China tease


"Would you like to try it first, madam?" the waiter enquires as I order a bottle of wine. He is charming, politeness embodied. But something in his manner assures me that, having tasted this wine, I will not want to order a bottle. I succumb gratefully and curiously to his proposition.

"Hot or freezing?" he asks and I choose hot. Three minutes later I am holding a wine glass half-filled with a warm, murky brown liquid. I raise it slowly to my lips, sip gingerly and recoil - a pattern repeated faithfully by my mother, father and latest love as we pass the glass around the table. The waiter smiles when we hand it back to him and predictably restrict our order to one bottle of Chinese house white - Wan Fu - and a couple of Chinese beers. And no rice wine.

I can still taste the rice wine - it's a bit like dry sherry, but is also redolent of dirty cooking oil: fat that has fried a thousand burgers. It sticks to my mouth in slicks, hastening me to the Tsingtao beer to take the taste away. This perhaps explains why I have never seen a drunken Chinaman, not even in China.

Because I fear that my father, who is quite brilliant at silly foreign accents, may be on the verge of regaling us with his favourite impression of TV cook Ken Hom ("If you cannot get lice wine, use dly shelly instead"), I divert him with the food menus and some drinks. Chinese beer is perfect. Refreshing and light, though quite high in alcohol - something my father may not have realised - it is an excellent foil for strong-flavoured Chinese food. Meanwhile my mother and I try the wine. The only Chinese thing about it is the label (which is wonderfully decorative, festooned with lithe Chinese symbols and drawings) - it's made and bottled in France. In fact, look, mum notices, it says Vin de Pays de Ger Blanc in tiny letters at the bottom. It's all right. Medium-dry, and the sweetness goes quite well with the food.

At least Tesco, which sells a wine it has elected to call "Great with Chinese", is more honest about our shallow cosmopolitan compulsions. The wine is a blend of the muscat and sauvignon blanc grapes. Again, there's a whack of sweetness (from the muscat) in the bouquet, but the aftertaste is quite sharp with overtones of petrol. It's not one to drink with anything but Chinese, yet it's very good at cleansing the palate from all that salt and monosodium glutamate. Light, tangy red wines are good with Chinese, too. I particularly like a beaujolais or chiaretto served quite cool, just a couple of hours out of the fridge to get the strength of flavour and freshness.

Delicious pork and beef with peppers and black bean sauce are sizzling on the table; the deep-fried beef and chicken with cashew nuts are almost finished, and we are embarking on some gigantic, juicy prawns. And we are getting through some beer. Drunken parties from Soho are beginning to spill into the Chinatown restaurant. I am startled that my parents are completely unfazed by this influx of rabble and seem perfectly content.

Sometimes it can be very alarming to have parents who not only take everything in their stride but also refuse to be embarrassing themselves. I mean, it's actually quite embarrassing. While they are being polite to my favourite waiter in the world, who deserves a medal for saving me from trying to choke my way through an entire bottle of rice wine, I sneakily fill their glasses.

At last it works. My father slowly takes off his glasses, replaces them upside down and does his best toothy Japanese voice. I am still giggling hysterically when he solemnly returns to normal. The strength of Chinese beer is indeed prodigious, but it seems to have affected the wrong person.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie