Monday, August 31

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Chinese Restaurant

For a belated birthday celebration, Demetra took me out to one of the nicer restaurants in the city for lunch last Monday, Nakuru's downtown Chinese restaurant, Ming Yue. I was excited.

I don't think I've ever visited any restaurant one could remotely claim was authentically Chinese except once in San Francisco, but that's beside the point. Chinese food is nearly as ubiquitous as McDonald's, and except maybe for Panda Express, this global infiltration has not been carried out by international chains but immigrant families who realize that everyone wants a taste of the exotic. What's so fascinating is that these families always accommodate for the national palette. It's a delicate balance between offering meals that your customers have never seen before but also making them familiar enough that they won't outright reject them. Pairing pineapple and chicken may be prima facie a wacky idea for most Americans, but the flavor is still sticky sweet and not so foreign as one might expect. Thus, no matter where you are in the States, a land of sugar, you can find cream cheese wontons, but these are totally unknown in Germany where a heartier fare is preferred.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Paradoxically, if you want to really discover the culinary identity of a nation, you need to visit its Chinese restaurants. I've defended McDonald's on these grounds before. Don't go to the locally-owned-and-operated bakeries and caf├ęs if you want to know what the people really eat. It will be too much. You will drown in the flood of new flavors and styles. Instead, go where you think you know what to expect. Go to McDonald's and the Chinese restaurants. There will be similarities, yes, but the differences will stand out all the more. Whatever those are will be the soul of the people's diet. The Germans may pass over the egg foo young, but they cannot fill their plates with enough sausages with the Szechuan spices.

Which made it all the more of a surprise to discover that Ming Yue was about as American as you could get in its food. The vegetable lo mein and ma poe bean curd would not have been out of place in Baudette's The Oriental Wok. Kind of a disappointing, yes, but the closest thing I've had to a taste of home since coming here, and that has its own pleasures.

Maybe I'll have better luck with the Bamboo Hut, Nakuru's second Chinese restaurant. Maybe they'll drizzle sweet and sour sauce over ugali and list General Tso's goat on the menu.

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