try anything. And then the waiter would wheel the cart over resignedly, lift the lid, and I would say, "Or maybe not!" or "Oh my god, what is that?" And the waiter would wave off the next 8 carts. "Here, I'll ask the kitchen if they have any steam rice for you." Enough said.)

"So, now imagine that you're growing up in Hong Kong", Philip continued, "and for an occasional treat, you go out for Western food. Only, it's about as authentically Western as the Bamboo Place is Chinese. What they call Spaghetti Bolognese and what you might have very little overlap, except that there are noodles in there somewhere. Or 'borsch' is a red soup, but nothing a Russian or even a Canadian Ukrainian would recognize as borsch. It's still often very good soup, but it's not exactly the Western item its named for."

"Sino-Western food. Interesting concept..."

"So then when you moved to Richmond, you sometimes still want a Western restaurant, but you want the inauthentic Western food you had in Hong Kong, not the real stuff that's just, well, way too Western for your tastes. So there are dozens of restaurants in Richmond catering to that market. And they are often very good, but...different."

So we go to the Kingspark Steak House Restaurant and have...a completely fabulous meal. I would recommend the place to anyone -- though we were the only non-Asians in the place. (As Philip pointed out, there always at least a few whites in the Chinese restaurants, because many Vancouverites have acquired a taste for authentic Chinese food, but if you felt like a steak, why would you go to a Chinese steakhouse for a steak?

Well, I'm here to tell you, you really should! The tenderloin at the Kingspark was excellent; as was the rack of lamb. The fact that they have a tenderloin/rack of lamb combo plate is, to my mind, greatly to their credit! And excellent value for the money -- I could not possibly have bought that much food for so little in any other steakhouse I have yet attended. I had my choice of a regular plate or hot plate, and chose the latter -- my meal came out sizzling exactly the way it would at Ruths Chris Steakhouse. They brought us tea in plastic water glasses and kept refilling our glasses exactly as a regular steakhouse serves ice water. Again, a plus in my mind! Other steakhouses could learn a thing or two here!

But there were some differences. Given Philip's earlier example, I chose spaghetti as my side (again, note how much food is included in the meal here!) and it wasn't. No red or cheese sauce. Looking at it, I thought it would just be plain spaghetti noodles, but tasting it, it was definitely flavoured -- I'm guessing Five Spice. It was both oddly different and oddly good. I really liked it. But I see what Philip meant about it not being what someone who thought they were ordering spaghetti would expect. I also ordered the 'cream soup' -- the fact that the description was a bit vague should have been a hint that this was going to be a bit different too. My least favorite element in the meal, it was still pretty decent. I suspect there was some manner of crab or lobster or something of that ilk, so not something I could eat around my highly allergic wife, and maybe not something I would have chosen given a more precise description, but not bad. Philip had the Borsch with his and pronounced it excellent. And a mango custard thing for dessert that had an unfortunate consistency of Junket but a magnificent mango taste, so I gobbled it up appreciatively, childhood Junket associations notwithstanding.

Weirdest part of the meal was the hot drink (also included in the very reasonable price! I think I paid just over $20 for all that food!) but then I went out of my way to order something I didn't recognize. (Well, they had the Chinese jellygrass drinks, but I knew better than to order those.) Horlicks, Philip explained to me, is actually a British drink, exported as a habit to Hong Kong, and then abandoned by the British. At least, I hadn't heard of it before. wikipedia explains it as a British drink consumed before bedtime to promote sleeping, but became a cafe drink in Hong Kong and Pakistan etc. I drank it all appreciatively, but I'm still not sure if I actually like it. It was kind of a cross between Ovaltine (whatever happened to Ovaltine? Didn't everyone of my generation drink it all the time as kids. Especially before bedtime in the winter.) and cream of wheat. Very alien.

So, I would not hesitate to recommend Kingspark to anyon: excellent quality, excellent value, bit of an adventure.

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