Chinese food

I’m almost completely addicted to Steptoe and Son, and have been slowly and steadily collecting the DVDs of their programmes, which makes it all the more galling that they have just brought out a budget-price box-set of every episode (as far as I can tell, they haven’t wiped any of the early ones). That’s the way, isn’t it. Buy a CD to replace an LP, and within a few months, a ‘de luxe’ version has appeared with all the extras you might like to have had (I have to say this is rare – music was generally omitted from the original because it was rubbish in the first place, although there are exceptions). So now I am either stuck with continuing to purchase the separate editions, or to accept that I’ll have two copies of some of them. (By the way, has no-one out there thought of releasing every episode of Coronation Street in a boxed set? It would be a trunk, rather than a box, but I bet it would sell itself. I write as an entrepreneur, not as a fan. I reckon it would be nearly a thousand DVDs, especially once the bonus discs had been added.)

There being nothing on the seven trillion channels the other night (my mother had all of them, but didn’t realise it. The Sky salesman must have seen a sucker and whooped within. I realised she thought it was a sort of addition to the licence fee when she told me she couldn’t get Channel 5. I gently explained that she had an almost infinite number of channels, but she brushed this aside – ‘I’m not interested in them. I only watch BBC1 and ITV’), I used the DVD player, and tried another Steptoe. It was a 1963 episode, in which the old man was 65. (I don’t like that sentence. ‘Old’ and ’65’ are cosying up to each other too closely. I can almost smell my pension: fewer than nine years now.)

In the episode, Harold, the son, took his father out for a Chinese meal, much to the latter’s disgust. Foreign food was a thing to be avoided by all but the very well-off Southerners in those days – and for some years afterwards, too. My parents-in-law, when I first married, in the early 1980s, were from South Yorkshire, and were still suspicious of rice. They made a bit of a breakthrough, however, in the later part of the decade, when they went on holiday to Brittany, and finally sampled some ethnic cuisine. It was pizza.

My parents did stop off once at a Chinese restaurant in North Yorkshire in the 1960s, but we all had fish and chips, on plates (with a first course of ‘fruit juice’, which would have been decanted from a tin into a wine glass: impossibly exotic). But I never tasted Chinese food until I was 19, and at university. It was Oxford, in 1971. I was stunned in particular by the way in which people shared their dishes (unheard of!) and also by the taste and texture of lychees (plural probably lychee but I’m not making a thing of it). They were like faintly perfumed grapefruit.

Another thing: they used fruit in their cooking. This too was a revelation to me. The idea of a chicken and a pineapple winding up in the same dish was wildly exciting to me – if ever I cook, which is another section for another day, fruit and meat usually nuzzle up to one another – and, I suspect, to any British eater in the 1970s, during our release from wet vegetables and bone-dry meat. That was a stupid phrase. How can meat be bone-dry? It can only be flesh-dry.

Anyway, Harold and Albert Steptoe went for a Chinese meal in 1963, and now I realise that my twin stories of rag-and-bone men from the telly and of Chinese food, which isn’t really Chinese, any more than tikka massala is Indian, has run out of space. I will have to get back to you.

I haven’t even mentioned abalone yet, either. There is too much stuff in my brain (which is probably the texture of abalone, when you come to think of it, or at any rate, when I do).

Until tomorrow…


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