Rumblings: Atomic fusion
GUEST VOICES: Keith Tamkei
Until a dormant genetic spark plug fires, I've resigned myself to the fact that I will never have the burly fire extinguisher arms of my dad, and will continue to look like a ball of wool with two knitting needles stuck into it.
My father, a cook, used these massive limbs to toss about a hundred thousand grains of rice a day in our takeaway, serving several hundred patrons a week. Many a cow was sacrificed for this cash bovine that clattered and clanked with the sounds of an industrial revolution factory rather than a kitchen. Vegetables being chopped, the hum of a giant extractor and oil squealing over battered meat, plus my dad, cigarette in mouth, tossing and banging his spatula on the edge of a blackened wok added to the mayhem.
It was his success story - my dad could cook, and his shop's chosen position was the closest thing to Chinese cuisine within a 20km radius back then in Harare. Latecomers were not entertained. The glass door would slam shut at precisely 8pm and people, no matter how much they pleaded, were waved off with the glowing end of a Benson & Hedges - he knew they would return.
And what they returned for were deep-fried spring rolls the length of Michael Phelps's shoe, overflowing plates of egg noodles, oily sweet and sour pork, chicken and beef, fried rice, or a "Businessman's lunch" that had a slash of everything on a foil platter. All tailored to sell, dripping with the stuff off a cardiologist's hit list and a raw foodist's torture chamber.
But back in the '80s, what the countless customers hailed as "authentic Chinese" was hardly that. A tailoring of Cantonese style rounded off with liberal doses of MSG and sodium chloride, yes, but it wasn't the home flavours that I sat down to at the dinner table. In contrast to the production-line stampings of my dad's shop, at home my siblings and I were treated to the delicately braised meats, exotic ingredients and aromas of Guangdong from whence my folks hailed.
With South African palates for Asian cuisine becoming more discerning, places like my dad's have had their day - unfortunate for those who still persist in serving obscure "Kung Pow" fare that is divorced from its heritage. And while food does inevitably evolve and borrow from an assortment of influences, fusion establishments manage to monster up the worst incongruence. I've been to fusion restaurants where a concoction of ostensibly Thai-Sino-Japanese, splashed with a sweet or soya sauce, was attractively propositioned to unsuspecting patrons as Asian. Or curdled dairy has somehow made its way onto the menu in bite-sized offerings, a culinary antithesis to the Oriental disdain for cheese, and their preference for food en masse. We're not small eaters.
More foreigners from China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia are settling in this wonderful country, opening shop and offering fermented Kimchee, tongue-branding Szechuan, red Moyanese-style pork and silky-smooth Cantonese chee-cheong-fun. And more restaurant patrons tug their waiter and ask for some "home cooking" or see the unfamiliar and ask for the same. We could very well witness the welcome demise of Asian fusion and the turn towards authenticity. Worth considering when you order congee and bite into your first amber-coloured, thousand-year-old Pei Dan.
Keith Tamkei is a designer at Sunday Times Lifestyle.