In the book, one character communes with the spirit world. She tells the main character a little secret about the yin people of the ghostly plane: those who choose to be reincarnated always want to become Chinese in another life. And you know why? The food! "Chinese food is the best in the world," the spirit-seeing character declares. I don't know if it's The Best, but I must say it's the most prolific ethnic food in the world.
I've been to almost 30 countries and I've found a Chinese restaurant in almost every corner of the globe. There are more than 25 million overseas Chinese in the world, all adapting their cuisine to local tastes. Most of my life has been about avoiding these faux Chinese joints. But I have discovered that it's hard to deny one's epicurean soul. I feel as if I was borne out of a sea of egg rolls and fried noodles. It's in my pores.
The first inauthentic Chinese resto I encountered was when my family first moved from Malaysia to Canada in 1976 to a small town called Oyen on the Saskatchewan-Alberta border. It had 1,000 people and one Chinese restaurant. People took pains to point out the restaurant. My mother wasn't amused.
"What's this 'chicken balls' stuff?" she wondered. I don't think we ever ate there. We soon discovered Chinese were known for their restaurants. When my family visited the biggest perogy in the world in Glendon, Alberta, we ate at the Perogy Hut next door. The owner talked up my father and casually mentioned the hut was for sale and would he be interested in running it? We almost all choked on our food. My dad is a gas and pipeline engineer. He knows nothing about running a restaurant. He declined.
Wherever I go, locals always want to take me to their favourite Chinese restaurant. Don't they realize it can never measure up? I once told a friend, who had a predilection for chicken balls and that vile, gooey sweet n' sour sauce, the red sauce was made from the blood of white men. He kept eating. Years later, I'd find myself in Corner Brook, Newfoundland working for CBC Radio. A co-worker insisted on taking me to one of the two Chinese restaurants in town. The food was passable. I remember the strange taste of the curry beef. It was neither Chinese, nor Indian.
On my first visit to Europe I avoided all the Chinese restaurants. There were probably just as many Chinese joints as there were McDonald's. I was amused to discover an ad for an Italian-Chinese café in Rome. Its name? "Ni Hao Ciao" How brilliant, Chinese and Italian for hello. On my second trip, things would change. I visited my Spanish friend Macu and her family at their beach-front house in southern Spain. Her father had traveled a lot and proceeded to ask me about my heritage. "I've been everywhere and do you know what the best food in the world is?" I guessed.
"Chinese food!" he rhapsodized. "It's so good. They know how to put ingredients together." With that, he promised to take me to the best Chinese restaurant on that coast amidst my protests that I really wanted to eat more Spanish food.
"Pfft! It's not as good as Chinese food," he scolded. "I'll take you to the Chinese restaurant, it's much better than any Spanish food you'll get." He packed us off to the Chinese restaurant on the coast. They made me do the ordering. All I remember now was the Singapore-fried noodles with little shrimps, egg, chicken and turmeric seasoning. It tasted like home.
By the time I reached Sweden, I had a hankering for more Chinese food. In a small university town called Lund I relented and ordered one of those pre-set three-course meals at the local Chinese resto. I recall devouring the fried noodles blissfully. No more bread and cheese!
The next day, three Swedish businessmen approached me on the street and asked where the Chinese restaurant was. Part of me desperately wanted to berate them: "Just because I'm Asian doesn't mean I know where the local Chinese restaurant is!" I gave them the directions reluctantly. Since that experience, I have eaten Chinese food in all kinds of places: Prague, southern France, even Jerusalem (I just couldn't stand anymore falafel).
I discovered in my recent travels, Peruvians and Bolivians have their fair share of Chinese places they call chifas. I tried a place called The New Hong Kong in Sucre, Bolivia and was assured the chef was Chinese. It was an oily affair of fried noodles with ham and sizzling beef. The next day was an unpleasant regurgitation of the meal. I gave up on the chifas and went Japanese instead. Udon noodles with fried tofu and a starter of California sushi at Wagamama in La Paz. Divine.
The character in Amy Tan's book is only partly right. For me, all Asian food is the best in the world. The most delicious part is, I don't need to be reincarnated. It's in me.