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I remember the first Chinese restaurant I ever went to. It was called something like the Oriental Garden, but it could easily have been the Great Wall, Jade Dragon or Imperial Chrysanthemum.
I was 16, it was the end of the boarding school term and I was heading back to Ireland. I stopped off in Manchester to meet a girl with the improbable name of Winifred, and I took her to lunch, feeling more than a little sophisticated.
The restaurant was all red tassels, cranes sitting by fish ponds, mountains in the mist, dragons, porcelain bowls and chopsticks. In fact, it would have looked exactly like the first Chinese restaurant that you went to, whether it was in the UK or Ireland. It's a kind of given; it's what we expect from Chinese restaurants. Unless, of course, you're Chinese, in which case it wouldn't have looked like any restaurant you'd ever seen before.
I'm not old enough to know which arrived first in Ireland: the Italian restaurant or the Chinese one. Whichever it was, neither of them produced food that was in any way similar to the cuisine they purportedly represented. Fifty years ago, they produced fare for a populace almost entirely uninterested in food, only price. The result was take-away food that was eaten after the pub had closed, often ending up half-digested on a pavement.
And then there were the jokes -- the deep freeze full of dog meat, the MSG in sacks, and did you enjoy the prawns? Oh yes, they were rubbery, ha ha ha. Quite how a people with a five-thousand-year-old culture dealt with the suspicion, distrust and frequent rudeness is a mystery to me. How they must have hated serving flabby farmed prawns doused with malt vinegar and corn starch with a dash of tinned pineapple. Yet they did and, virus-like, Chinese restaurants have spread all across the country into virtually every town. They've spread despite the weather, the exploitative wages and the general assumption that their food really ought to be cheaper than eating at home.
Times change. Ireland has become a whole lot more sophisticated and knowledgeable when it comes to food, and ethnic cuisines are changing too, moving away from the worst of the nasty take-aways towards true ethnic gastronomy. We've even understood that 'Chinese food' is a largely meaningless phrase. A fifth of the world's population lives in China; it's a vast country and each of its huge regions has its own culinary traditions. 'Chinese food' means about as much as 'European food'.
This week, I set off with my friend, the artist Patrick Walsh, for the depths of Wexford -- to Bunclody, the traditional summer playground of the Dub. I wanted to try a new Chinese restaurant there called Peony Court, which I'd heard was good. Bunclody isn't big, but as we drove about looking for Peony Court we found two other Chinese restaurants as well. Three in a small town proves that there must be a desire out there for sweet and sour, for slithery textures and for the non-Irish.
We found it just at the cross-roads in the centre of town, a neat two-storey house with a red door and windows and a pagoda-type roof above the door. Definitely oriental. Inside, the dining room was long and narrow and it was decorated, well, like a Chinese restaurant. A very long menu came to us along with a very short wine list. This, if you want specifics, is a Cantonese restaurant -- Hong Kong style, to be precise.
Patrick was a chef for years in California before dedicating himself to his painting and he's also spent time in Hong Kong, so he was able to guide me through the many pages of dishes on offer. All this expertise left me in a quandary: should I use the chopsticks with him watching and make an arse of myself, or just use the knife and fork provided? It's a social divider like no other, like eating spaghetti with just a fork, Italian-style. Using chopsticks marks you out as a seasoned traveller through the gastronomic world -- pick up the fork and you're instantly defined as an uncouth, round-eyed milk drinker. So I used my chopsticks.
Patrick announced he preferred beer with Asian food, which was as well because the wine list is very much a work in progress. I agree with him, although there are wines that can work well with Asian foods. Very kindly, Peony Court offered to get us beer from the pub next door and we gratefully accepted the offer. So, with Patrick's guidance, we started with the quarter aromatic duck and the mixed seafood with salt and chilli.
A large server of the shredded duck arrived with a bamboo steamer of very thin pancakes and a dish of plum sauce. Another dish of the mixed seafood came and we shared the two, rolling up the shredded duck into the pancakes laced with plum sauce. Prawns and bite-sized pieces of fish I managed just fine with the chopsticks; slippery vegetables were a tad more elusive. Both of these dishes were very good and passed the Patrick taste test summa cum laude.
We were a little greedier with the main courses and ordered three: fillet of beef with ginger; roast pork with hot garlic; and Kung Po prawns. Kung Po, or Pao, is a classic Szechuan dish normally done with chicken. It's spicy, using peppercorns and chilli, and comes with a variety of stir- fried vegetables and nuts, either peanuts or cashews. It worked well with the prawns and both the pork and the beef dishes were very well done.
Hungry as we both were, we didn't quite manage to finish the three dishes, and desserts were out of the question.
While Patrick stayed on the beer, I went on to water and drank a couple of half-litre bottles. Those, plus a couple of espressos, brought our bill to €78.90, which I thought was great value for what we'd had.