Sunday, January 4, 2009
Chinese food, and the possibilities of life in Buenos Aires
For me, love comes with familiarity. So it was only in my second week in Buenos Aires, and my third week in Argentina, that I really began to love the city. I knew at least a few of the major bus routes leaving off of Avenida Santa Fe. I could carry a vague map of the city in my head. I had my favorite café, where I could drink a café cortado and eat medialunas all day and even plug my laptop into an outlet. (New Yorkers love Buenos Aires because it shows them life in a big city doesn’t have to be quite so hard.)
But what really moved me to love Buenos Aires, and to be able to imagine living there for more than a week or two, was the discovery of great Chinese food. Yes, Buenos Aires has great Chinese food. Great Chinese food is a good thing, wherever you are, but it’s particularly noteworthy when you’re in a country where the culinary standard seems to be a serious aversion to garlic, spices, and heat. (I try really hard to accept a country’s food on its own terms, but a Korean girl has her limits.)
Chinatown in the leafy, outer neighborhood of Belgrano turned out to be just a few blocks, but like all Chinatowns around the world, there were gold and red tchotchkes for sale and tourists and Argentines looking for exotic thrills.
The kind of thrills Zizou* and I were looking for, we happily found at a place called Lai Lai, from a Chowhound tip. It was very “Chinese,” to be sure—red lanterns, red walls, red light. There were postcards of Taiwan lined up in right above the tables all around the room, that made me wonder what the owners longed for, especially when Zizou, whose family is from Taiwan, told me the staff were speaking Mandarin with a Beijing accent. Unlike many of the restaurants we normally go to in San Francisco and New York, this restaurant could not be bare-boned. It had to prove its Chinese-ness to its non-Chinese clientele.
At the same time, the menu was oddly reassuring in its Spanish translations. There was very little in the way of bird’s nest soup or abalone, and the chicken, beef, and pork that was there was translated in a way that claimed, “This is very much like this that you already know.” Tofu was “queso de soya” or “soy cheese”; wontons were “raviolines.” It made me realize how flexible American culture is, that we happily learn new words for the new foods we eat, even if we might mangle their pronunciation. We say “panna cotta,” not “Italian custard,” and “taco” instead of “Mexican pancake stuffed with meat.”
In the end, what we loved about the food wasn’t that it was just like the mapo tofu I’ve had at Grand Sichuan in Chelsea, or the dumplings we’ve had at Koi Palace in Daly City. Everything we ate was a little unexpected, a little surprising, and all good.
Our appetizer of spicy dumplings was served in a hot, oily broth, rather than the pool of chile oil we expected, but the broth was so tangy and restorative, we spooned it up.
The lamb with scallions was a little tough with gristle, but the taste of the scallions was a joy, like chewing on springtime after all the vegetable-less dishes I’d eaten. The beef with Chinese broccoli had an intense flavor of star anise, but it was curious and interesting because it had a flavor that wasn't one of the three dominant flavors in Argentine food.
The best part, though, was the mapo tofu. Not only was the tofu slightly firmer and more resilient than usual, it tasted of beef! Not pork! I’ve seen recipes for mapo tofu that call for beef, not pork, but it just seemed so appropriately Argentine to replace the most common meat in Chinese food with their beloved beef. We first were concerned it wasn’t red enough, but then we realized the red light of the restaurant was hiding the amount of chiles in the sauce. It was absolutely delicious.
At one point, Zizou asked me, “Do you think this would taste as good if we were in New York or in San Francisco?” Probably not, given that the food tasted the way I imagine manna tasted to the starving Israelites, but in a way, it didn't really matter.
It was Chinese food, the Argentine way. And that is how I fell in love with Buenos Aires.
*Zizou, the alias of my privacy-seeking friend and traveling buddy.