The Tale of the Secret Menu in a Chinese Restaurant
Your “Chinese-ness” can be judged immediately by which menu you order from in a Chinese Restaurant
It was the restaurant I would go to when I was lazy to cook. It was the place I would go to when I was sick. It was the place I would go with my friends if we were celebrating. End of finals, Chinese New Years, handing in our dissertations.
It was the Chinese restaurant right beside my apartment, 88 Chinese Restaurant. Life wouldn’t be complete without an adopted Chinese family when you’re living abroad. And, mine was in the Chinese restaurant which was five minutes away from where I lived. What’s more Chinese than the name of the restaurant — Double 8?
When I went to 88 for the first time, it looked like it was just another Chinese takeout place to grab the westernised Sweet and Sour chicken — where sweetness is derived from canned pineapples and sugar and sourness is derived from pure vinegar. While the white-cloth-covered tables indicated that 88 wasn’t a cheap student takeout restaurant, the menu still consisted of mainly “white-washed” Chinese food. Sweet and sour chicken, kung po chicken, keong chung (in Cantonese) or jiang chung (in Mandarin) chicken, beef and broccoli, chicken chow mien. It was just a bunch of generic Chinese dishes in which you would probably find in Gordon Ramsay’s Asian food menu.
It was only till after a few short visits for a takeout, I finally went there with a few Malaysian and Singaporean friends who would later enlighten me with their order.
“Fo Lam Mien, Hoi Sin Yee Mien, Mapo Tofu,…” my friends made the order while I was still perplexed by the menu that was written in Chinese.
Looking over the counter, I saw the regular English menu.
“I didn’t know they even have all of these dishes,” I told my friends while discerning the two different menus.
While my friends had a good laugh at my confused self, I realised I had been ordering food from the white menu all along. I realised that the menu we were ordering from was the secret menu or the “Chinese” menu.
At the moment when the fo lam mien (braised pork belly with noodles) and hoi sin yee mien (seafood braised yee fu noodles) were served in front of us, I knew 88 was a legit Chinese restaurant. How these dishes looked was sufficient to convince me of the Chinese-ness of the place as it is impossible for generic white Chinese restaurant- goer to order fried noodles topped with the corn starchy egg gravy. It would look — in their words — “unappetising”.
Tasting these dishes and noodles with my subpar adeptness in the art of chopsticks, any skepticism in my head disappeared immediately. This was the day 88 became one of my most regular visited restaurants throughout my stay in Southampton. Almost every week, I would at least go there and order a takeout (from the “Chinese” menu).
The lou pan leong (lady boss) of the restaurant talked to us for a bit on that night and we became acquainted since then. More often than not, when we visit a Chinese restaurant, the waiters, waitress or the owners would always have at least a tiny bit of curiosity about our nationality. While we might be able to speak Mandarin or Cantonese, our accents always sound foreign to Chinese or Hong Kong native. And, from the dishes we would order, they could immediately discern us from the regular Chinese and Hong Kongers. And, that’s how she started recognising us as the Malaysian and Singaporean group.
“This is for guai lou!”
From that point onwards, the lou pan leong would never allow me to order from the “white-washed” menu again. There was once, when I was craving for the westernised version of jiang chung chicken (ginger and scallion chicken), I was going there to order a takeout. Being a Chinese food purist most of the time, it took me quite a long time to admit that I craved for the “white-washed”version of Chinese food at times. The less intricate Chinese dishes — jiang chung chicken, sweet and sour chicken and salt and pepper fried chicken.
I took the “white-washed” menu from the counter. When I was about to order the simplified made-for-white-people jiang chung chicken, a hand came in and intercepted me from pointing “ginger and spring onion chicken” on the menu.
“This is for guai lou!” the lou pan leong said as she was stopping me from committing the crime of ordering “white-washed” dishes in a Chinese restaurant as a Chinese.
She proceeded to pass the authentic Chinese menu to me and asked me to pick an item from that menu.
“It’s winter, it’s cold outside, you should eat more.”
