Friday, February 09, 2007

Monday Magazine: Stopping for Chow:
food as the meeting place between cultures

Memories and meals with Janice Wong
"Towards the end of his life," Vancouver artist Janice Wong tells me,
"my father suffered a number of strokes and lost his speech. It was very difficult for him to communicate." When he died in 1999, she tried to capture something of what her father had gone through.
"I spread and layered the text of things he'd said across a canvas so that the words, while still there, were illegible—like a wave or a movement." While creating this work she looked over the letters he'd sent her over the years and realized that in every one he had a small line about food. Dennis Wong, Victoria born, had been a restaurateur—the owner of The Lotus, one of the first Chinese restaurants in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. "In all his letters he'd tell me how to prepare something he'd sent me, or say, 'Tonight for dinner mom and I had...'"
It's a blue and shimmering spring-in-winter Victoria afternoon and we're walking across the Johnson Street bridge. Wong is in town to speak at a fundraising event and Chinese New Year dinner held by the Victoria Chinatown Lioness Club.

In 2005 she published CHOW, a cookbook-cum-memoir about her parents' early lives in both China and Canada, and the evolution of the family business. It's also about the experiences and formation of the early 20th century Chinese community in Canada, the heartbreaking loneliness of the Gold Mountain Sojourners—men who left their families in China to make their fortune in North America, the wooden Chinatown of Nanaimo and, maybe most of all, about food as the meeting place between cultures. Wong's project was set in motion by her father's letters. "It began as something just for my family—but other people seemed to be interested too. One thing led to another."
CHOW has been a hit, winning a Canadian Culinary Book Award and making a minor celebrity of Wong, who's done speaking engagements and television and radio interviews all across the country. Asked why she thinks her book has been so well received, she says that a lot of people appreciated the story of her family as though it was the sotry of their family. "CHOW could be the story of any immigrant family. And everybody, at some time in their life, has been in a Chinese restaurant. They're in virtually every city in the country."

Make that every city in the world. The Chinese restaurant, hallmark of a diaspora, is an institution in cities everywhere. I had one of the worst meals in my life, I tell her, at a Chinese restaurant in a hill station in India: three fried iron chicken balls literally floating in two cups of sweet and sour sauce. She laughs and says, "For so many people this is what Chinese food meant: chop suey, egg rolls, sweet and sour sauce...And, of course, you can still find that. But the culture has changed and people's tastes have broadened and restaurants are reflecting that."
Wong asks if I have any recommendations for good Chinese food in the city. I mention the delicious dim sum available on Fisgard, the JJ Wonton Noodle House on Fort with their unique sring rolls and honey-sesame chicken. But when I ask if she has any recommendations for Vancouver restaurants she admits she's been spoiled growing up with her father's cooking and the cooking of Art Gee, the chef who worked for many years at the Lotus in Prince Albert. "Art would come up with containers of village-style food. It was our type of sweet and sour—with a mixture of meats and dried vegetables and pickles." I'm intrigued by "village-style" and she tells me that Chinese pickles (which are preserved with salt, not vinegar) and dried goods form the backbone for a lot of traditional cooking, since these were the techniques for preservation before refrigeration.

Wong says the small cuts and flash frying typical of traditional Chinese cooking was a product of fuel conservation. "When my mother was in China one of her jobs was to collect dried grass for cooking, which burns very hot and fast—so they had to cook that way. Steaming relates to this as well—because they could double up by stacking steam trays over the wok to cook everything at once with the same heat."
With Chinese New Year just passed, Wong recommends a recipe for steamed fish from her book—it was one of her father's favourites and a common New Year's dish because the word for whole fish, yu, is the same as the word for "wish" and "abundance." And when preparing this dish, Wong advises, don't flip the fish. There's an old fishermen's superstition that to flip the fish portends a disastrous flipping of the boat—which would positively ruin the sauce.

-Jason Brown, Monday Magazine, Victoria
photograph: Chinatown, Victoria BC

The article includes a recipe for Jing Yu (Steamed Whole Fish)

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