The first time I visited London’s Chinatown was in the late 1980s, when a Singaporean family friend, Li-Er, took my cousin and me there for dim sum. To a Chinese-food virgin, as I was at the time, it was daring and exotic. We passed pillars wreathed in dragons on our way into the cavernous Chuen Cheng Ku, where we sat among the roaming trolleys, eating strange tidbits made with unfathomable ingredients. The textures of the food were unlike anything I’d encountered before: flabby, glutinous, taut, and slippery.
I was still in my teens, already a keen cook and adventurous eater, and I’d acquired from my mother a habit of analyzing new dishes, trying to guess how and with what they’d been made. But until that Sunday lunchtime, the nearest I’d got to tasting real Chinese food was the occasional takeaway of deep-fried pork balls with a slick of bright red sweet-and-sour sauce, chicken with tinned bamboo shoots, and egg-fried rice (which, incidentally, I adored). In Chuen Cheng Ku, I was thrilled and baffled in equal measure. I was game for eating anything, so I tried my first chicken’s foot, steamed in black bean sauce, and scoffed down mysterious, slithery rolls stuffed with prawns and slabs of something white and pasty. I couldn’t have guessed what went into most of the snacks and had no yardstick with which to judge them. Without Li-Er, I doubt that I’d have ventured into that kind of restaurant at all. Our dim sum lunch was just an isolated adventure. I had no idea then Chinese food was going to become an obsession that would take over my life.
It wasn’t until a few years later, in 1992, that I made the first of many trips to China. I backpacked my way around the country, from Guangzhou to Yangshuo, Chongqing, and Beijing. Like many foreign travelers, I was stymied by my lack of knowledge and my inability to speak or read the language. Aside from a few famous delicacies like Peking duck, I didn’t know what I should eat or where to find it. Once inside a restaurant, I didn’t have a clue how to order. My gastronomic experiences on the trip were random and haphazard.