CHINESE WHISPERS

By James Casey. Photography by Alastair Casey.
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A modern day chichi seeks out Cantonese comfort food of the highest order.

Let’s talk about comfort food.

No, not chicken pot pie, or mashed potatoes shellacked with starchy gravy, or creosotic mac ‘n cheese that inspires whimsy throughout the lower 48. Here, we’ll be talking Chinese—specifically, Cantonese comfort food.

To be clear, I’m not Chinese. I grew up in Hong Kong throughout the 1980s and mid-90s. I’m what the Dutch colonialists referred to as a “lip-lap,” what locals during the Raj referred to as a “chichi.” Both of these terms—used to describe foreign children born and bred in the colonies and perceived to lack an ethnic compass—are naturally pejorative: lip-lap refers to the discarded husk of a coconut, while chichi in Hindi literally means dirt. I believe today’s lip-laps define themselves as ‘third-culture kids.’ But I’ll stick with the original, thank you.

While the food at home was vaguely English, the streets of the city held the promise of culinary adventure. Dingy dai pai dongs (open-air food stands) offered up wokfuls of greasy beef ho fun, while errant cha chaan tengs (homegrown greasy spoons) served up thick-cut slices of toast, buttered then drizzled with condensed milk.

A decade-and-a-half later, on the other side of the world, New York City’s Chinatown offers similar comforting sustenance. When taken ill, I’ll skip the Jewish penicillin and mainline Chinese clonazepam, better known here as congee. Sure, it appears as nothing more than flavorless pap (it is, after all, soupy over-boiled rice), but a sloop of soy sauce and a whiff of white pepper enlivens the proceedings: pieces of pork served alongside small gelatinous slices of preserved egg, dotted with slivers of ginger and scallions.

In formica clad bakeries throughout Chinatown, sticky sweet hotdog buns are scarfed down with a bowl of instant noodles crowned with “luncheon meat”—a quaintly ominous synonym for spam. It’s washed down with a juice box of Vita lemon tea, and finished up with a small daan tat, or steamed egg custard tart.

But for the ultimate comfort station, I’m sure to visit to one of the better siu meis (barbeque houses), in whose windows are displayed all manner of scorched beasts braided and strung up for public consumption. Whether it’s char siu faan (roast pork on rice) or the occasional siu ap faan (roasted duck on rice), you really can’t go wrong. Chopped to order, and served at room temperature on top of a mound of warm rice with a side of chili oil and a can of coke—Chinese food’s unlikely soulmate—it’s just about all the convalescence this chichi needs.

 

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