After a year of advocacy, the entire restaurant crew became my adoptive Chinese family in the UK. She basically took care of me with Chinese food, exactly how a Chinese grandma would. When I didn’t meet the rice consumption standards of a typical Chinese person, she would instead top up my bowl with a surfeit of rice. As most Chinese restaurants in the UK offer bottomless rice, I was bewildered with the extraordinary amount of rice a typical Chinese student would usually have. However, in a Chinese restaurant, I was the outcast who who wouldn’t eat more than a bowl of rice. Therefore, as how our Chinese grandma would keep reminding us to have more rice, the lady boss would top up my rice bowl whenever it’s empty.
“It’s winter, it’s cold outside, you should eat more.” she would say to me a lot during winter.
When the horrendous English weather came during winter, in addition to topping me up with more rice, she would serve a bowl of hot soup on the house. There have also been a few instances where she gave us a few plates of dim sum on the house. Though she told us that they are leftovers from the morning, they were still top notch dim sum. Siu mai, char siew pork buns and wu gok (yam tart). And when I wasn’t feeling well, she would ask her chef to cook pei tan chuk (thousand year old egg porridge) for me. There’s no better comfort food than Chinese porridge when you have a cold.
My family meets my adoptive family
All great things about 88 eventually came to an end. As my uni years in Southampton were coming to an end, I knew the restaurant was going to become an essential part of the epoch of my university life in Southampton. Recounting the final few visits to the restaurant, the most memorable trip happened during my graduation week. When I brought my family to my most visited Chinese restaurant in Southampton.
As I was aware of my dad’s distinctive palate for Chinese food, I thought it’d be a great idea to bring my family to a place where I was most familiar with. As careful as I was with my choice of order — as I had the prescience of him complaining about the food is different from what we had in Malaysia — I knew which dishes from the Chinese menu were the best and even which dishes from the “white-washed” menu would taste great. Not much could go wrong, so I thought…
“ Let’s go for Chinese tonight. I’m craving for steamed chicken,” I said with exuberance.
My dad was ecstatic as he was growing impatient after a week of Mediterranean food in Greece prior to my graduation.
“Me too! I don’t want to have another burger or pizza!” he replied without hesitation.
“The chicken is different from the Hainanese Chicken!”
When we walked into the restaurant, my adopted Chinese family greeted us with a distinctive warmth and hospitality — something you shouldn’t expect if you’re a “rookie” in any Chinese restaurant. The lou pan leong sat us down and served us a pot of tea as she waited for our order. It didn’t take long the order as I was ready to impress my parents with these dishes.
“Steamed chicken, ma po tofu, sweet and sour spare ribs and stir fried kailan.”
I thought these dishes would never go wrong.
“The chicken is different from the Hainanese Chicken!” he harrumphed at the chicken to insinuate his dissatisfaction. Although he didn’t express it verbally, I knew his expostulation of the steamed chicken started when the steamed chicken was served with ginger scallion oil instead of chilli sauce. As Hainanese chicken rice would usually be served with a tangy and vinegary chilli sauce in Malaysia, it is insatiable to satisfy a purist like my dad without a saucer full of chilli sauce.
The capricious event delineated my struggles in carrying out the onus of picking a restaurant that could satisfy my dad’s palette, especially in a foreign land.
Bidding farewell to my most visited restaurant in Southampton
“Came here to say goodbye. And I would like to have a steamed chicken before heading to the airport.” I said to the lou pan leong.
It was my final day in Southampton. I went to 88 Chinese restaurant for the last time to bid farewell to my adoptive Chinese family. Ironically, I ordered the same dish which exasperated my dad a couple months ago. However, the rustic steamed chicken with ginger scallion oil, as unsophisticated as the dish is, was a fulfilling final lunch in Southampton. Unsurprisingly, the lou pan leong insisted that I shouldn’t pay.
“Do visit us if you ever come back. Yat lou son fung!” she said as I was leaving the restaurant.
P.S. Unfortunately, according to Google, the restaurant is now permanently closed.