The thing I remember first was the noise…
The moment I stepped off the bus, clutching my guide Crystal’s hand for dear life, I was doused in the alien cacophony of Toronto’s Chinatown. People everywhere were laughing, yelling, hailing cabs, and bartering for street food. The singsong chatter of portable radios poured a constant stream of superhappy Cantonese talk radio from every storefront window.
It was 8:30 pm, and the sky was glowing a dark, damp blue over a crowded, loud, and (for a small town kid from no-where Ontario) overwhelmingly strange and exotic sidewalk. The streetlights were shaped like Chinese lanterns and flanked by red wrought-iron dragons, creating this mad oriental other worldliness. The open storefronts blasted cheap fluorescent light, more noise and cigarette smoke into the cool night air. Each new scene momentarily blinding as we flashed by. Lights! Camera! Action!
This long strip of markets and restaurants was the main event from 5am in the morning to God-knows-when at night, every night. The sheer number of people fighting for space on the sidewalks made me feel like we were in downtown Hong Kong.
The second thing I remember was the smell…
We ducked to the left, into a market to get our bearings (her bearings actually, I was hopelessly lost). Smokey, sweet, spicy… foreign. Everything seemed to smell herbal, alchemical and fermented. Bizarre vegetables poured out onto the streets in bamboo baskets, Rows of unidentifiable pickles bobbed in glass jars and tanks of live octopus and eels proudly thrashed just a few feet from the teaming sidewalks. For a couple bucks a scowling Chinese man in rubber boots and apron would appear and decapitate any form of sea life you wanted with an ancient chipped cleaver right there at his fish scale-littered stall.
It was all so new and mesmerizing, I just stood and stared. But Crystal had more focus, and knew we were on a mission. With a jerk of her arm we were propelled back in the maelstrom of people before I could wipe the drool from my chin.
We were after the good stuff, the real Chinese Food that Crystal had grown up with, but I had only the vaguest notions of. We had just spent our afternoon of freedom from college studies in downtown Toronto, and when the question of dinner was brought up, Crystal made a bee-line for Chinatown. Just about every Chinese restaurant did good food real late, the secret (or so Crystal informed me) was to find a restaurant that didn’t do “Western-style stuff” (a term she spat out like a curse). The perfect joint in which to enjoy our tea and freshly seared vittles must therefore meet Crystal’s gourmet criteria of authenticity.
The House of Gourmet (What a perfect name!) fit the bill in three ways :
- First, the windows were lined with BBQ’ed animals in various stages of dismemberment… awesome.
- Second, the place was packed full of locals, not a single tourist (or even any non-Chinese) among ’em. If you eat with the locals, you’re guaranteed an authentic experience (ie. one that won’t pander to inexperienced taste buds, so be excited and a bit afraid)
- Third, the atmosphere inside was just as loud and electric as the streets were outside. Bright Neon lights, lots of families, lots of shouting and laughing… kinda like eating in the middle of the stock exchange.
Ultimately, the most profound thing I remember, was that first taste…
We nabbed a table, she placed an order or two, and I took a sip of this much talked about Chinese tea. It was deep, it was dark, it was musty… It was like drinking the earth itself.
“Pu-erh tea,” The waitress yelled over the din, “Is good ah!?” She slipped back into the chaotic dining room, and I slipped back into the warm embrace of the tea. Pour after pour, each little teacup only holding an ounce of tea, but each one holding new mysteries to solve and savour. Crystal and I talked and poured more tea, time seemed to evaporate. All that existed was this boisterous, brightly lit, collection of smiling faces and white tablecloths that we now belonged to. Then the food arrived…
Like I said before, I had never really strayed too far from chicken soup and HungryMan dinners before this moment, and any “Western-style” Chinese food I’d ever eaten was usually bland, deep-fried, slathered in bottled sweet’n’sour sauce and accompanied by tasteless fortune cookies. But, this food was colourful, alive with strange tastes and aromas, and wickedly spicy! Before I knew it, I was gorging on animals I’d only ever seen on The Abyss. Octopus, Squid, Eel, Cuttlefish, Crab, and land animals like pig, duck, and goose basted in sweet shimmering Hoisin sauce and roasted into sublime, caramel perfection. The vegetables were a revelation! Steamed or fried to just the perfect level of crispness and tossed in a deeply savoury oyster sauce, or minced pork and chilli oil, or just left to marinate in their own delicious green essence.
We stayed so late we almost missed the last Go-Train back to the college. So stuffed, we could hardly walk… Just enough momentum to carry us into a nearby herbal shop to pick up some of that Pu-erh tea.
It’s not until now, a decade later that I realized how much this night opened my whole personality to the true pleasure of eating. If I could look back and point to one moment that kindled my desire to cook professionally, it would be this one. The noise, the smells, and the tastes electrified me, and woke me up to the possibility of food, love, and living in the moment.
(Appropriated, re-imagined and heavily scrobbled from my post originally found on Nostalgiaholic.com)