Her name was Beasty, which I think was an ironic nickname, as she was anything but. She took me on my first real food adventure, proving that if you look hard enough, you can find adventure in the most unlikely of places.
The year was 2001, the place was Oxford, England. She was on the same university course as me, and we did group work together on some of the modules. She was street smart; I was book smart-ish. We were both well-travelled, and both loved food. However, the difference between us was she had explored, whereas I had just visited. She could tell you where the best brochettes in Fez could be found, or who sells the freshest Trdelnik in Prague. She knew where to go for Falafel in Borough Market or Räksmörgås in Stockholm’s Östermalms.
However, nothing about her was boastful, and she never tried to paint herself in a superior light. This was in a world before Instagram, and so her narrations of the dishes were the only way she could story tell her experiences. Beasty was and remained one of the original and purist foodies I have ever met. She wasn’t all high or mighty either – she also knew the best full English was at St Giles Café and the corner shop Spar sold a pretty good samosa in a pinch.
So, when she announced that she was taking me for lunch on Saturday, my heart beat a little faster. It was like going to The Louvre with Tom Hanks.
“We’re going for Yum Cha,” she said. “But we have to get there early because they get super busy and sell out quick. You’re gonna love it, I promise.”
“We’re going for what?” I asked. She had already hung up.
Throughout the week, I was trying to research more about this Yum Cha, but because I didn’t even know if I was saying it right, I had no idea where to look. Plus, I was a student, internet cafes ruled, and we still played snake on our Nokia phones. This was pre-Netflix, and I don’t think the term foodie had even been invented yet.
I saw Beasty again mid-week, briefly at a lecture and casually asked where we were going again for lunch as if I had forgotten and just remembered in passing.
“Yum Cha,” she said again. “Tea and Dim Sum,” she explained as if that should clear it all up. I was none the wiser. I had genuinely never heard of Dim Sum before. My food experiences had been restricted to British pub food and Lebanese and high street “Ethnic” cuisine. Mutton korma with mango chutney and sweet and sour chicken and prawn crackers was about as exotic as it got.
Little did I know this was going to be one of my most powerful food memories. A meal of the strange and unfamiliar. An experience that took me to faraway lands and exciting prospects. Languages, smells, sounds, flavours, and textures that were all alien to me and my mind and mouth tripped over each other, trying to comprehend everything.
I can’t even remember the name of the restaurant – Hidden Dragon Opium Bar, or something like that. I have vague recollections of a small entrance, through the back of a laundromat, past tattooed old men playing with dice and snakes. Of course, my memory has clearly been influenced and diluted over the years – this was Oxford, England – the City of Dreaming Spires. There is no way they have laundromats there.
The room was chaotic and loud, hot, and full of character and movement and smells. We sat at one of the few remaining tables, and I let Beasty take the lead. From the kitchen, a lady wheeled out a trolley of bamboo containers so tall, she could barely see over them. Beasty flagged her down like a trader at an auction. There was a flurry of conversation, a mix of English, and what I could only assume was Cantonese. It was a short, violent exchange ending in smiles and several seemingly random bamboo baskets being placed on our table.
“Har Gow, Xiaolongbao, Shumai, cha siu bao,” she said in a high pitched shrill and placed four different baskets on the table.
Beasty put one hand on the lid of the bamboo steamer baskets and looked at me dead in the eyes. “Before we begin, I have something important to tell you,” she said.
“Chopsticks,” she announced, holding up her set, in case I was not familiar with them. “A few rules you need to know about chopsticks. Never stick them straight down into your food. It’s considered bad luck. It resembles incense sticks for the dead and will bring bad health.”
“Don’t bang the sticks against your bowl,” she continued. “Beggars used to do this for attention, and it will bring poverty to your family.”
“Always eat the last grain of rice in your bowl. This means your future wife will have smooth, perfect skin. Never lean across the table for food. Serve tea to others before yourself. Never take the last dim sum without permission and don’t use your hands.”
As I sat there in front of those towers of bamboo containers, trying to remember all these rules, Beasty poured me the first of many cups of fragrant, floral jasmine tea. It was light, clean and refreshing and a million miles away from the milky Tetley’s or Lipton I was used to.
I lost track of how many different Dim Sum we tried, but four stuck in my memory, and I can recall how they looked and tasted, with considerable accuracy.
Har Gow is the purse shaped shrimp dumplings, with perfect pleating, evenly crimped along the edge. They had smooth, tacky skin, with a fleshy shrimp filling that was toothsome and lusciously tender.
Shumai was a meaty, crowd-pleasing little open-faced dumpling, with minced pork, shrimp, mushroom and bamboo shoots. A thin egg dough wrapper with an orange garnish dot of crab roe and carrot top. This dumpling was bouncy, fresh, and slightly sticky with delicious juices that coated your mouth.
The Cha Siu Boa blew my mind. Maybe it was all the antioxidants coursing through my veins from the tea, but I was in awe of these little clouds of perfection. Soft, pale, steamed bread buns, (steamed bread, what a time to be alive!) ever so sweet with piping hot, sticky sweet BBQ filling. Even today, they still provide me with a considerable amount of satisfaction when I tear them in half.
I broke a cardinal rule by reaching over to grab another one. Beasty stabbed me in the back of the hand with her chopstick.
The Xiaolongbao to this day remains my favourite. I had never experienced anything like that before. A pork and crab soup dumpling. So many questions raced through my mind, as the gyoza skin burst in my mouth and the hot, salty soup coated my tongue and throat. Who makes these? How did you get the soup in there? Why have I never had these before?
The trolley kept on coming, the bamboo basket towers depleting as they made their way across the busy room. Our teapot was refilled continuously, and the noise was relentless. It was a blurry few hours of sensory overload. It was magnificent.
We stumbled out into the murky sunlight and walked back to the bus stop. I felt as if we had returned from somewhere exotic and alien. I felt like we had been part of a secret club. I felt we had been on an adventure, and it was then I realised the power of food, with its ability to transport you thousands of miles with a single mouthful.