Wednesday, 27 January 2010

slow food

A few years ago, while I was back in the UK, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen for some time. In the course of the ensuing conversation, he happened to mention that his family had been to New Zealand en masse to attend his sister’s wedding. On the return journey, they had a six-hour stopover in Hong Kong.

“Guess where they ate,” he said.

“No need to guess,” I replied. “They ate at McDonald’s.”

I feel deeply sorry for people who have a chance to eat one meal in Hong Kong and this is what they choose. But I’m not surprised. People like McDonald’s because every item on the menu tastes exactly the same, whether it’s in Beijing or London, Moscow or New York, or in the same restaurant, every time. It’s somehow ‘reliable’. It’s also why I dislike it. Variation is, or should be, part of the attraction of eating the same thing regularly.

Every time my wife and I go for breakfast at our nearby restaurant, a dish we always order is har gow, which are small dumplings consisting of fresh prawns wrapped in rice-flour pastry and steamed. And every time there is something different: the pastry is thicker or more glutinous; or the seasoning varies; and the crunchiness of the prawns depends on precisely how long they’ve been steamed. We eat them slowly and compare notes. We drink tea from very small cups, and we chat about the restaurant’s clientele. Well over a hundred of them at any one time. And at 63, I’m probably below the average age.

Yam char (‘drink tea’) is an important cultural ritual here, and this is the only restaurant in Luen Wo Hui (plenty of eateries, but this is the only restaurant). Everyone shares tables, but it’s still more or less full by 7am. Once we’ve found somewhere to sit, we order the tea (usually sow mei). The waitress brings two pots, one with tea and one with boiling water, and a large empty dish. The water is for us to clean our bowls, spoons, cups and chopsticks, which are on the table beforehand and have in fact already been washed. Anyway, cleaning the utensils is my responsibility, and I have my own method, but the best thing about this process is watching how other people do it. And everyone has their own method, not all of which are good or sensible. Some people even use the tea rather than the water, which I’ve never understood.

In the old days (1990s), women pushed heated trolleys around the restaurant laden with steaming baskets and with signs on the front telling you what was in the baskets (going back to the old, old days (1970s), the trolley pushers used to shout out what they had on board, making a noisy room even noisier). Nowadays, however, we can fill in an order card, and we always order the same three dishes. There is a large open counter in one corner, and while we wait for our three dim sum favourites to arrive (freshly prepared, so it takes about 15 minutes), my wife selects a couple of other dishes to keep us going. Everything is relaxed, despite the loudness of the background chatter. This is slow food, where eating is never done in a hurry, and nobody is hassling you to leave to make way for incoming patrons.

This last point reminds me of an Italian American restaurant my wife and I once visited in the posh district of Kowloon Tong on the recommendation of her then boss. We were aware that it was very popular, so my wife called to reserve a table for seven o’clock. Sorry, you can book for six o’clock or seven thirty, but not seven o’clock. I’ll gloss over the meal itself, which wasn’t bad but wasn’t exciting either. The one incident that has stuck in my memory came at the end. We’d finished eating, and a waiter asked whether we’d like dessert or coffee. No we wouldn’t. Less than a minute later, the same waiter returned.

“Excuse me sir,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve taken the trouble of preparing your bill.”

In other words: “We aren’t going to get any more money out of you, so fuck off!”

This may seem like an extreme interpretation, but it is how I felt at the time. And we would have left within the next five minutes anyway. We’ve never been back.

When I analyse it, this is a restaurant run by accountants, who may know how to maximize income but have no feeling for the adventure of eating. They sell you a homogenized, pre-packaged, standardized, ninety-minute dining experience. It may be more expensive than eating at McDonald’s, you may have your food brought to the table, and you may pay at the end of your meal, but the underlying philosophy is the same.

