Magazine Article

An article written as part of the Writing for Magazines and the Web course from Ryerson University.

How to Experience Authentic Chinese Food

We meet Charles Yu of Richmond Hill, a leading contributor to the Ontario board of in the suburban Cantonese restaurant Fung Lam Court, located in a mundane Markham strip mall alongside the Welcome Centre for Immigrant Services and Domino’s Pizza. As a self-described lifetime foodie, Yu, 61, delights in communing with fellow food enthusiasts. When discussing Canadian's often dismal experience with Chinese food, Yu tells us that, “It’s all to do with exposure. Canadians were brought up with pseudo-Westernized dishes like the Egg Foo Young or Chop Suey and that is their reference.” Yu has joined us at Fu Lam Court to show us how to order a Hong Kong quality meal in an authentic Chinese restaurant in Canada.

According to Yu, knowing what the chef does well is essential when deciding on a restaurant. And a little luck helps too. Chef Lai’s renowned signature crab is what entices Yu to this particular restaurant. “It’s trial and error when choosing a restaurant,” says Yu. “Even when people rave about a restaurant, when you go, if your luck is on holiday, or took the day off, or had an argument with his wife, or lost in Ma Jong - you may not have a good experience.”

Taking his role as host seriously, Yu scrutinizes the menu. Typically at a Chinese meal, one person, the “host” will order for the table. Dining in a group offers more opportunity to experiment. Yu consults the server about the house specials before making any decisions. He sighs with disappointment because we don’t have enough people to order duck, but at least we have enough for a whole fish. Duck is a treat, Yu explains, because preparing it at home is challenging.

Before ordering, Yu—as any good host shouldconsiders the preferences of his guests. “I will order Stir Fried Grouper Filet with XO Sauce,” says Yu, “because you come from Sichuan.” Earlier I told Yu about my experience living in that province, where I developed a taste for chilies. “I would never order this dish with my family because like most Cantonese people, they don’t like spicy food,” says Yu.

Before choosing the next dish, Yu considers seasonality. “Goat, lamb and dog are winter foods; they help circulation. Once they are in your system you can feel the heat. It’s the yin and the yang; they are yang food.” It’s a nippy October evening and the wind outside hints at wintry weather ahead. Yu orders lamb. “Lamb is not a favourite meat amongst Chinese except in the west [of China], but the way the chef here treats the rack of lamb is great. I just love it.”

Next, the server, dinner guests and Yu deliberate over which vegetable to order. “Chinese love vegetables,” says Yu. The guests grumble again when we learn the restaurant is out of tung choi. The server persuades Yu to opt for bok choi hearts, despite his misgivings that Village Style Bok Choi might be too commonplace for our meal. Regardless, everyone agrees no meal is complete without some sort of Chinese greens.

When ordering, according to Yu, one should also consider the symbolism of specific foods. “When we eat out, we always have seafood and chicken because they bring luck,” says Yu. “Seafood is fresh and alive, so it also brings joy and good karma.” For our seafood course, Yu orders the signature dish – Whole Dungeness Crab in a Rum Cream Sauce.

Freshness is another dominant theme in Yu’s discourse on what is important in Chinese food. He decides on Stir Fried Free Range Chicken with Shallots while reminiscing about his early childhood in Hong Kong. “When we were young, we did not eat anything frozen, air chilled, or with hormones…. All chickens were free range and came with feathers. It is a sign of life, a sign of freshness.”

For a complete meal, typically the host orders one dish per person and an extra for the table. “I am going to test the skill of the chef by ordering Stir Fry Beef with Gai Lan,” says Yu. “It is a classic Cantonese dish that has to be done properly otherwise the beef will be too starchy or the gravy won’t be right.” As the sixth dish for six diners, it completes the meal since Fung Lam Court serves complimentary soup to start. With seven dishes total, Yu is confident no one will leave hungry.

After our feast, Yu compares eating Chinese food to drinking wine. “Don’t place too much emphasis on what other people think. I may recommend something that I think is good, but you might not think so.” Exuding sincerity, Yu shares more of his philosophy on enjoying Chinese food: “Trust your own palate. Try to eat as much as possible. It’s just an experience basically.”