I know nothing about Chinese food. I grew up deadened to it by years of Chinese takeout, the knee-jerk resort of a busy mom who ordered beef broccoli and cake noodles every time she was too tired to cook. Given how often we ate beef broccoli and cake noodles, Chinese nights were never joyous nights.
In adulthood, hope appeared. Garlic crab and pei pa tofu at Dynasty. Beef tendon casserole braised with star anise in Kaimuki. Chili crab in Singapore. Char kway teow in Malaysia. Lamb hotpot at Little Village. Pork belly simmered with pomelo rind from my friend’s dad. Amazing food moments, all scattered across my taste memory like so many unconnected dots.
Then last month Melissa Chang accepts my presence at her final visit to review Lobster King. Lobster e-mein in XO sauce appears. In one mouthful it expands my view of Chinese food: succulent lobster tossed in a sauce lifted at the edges by fresh, aromatic herbs, atop a mound of airy, nearly spongy noodles.
Melissa is aghast: Have you had e-mein before?
Me: E-mein? I don’t know.
Melissa, cocking her head as if in warning: This is not airy. This is not light.
Me: It is! It’s fluffy!
Melissa: No. No. Good e-mein is lighter than this, and it’s not short like this, because it symbolizes long life.
Me: It’s lighter than cake noodles! The depth of the sauce, the brightness of the herbs, this dish is changing my view of Chinese food!
Melissa: Don’t embarrass me.
Great things arose from that lunch. Melissa realized that she is a Chinee foodie (yes, Chinee). She may not have acknowledged it before, but the horror evoked by my giddy ignorance slapped her to her senses, especially after her friend Jennifer Lieu told her, “I respect Mari and all, but after the lobster e-mein, I don’t know.”
It was pivotal for me too. I realized I have everything to learn about Chinese food. It’s an open road, this cuisine, with probably a bazillion things to stop and taste and discover. I’m not trying to be an expert, and I’ll never seriously review a Chinese meal, but there’s way more to the scene than beef broccoli and even e-mein, and now’s my chance to start connecting the dots.
So that’s what I’ve been doing. Any Chinese meal I can get invited to with a credible food guide, I’m there. I’m not looking for the best cold ginger chicken or hot sour soup, and I don’t care whether the fish maw is big or small, whether we get live crab or lobster or the noodles are long enough. For me now, on this open road, a meal succeeds if new doors are opened, and I find a few delicious dishes I never knew existed.
If you’re Chinese or a Chinese food expert, this gallery may make you cringe. If you’re a novice like me looking for new reasons to get excited about an old standby cuisine, click on.
Food guide: Gypsy Raven
Shanghai-style cooking in a strip mall in Kalihi. Known for some of the best soup-filled xiao long bao dumplings in town.
Shanghai cuisine has lighter flavors and sauces that often feature soy. Food guide today is Gypsy Raven, a native Shanghainese who organizes a tweetup and orders way more courses than I can remember.
Ming's Chinese Restaurant
1414 Dillingham Blvd.
The latest dinner, at Happy Days, came courtesy of my friend Stacy’s dad, Robert Lee, a leader of the Honolulu Chaine des Rotisseurs. It’s not exactly a secret society, but close: It formed in 1248, now has chapters scattered across the globe, and if you’re a gourmand or in the food and beverage industry, you have to be nominated and inducted. For that you get to feast at command-performance dinners by top chefs all over the world.