I wrote several months ago about reverse culture shock and why it’s one of the more destabilizing feelings a person can experience. It’s the earthquake equivalent of emotional adjustment. All you want to do is lie on the ground to make it stop, but that only serves to exacerbate the feeling of unsettledness. The very thing that should be anchoring you is the very cause of disturbance.
To date, most of my quests to merge past lives into my current one revolve around finding Asian food. I’ve needed to stop the gap in this seemingly bottomless pit of an appetite for Chinese food I cultivated five years ago when I lived in Kaifeng. In the years since I’ve left, I have found only three things that have scratched this neverending itch.
Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu has been my standby for homemade Chinese food since a friend recommended it to me a year or so ago. If you are suffering from withdrawal from the food of Northern China and the atmosphere that surrounds the steamy bowls of spicy broth noodles, this book is your new jam.
Asian food discovery number two was in one of the most unlikely of spots – on a side street in the center of Brussels. Rue Grétry is parallel to Celtica, that boozy bastion of insanely cheap happy hour specials that always turn into bad late-night life choices.
Auntie’s Café is a narrow, two-storied restaurant and one of the most authentically Chinese restaurants I’ve encountered outside of the People’s Republic. The tables hold lazy susans, the enabler of family-style serving that’s found throughout China, and the tea is served in tall, cylindrical glasses that show off the blooming of the tightly packed dried tea leaf as it soaks in the piping hot water. Elaborate fragrant cedar carvings and Chinese fortune knots decorate the walls that otherwise have that shabby greyness of utilitarianism to them.
But it’s the food that won me over. Their yu shiang, or fish-fragrant eggplant, was meaty and slick with a sauce that slipped over the tenderly cooked slices of aubergine, carrots, garlic and onions. The baozi, soup-filled pork dumplings, were soupy and soft, the dough stretching valiantly to keep itself together despite the weight in gold it carried within itself: that buttery, pork flavored broth and meat that’s the heart and soul of the famous dumpling. The condiments on the table were fit to boot as well: nothing but black vinegar and chili sauce to swirl together in the tiny saucer-like dish next to your plate.
If I wanted to truly dig into my Chinese past and end the meal in the only appropriate way for a proper Chinese feast, I could have had a digestif of baijiu, that inescapable rice liquor whose very smell is the smell of my liver dying. Needless to say, you can pass on that when topping off a meal at Auntie’s Café in Belgium.
The third place I’ve found has been equally as random and equally as distant from Asia as Auntie’s Café. Walking into Café East, a strip mall restaurant located next to a bowling alley and grocery store in the southeastern London neighborhood of Surrey Quays, is like walking into the Southeast Asian peninsula without needing your passport.
The only people who eat here are the Asian immigrants who have found themselves in London. It’s a large open room with tables packed closely together, making it feel more like a cantine than a restaurant. The fresh cloth tablecloths help tip the restaurant’s balance in favor of being efficient and clean though instead of stark and utilitarian.
The food is astoundingly good. The noodle soups thrive on that delicate thread of evenness between being searingly spicy enough to make your eyes and nose water just ever so, while being supported on deep base of umaminess. This savoury foundation anchors the broth in pure comfort food territory.
The mix of noodles – hand pulled, glass and egg – slink and skate around slips of fragrant cilantro, meat and vegetables. There’s no way to eat it politely. It’s too good and savoury to let you waste any drop, so you’re resigned to literally hunkering down and slurping with the best of them.
Sadly, I don’t have photos of any of these places, I was always too busy fixating on the meal at hand to care about photographic evidence. But just knowing that there are places out there like this beyond Asia is comforting. It helps to somehow quell the annoying, stressful feeling that I’m forever going to be missing some of my favorite experiences from life in Asia. But then again, it just gives me more reason to go back.