"Learn to eat spicy food and you'll never know the cold."
That’s a rough translation for the phrase I sometimes hear when asking for a little chili paste to accompany my Chinese food. Like a cousin-through-marriage, my cuisine-through-marriage has become Cantonese. For the uninitiated, Cantonese cuisine focuses on simple preparations designed to highlight the freshness of the main ingredients. Based in the Asian culinary capital of Hong Kong, much of the food is in fact seafood. Here in Boston, most all the Chinese are from Hong Kong. Similar to the way I’ve heard Indian friends talk about the ‘brain drain’ of talent leaving India for the US, I hear locals talk about how Hong Kong faces a steady drain of good chefs, coming to Boston. While the Chinese are given to exuberance in story telling, sometimes even exaggeration, it is true that we are fortunate to have really great Cantonese style cuisine right here in good ol’ Beantown.
I often tease my husband about his repeated mini-lectures about the superiority of this region’s cuisine. “See, with really fresh seafood, superior chefs need no heavy sauces. We really just let the quality of the ingredients shine through.” I grew up with more of an affinity for styles of cuisine favored in the Northern, mainland China. Rich, garlicky Hunan style sauces and fiery Szechuan are what I crave. Another of our favorites is dim sum, again in the HK style. Thin, delicate wrappers around lightly steamed morsels of shrimp and so forth, freshly made and served on the continuous steam carts pushed through tables and tables of eager diners. One of our favorite dumplings is made with a heavier wrapper and served with a sharp red vinegar, julienned ginger accompaniment. Heavier wrapping means what? You’ve been paying attention – Northern style!
Knowing I did not want to offend either the chef or my new husband, I waited quite a while to ask for anything that might “mask the clean flavors of fresh seafood.” On one of his mother’s first visits I noticed her liberal use of red chili sauce with her meals. I was saved! I have shown that I need no fork or knife, I can de-bone a whole fish, and I know better than to smother good fresh food with too much soy or chili. I use just the right amount and waited a respectable amount of time to ask for it (a bit after our first anniversary) It’s with a bit of admiration now that when our regular servers bring the hot chili oil for me, they say: “Learn to eat spicy food and you’ll never know the cold.”