Hyde Park's Red Chamber makes the Emperor wait

#166. Recommend that if you love reading and food, or recipes, or have any interest in Chinese culture, and/or Taiwan (or all of these) then you should pick up a copy of Emperor Can Wait by Joburg restaurateur Emma Chen. For the uninitiated the title refers to a chinese proverb “The Emperor can wait –while we eat”. First a disclosure – I worked [as an editor] with Chen on the initial manuscript. Now that’s out of the way … the book launched a few days ago with a wedding feast at the Red Chamber, Chen’s restaurant in Hyde Park that is celebrating 20 years of existence (In Joburg restaurant parlance, a lifetime).

That’s 20 years of the best cucumber salad in Johannesburg, possibly the world. There are people who would kill for that recipe and in this city it’s possible they already have.

Emma chen front

Back to the launch that comprised a 12-course sit-down dinner swinging merrily on lazy susan’s across the restaurant. Trying to master the etiquette of the lazy susan put me in mind of Joburg’s traffic circles. Does one yield to the person on the right or spin the dish out of their reach and into yours?

Red was the colour of the night, the Chinese colour of happiness and Chen was on top form [even wearing red socks] entertaining guests with her take on Chinese wedding customs from the “Red Bomb” [apparently Chinese people do not appreciate toasters as wedding gifts and instead hand out red envelopes to be filled with cash for the bridal couple], “The Chinese are a very practical nation”, quipped Chen, to drinking with respect [one glass for each person at the table, look them in the eye, and drink in order of importance. That would be 10 glasses of “fire water” if you were sitting at my table]. The emphasis of each dish at the wedding is on harmony – a balance of exquisite colour and taste.

“I still struggle with seeing people refuse to share food, ” said Chen. “That doesn’t exist in Chinese culture.” She added that in order to do the sharing one also has to be good at maths so you can work out your due at the table.

Each dish on the wedding menu was described by four small and perfect Chinese characters, followed by a string of English translation. Each dish was named for the wedding banquet — so there was “Couple plays the same cord” (Sizzling Scallops) and “A hundred years of togetherness (Lotus seed and lily sweet soup), “Three lifetimes of affection” (Three vegetables with eggs) and a flower pastry called “Hulle Sal Een Word”, a nod to Chen’s settling in South Africa and marrying a local. The piece de resistance for me was “Match made in Heaven” – a dish of crispy duck with pancakes. There was also an astonishing chilli shredded chicken and salad of celery basted in a wasabi sauce. The tastes subtle, and then spicy, sweet, hot and cold. Delicious.

And the book. As one person described it, “It reads like a beautifully written letter to a friend”. it is a memoir made up of a collection of short pieces that are delicately strung together detailing Chen’s childhood in Taiwan and her early adulthood. She weaves together her life experiences and her memories with the tastes of particular types of food, punctuating each chapter with a recipe. The mood is one of longing. The book is structured around favourite dishes and each evokes a powerful sense of place and an experience of family and community life. Food in the book is deeply symbolic. It is a comfort, a source of joy. It’s medicinal, having healing properties, and culturally significant. It is at the heart of family, it marks the author’s rites of passage and is central to her experience of the world – from China to Taiwan, Hillbrow to Hyde Park.

Before I read the book I knew little about Taiwan, about the people who had fled China under Communist rule. A people in waiting who have spent their lives longing for the China they left behind, a place that no longer exists. And it is food that has brought Chen a sense of belonging in her new land. “Writing this book, I realise that the home I left behind may not exist anymore – but that I’m now closer to home than ever”.

Read the book, eat the food. It’s no more complicated than that.

*Emperor Can Wait is published by Picador Africa. Chen’s restaurant The Red Chamber is located in Hyde Park Shopping Centre, Hyde Park +27 11 325 604

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