I’ve no doubt that McDonald’s has a business plan and a mission statement, and that in neither document will you find any reference to what the company really stands for. In fact, like MTV in the music field, McDonald’s is representative of an accelerating trend towards the homogenization of popular culture throughout the world. The company can only expand at the expense of indigenous cultures; for example, it opened hundreds of new outlets in the 1990s in Beijing, and now almost no local under thirty years of age knows, or is interested in learning, how to prepare traditional Pekinese dumplings. Within a generation, no one will remember what they tasted like either, although some ersatz replacement may well be available at the nearest McDonald’s ‘restaurant’, complete with ‘tangy’ sauce, whatever that means.


  1. I think I can tell you why some people use tea to clean their utensil instead of the boiling water,because they wash the tea as well.Restaurant usually store the tea leaves in an open tray for easy access, and they will cover with dust, so people use the first round of water to remove the dirt from the tea leaves.

  2. Splendid read. Being a lover of good food as well as cooking, I can relate to what you are saying. The adventure of eating is but for a chosen few. What you have mentioned about "homogenised, pre-packaged, standardised" holds good not alone for food but almost everything. I guess that is the by-product of globalisation which is spreading its tentacles far and wide.

    The post was a lovely blend of dining experience+food history+personal anecdotes.

    Currently I am reading a book 'Curry' by Lizzie Collingham, which is about the food history in India. Very interesting. I am sure you will like it as well.

    Joy always,

  3. protoworkannie, yes I've heard that, but personally I don't see a problem, given the rapid turnover of tea in a large and busy restaurant. And you lose the flavour volatiles from the first infusion.

    Susan, I agree that globalization isn't all it's cracked up to be. But the big multinationals can make bigger profits if everyone is persuaded to like the same foods, listen to the same music, watch the same films, etc., etc. One global culture is not a good idea from where I stand.

  4. Wonderful reading. I enjoyed every bit of it and I am in agreement with you that exploring various food cultures is a must when traveling. Dining should be an experience and a kind of experiment at the same time. Makes it all fun. And poop on those that rush you out of restaurants!

  5. Excuse me sir,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve taken the trouble of preparing your bill.”
    In other words: “We aren’t going to get any more money out of you, so fuck off!”'

    - - - - - - - - -

    This in a nutshell is the primary reason that Starbucks is so successful. In exchange for paying $5 for a ridiculously overpriced mediocre coffee drink, they let you hang out all afternoon, checking your e-mail for free.

  6. I live in Atlanta, which now boasts quite a few over-priced restaurants du jour. I always come away feeling disappointed, for the same reasons you outlined above. The best restaurants here are the little hole-in-the-wall, family run places on a strip of highway which is heavily populated by Hispanics, Africans, Asians, and Middle Easterners. These are the places where one can have a true, home-cooked meal, where the proprietors are thrilled to share their culture with you, where there is no rush.

  7. You’re absolutely right Kris. There is no better way to learn about a culture than through its food.

  8. dennis, reading this post gives me a nostalgic feeling to old time when i lived in china, hung out with friends, tasted all different type of "Xiao Chi" ("small eat", which means each serve is in very small amount so people can eat many different types of foods in one meal) in Chengdu, Sichuan. The foods were so excellent and each of them were so elegantly made.
    At the time I left China, McDonald just started invading Beijing. It was expensive, considered as "high class" (I have to laugh when typing these words). I remember Bertrand Russell said that (not original texts) Japan imported lots of junk from the West, throwing out lots of their own good things, and he hoped that China would not follow that path. Well, I definitely think Japan did better job than China does, now and then. China has a homogenized ideology since Ching dynasty, hope the diversity of food culture would not get killed by McDonald.
    Thanks for sharing! The photos makes me hungry :-)

    1. You don’t need me to tell you that China has a magnificent culinary heritage Yunyi, and it’s a tragedy that so much of it is being lost to the likes of McDonald’s and other fast food multinationals. I’m pleased to say that when Paula and I were in Beijing a few years ago, we went out of our way to find traditional pan-fried dumplings (and Peking duck!).


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