I now think there was something else going on. Grandpa was born in Shanghai in 1914, his father a bank manager at HSBC. In a memoir he wrote for us, Grandpa remembered his parents entertaining guests there or in Hong Kong with "marrow bones wrapped in white napkins" (which he thought over-rated), and the time, "A party of officers from the 'Hawkins', then China flagship, called for tea one day with their pet honey-bear. It raised a tantrum at not being given enough cakes and swept about a dozen pots to destruction." I think taking his grandchildren for dinner recaptured some of that mayhem.
My friend Jonathan Clements begins his new book with his own childhood memories of a Chinese restaurant where his dad worked as a drummer in a band, and where impressionable young Clemmo "ate all the time." From this, he tells the history of China through its food, the impeccable research peppered with his own experience of living and working in China. It's fascinating, funny and full of great detail. The very idea is intoxicating: a nation marches on its stomach, as Napoleon didn't quite say.
A lot of the book is about authenticity - or the lack of it - in the staples we recognise: "Peking" duck really derives from Nanjing; Zuo Zongtang (1812-85),"is unlikely ever to have tasted anything like" (p. 167) the dish later named after him and known to us as "General Tso's Chicken"; "Sichuan Alligator" (p. 200) is just the most egregious example of dishes erroneously claiming links to Sichuan. In this quest for fidelity, there's plenty on the origin of names and problems of translations. For example, trying to order a Big Mac from the McDonalds at Yangyang International Plaza, Jonathan had to describe it sufficiently for his server to give him the Chinese name: "Immense Tyrant Without Compare (ju wu ba)" (p. 195).
"There was me thinking that writing a book about Chinese food would be an excuse for endless 'research' banquets. Instead, I found myself pursuing the strangest possible cul-de-sacs on menus all over the world, not least in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I felt obliged to order the Haggis Spring Rolls on the menu at Bertie's Restaurant. Much like the cheeseburger spring rolls of Detroit, they seem to me like a pointless gilding of the lily, a clickbaity tricking out of a local food purely for Instagram shares and talking points. That's the only explanation I can think of. I love haggis, and I certainly don't mind cheeseburgers, but by what perverse contrariness would you want to wrap them in pastry and deep-fry them?" Jonathan Clements, The Emperor's Feast (2021), p. 201.
Authenticity is at the heart of his compelling final chapter, charting a series of health scares and scandals involving milk powder and milk, and then food standards more generally. This leads into discussion of the supposed origins of COVID, in the "wet markets" of Wuhan, and a culture that silences whistle-blowers and complaints. That, and some thoughts on how COVID might change Chinese dining culture - and the shared plates of food - is fascinating, full of expert insight that I've not seen addressed elsewhere.
Ironically, COVID has meant Jonathan hasn't been able to dine out while writing, and his book ends with memories of his final meal in Soho just before lockdown and dreams of the Chinese restaurant from his childhood. Like him, I am haunted by thoughts of meals anywhere other than home. A particular joy of this book is that it's like dining out in his company. I'll have wonton soup to start.