Growing up I loved the one Chinese restaurant in town. The red walls, soy-salty air, and (no joke) backlit moving waterfull artwork seemed magical to my wide blue eyes. I loved that the owners talked differently, that the names of the food held promise and mystery. General Tso's Chicken- who was this general? Why did he care so much about chicken? Did he eat it before battle and emerge victorious because it warmed his belly? Egg Drop Soup sounded so friendly: in my house if I dropped an egg I'd be in big trouble, but at Lotus Chinese that same mistake turned into delicious soup.
And I loved that every time I ate there, the owners brought me strawberry ice cream for dessert, whether or not I ordered it. Even when my mother protested, they wouldn't take the dish away until a scant spoonful of ice cream soup was left.
I will tell you a secret: I didn't like strawberry ice cream. I don't care for it now, just give me chocolate. But I'd eat it and say thank you while they smiled and nodded at me. I felt we were friends in a way. I like to think they noticed the goofy little white girl who was really into their food, who gobbled up everything (even broccoli). Actually, my love of their broccoli got me into trouble many times.
"Why do you eat their broccoli but turn your nose up at mine," my mother asked whenever we ate there. I'd shrug helplessly. It wasn't until years later I figured out it was a texture issue. In traditional Chinese cooking, veggies are generally cooked until they're crisp-tender, not a second more. This keeps them delicous (plus they retain more nutrients). My mother's background was English, German, and Donna Reed Casserole. All that history was an unstoppable force: she couldn't help but boil broccoli for a solid ten minutes. I'd smush it with a fork just because I could; obscene amounts of butter and salt still didn't make it edible. My dog wouldn't touch it. But oh, the beef and broccoli with its hearty crunch and sweet, salty sauce. Powerful.
After I learned to read I started pointing at the menu, What's that? And that? By the second grade I had mastered chopsticks, much to everyone's surprise (a story for another day). I took great pleasure in trading in my fork for two rough wooden sticks and consuming slippery lo mein noodles and eggs foo young with aplomb.
Today if we were to dine, I'd take you out to the heart of Chinatown. There hardly anybody looks like me, and the food is a clever symphony of funky and mellow, bitter and sweet, crisp and soft. I'd show off my affection for jellyfish and chicken feet, and probably act confused if you asked about moo go gai pan (a dish my father loves that I suspect only the white man eats). I might even wrangle you an invite to my pal Vanessa's Chinese New Year feast (sweet Jesus it's amazing). And I'd certainly deny ever eating at a little spot on Santa Monica where forks are on the table, moo go gai pan is on the menu, and everything needs more soy sauce to give it flavor... but I recommend their eggs foo young.