The Golden Age of the Golden Fish

You don’t hear much about Chinese Restaurant syndrome these days but in the 1970’s it was all the rage and many’s the time I staggered and fell after an overdose of monosodium glutamate, most spectacularly at a huge establishment in Leicester Square. Flat on my face, taking the red lacquer chair with me: and after only jasmine tea to drink. The syndrome made the eater light-headed, wobbly on his feet and presently comatose: it felt like being ever so pleasantly suffocated by a Hungarian goose down pillow which is why a gasping for air was often cited as another symptom. That’s when I fell, making tracks for the door.

The city of Leicester (Gok Wan’s home town) used to boast a superb clutch of Chinese restaurants, now long gone. There was The Lotus House where my first ever migraine developed over a prawn curry; I was about nine and had just bought a copy of Myths and Babylon and Assyria. Half a century later any mention of Gilgamesh and Ishtar still summons up those aromatic but agonising crustaceans. The Hong Tao and the Bamboo House were down by the bus station – well rubber planted in the window and handy before or after the cinema. Fatal to eat before the big picture though, as the last stages of the Syndrome would kick in around Reel 3 of Anne of The Thousand Days, Cabaret or Young Winston, leading to deep restful sleep in the one and nines. You could still get into the Cameo Cinema in High Street for five bob or under, though its programme was mainly restricted to the Carry Ons; but .25p was still a lot to pay for a roaring pass-out on well-disinfected plush and half the movie missing.

So we preferred to dine after the show, at the Hong Tao – always empty – on their famous “specials”: a mound of bean shoots and water chestnuts topped with slices of pork coated in a Schiaparelli pink sauce and a fried egg. Very echt! The gastronomic equivalent of Beatrice Lillie’s yellow peril in Thoroughly Modern Millie. At midday all these establishments offered the amazing “Businessman’s Lunch” which stuck for years at .25p. (Coffee .5p extra.) Incredible value, even in 1976. For that you typically got white soup or canned orange juice; sweet and sour pork, beef chop suey or “English Dish”; fried or boiled rice followed by a deep fried fruit fritter in golden syrup. And these latter delicacies were lovely to look upon: rococo whorls of boiling hot crispy batter, filled with yellow tinned pineapple or fluffy apple. Naturally there was plenty of soy sauce on hand, for all but the fritter. No wonder we got sleepy.

These restaurants were all flatteringly dark to both face and food with a soft glow from gold tasselled plastic dragon lanterns and tanks of mauve-lit tropical fish.They were well carpeted: you couldn’t quite see, but the floor covering FELT thick – and faintly damp if you kicked off your shoes: damp in the way of expensive silk Oriental rugs, as you told yourself. The ambience was discreetly, weirdly hushed and seemed intensified by a thick warm soporific smell of gentle frying, rice water, and a glutinous aroma that was something between Horlicks and chicken flavour Cupasoup – bland and clinging and floury, but with a piquant kick to it: the chemicals, I suppose. Funnily enough,it didn’t cling to the person or clothing; nor did cigarette smoke from the tin ashtrays. They must have had exceptionally good air conditioning. Light subdued muzak – thoroughly Westernised – completed the picture. I can’t tell you how lovely it all was…and no pressure to eat up and leave.

All gone now: the modern style Chinese restaurant is bright brisk and laminated: no doubt the cuisine is more sophisticated, but the setting has lost character. How strange though to re-encounter rice as one of the latest ingredients on the perfumer’s palette. Rice powder – as in Creed’s Love in White – adds a soft faint powderiness as you’d expect from its cosmetic properties, drier and lighter than orris; more attuned to Austerity. A more exotic interpretation is the humid cereal aroma of steamed rice as featured in Fils de Dieu where it references oriental storms, heavy grey Chinese summer skies and the overheated but languid world of Maugham: duck suits soaked with perspiration after five minutes wear and their wearers dulled with opiates and chota pegs.”

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