Growing up, I thought I knew what good Chinese was: always-reliable hot-and-sour soup, fried-then-sauced sesame chicken, thin pancakes stuffed with pork and rolled into burritos. It was Americanized MSG at it’s very best, and a staple in the Baker family dining rotation.
But one faithful night in college, a friend (whose Mother was Chinese) invited me to his favorite Cantonese restaurant. And it forever changed the way I viewed ethnic food.
I was the only person there that didn’t speak the language. There were no forks, no crispy noodles to drop in my soup, no fortune cookies. The bustling staff, rattling off orders in their native tongue made me gawk in awe. Where were the familiar canisters of sweet ‘n’ sour sauce and spicy mustard? What were all these different menu items? Chrysanthemum tea? Snow pea leaves? Rice casseroles?
Any doubt or fear I had was erased almost immediately. The food was marvelous, addictive, and eye opening. It was like traveling to a completely new culture without leaving my hometown. It was one part culinary adventure, one part education. It didn’t just give me a gluttonous sense of satisfaction; it made me feel as though I had made a personal discovery.
Most major metropolitans have ethnic pockets … colorful parts of town that those unfamiliar tend to view as different, weird or scary. It’s been 10 years since Mr. Pham took me to dinner, but I have since been forever on the hunt for places where English is a second language. Places that make me feel as though I’m somewhere else. Places that give me an enriching cultural experience that also happen to be ridiculously delicious.
Eating should be a journey. Sometimes I think we, as Americans, forget that.