My mother put a few dollars in my hand and a shopping list. I was nine and therefore finally old enough to be entrusted with the onerous responsibility of buying a few groceries at the clean new market - so off I went. Short, skinny, disheveled and wearing a tatty hand-me-down t-shirt two sizes too big, I ambled up the steep white concrete sidewalk in my flip-flops to "Chi Fu Commercial Centre", the brand new mall serving our brand new highrise neighbourhood of Chi Fu Fa Yuen.
Mom kept it simple - my chinese was not good as I went to an English school and I wasn't too smart! I had to buy a few eggs which I had to hold up one by one to the lightbulb dangling in the egg section in the supermarket to check for "impurities". To this day I still don't know what I was looking at or looking for, but luckily I never bought too many rotten eggs! I also had to buy a piece of fish belly at the fish stall. It was fascinating looking at the still beating hearts and lungs of the newly slaughtered and halved fish lying grotesquely on ice.
The easiest part of my shopping expedition was the B.B.Q. pork. You can find cantonese-style B.B.Q. everywhere you go in Hong Kong and in expatriate chinese communities everywhere around the world. It's just as common, and important, to chinese people as asado is to the Argentinians - but chinese people are just much more low-key about it. In fact, chinese people eat so much chinese B.B.Q. it could almost be considered it's own separate food group.
"Ask the man at the counter for $10 worth of Char Siu - extra lean," Mom said. So I did. The man at the counter unceremoniously took my $10 bill, grabbed a random piece of Char Siu hanging from the metal skewer, chopped it up, put it in the container, and shoved it back at me through the window. Mission accomplished!
Fast forward fifteen years later to Toronto, Canada. B.B.Q. pork is one of Man Yung's favourite foods - goes exceptionally well with Scotch. He was busy teaching karate class so he asked me to drive out to what he considered the best B.B.Q. joint in town at Sheppard and Brimley.
"Tell the man at the counter that you want 'two bones' of Siu Yuk," Man Yung said.
"What the hell is 'two bones'?" I asked. "How many pounds does that weigh? How much does it cost?"
Man Yung had to hurry back to class. "Just ask for 'two bones'!" he said before whipping back into the dojo.
At the B.B.Q. counter, I was still confused. What is "two bones" worth of anything? Which bones was he talking about? Leg bones? Head bones? Or was it some ancient chinese measurement like a "tael" or a "catty"?
It was my turn. "What do you want?" asked the man at the counter.
I looked at the $20 bill that Man Yung had given me. "Ummm...... how much Siu Yuk can I get for $20?"
I ended up with four pounds of the driest, leanest part of pork rump. Eating it was a little bit like munching sawdust.
"You should have asked for 'two bones'," said Man Yung as he choked down a mouthful.
It was a sad day when I started to realize that certain things are meant to be vague, mysterious and unquantifiable, and some things in life cannot be reduced to a series of logical equations. I wish that it was not so, and that Mom's way of looking at things would always be right. If you ask for $10 worth of something, you should get at least $10 of value back.
"That's what you may think," Man Yung said, reading this post. "When you went to buy your Char Siu in Hong Kong, I'm pretty sure the B.B.Q. place cheated you. What kind of idiot asks for $10 worth of Char Siu? It just shows to the B.B.Q. people that you have no idea how B.B.Q. works. That's why the man at the counter was so rude to you all the time. He could give you $8 worth, or $9 worth - and he knew neither you nor your mom would ever know the difference. You have to talk in his language to get his respect."
In all, you have to know the "Secret Handshake" of Chinese B.B.Q. to get decent B.B.Q.! From more than a decade of experience, I can tell you this is what I know now:
1. A "bone" of Siu Yuk refers to one of the ribs on a half pig. The rib is the tastiest part of the pig for "B.B.Q. connoisseurs" like Man Yung, and to people who make B.B.Q. The layered fat and meat means that this part is the juiciest part of the pig - and the meat will not be overly greasy, or have large chunks of fat attached. The meat will also be intensely flavoured because the spices and marinade are spread on the inside of the rib cage before roasting.
2. The rib is where the crispy skin, fat and meat on the rib are in perfect proportion to each other. On the other hand, bite sized pieces of the rump always have either too much dry meat or large pieces of fat. Since the meat and fat are thick on the rump, the marinade will not reach the meat and it tastes bland.
3. You always order two, or at most three bones for a meal for the average family. One bone is too thin and therefore almost impossible to slice accurately from the hanging carcass, especially if the roast is piping hot from the oven. "Goddamn that woman asking for one bone and ONLY one bone! I almost burnt my fingers off!" we overheard the B.B.Q. chef say, talking about the customer ahead of us in the line one day.
A request for "four bones" will elicit the question: "Do you want that chopped or not?" People usually order four bones so they have a whole intact piece to put in front of the altar at the temple as an offering to the gods or to the ancestral spirits.
Six bones, on the other hand appears to be default amount for people holding a "thrifty" wedding banquet. Chinese people must have roasted pork at their weddings for good luck. The rich can afford a whole roasted suckling (unfortunately, the little ones are more succulent) pig at each table of the wedding banquet, but the poor may have to make do with just a large piece of a big pig. Nowadays the wedding guests eat the roasted pork right at the banquet, but in the good ol' days, the groom received the bride first into his house - and if she was a virgin as advertised, the groom's family will send the bride's family a roasted pig on the third day.
To this day, my parents are still waiting for the roast pig delivery.
4. Asking a B.B.Q. chef for "$10" or "a pound" of rib Siu Yuk, or even Char Siu, means that you don't know what you are talking about or that you are looking for trouble. In order to make it exactly to "$10" or "a pound", the chef will have to leave half or a quarter of rib, or a part of a piece of Char Siu still hanging on the skewer. He's going to have a hard time selling to another customer what you didn't want in your quest for the exact "$10" amount or "a pound", and he will curse you for it.
5. To the B.B.Q. chef, rump of Siu Yuk is the favourite of people who don't care for flavour: for little kids who want the fat to be clearly demarcated from the meat so they can spit it out ("Fat! Ewwww!") and for upper-class people over-fastidious about what they eat ("I'll just have a little bit of white meat on the side, thank you. Just a tad. And no sauce. I'm watching my cholesterol"). Ditto for "extra-lean" Char Siu - it's for kids who don't understand the flavour in a little fat, and people watching their diet. Health be damned, B.B.Q. in its most greasy, juicy, burnt, salty, intense glory is to be savoured and enjoyed!
Order "two bones" of Siu Yuk or a piece of "half lean half fat" Char Siu from the B.B.Q chef and you can sometimes watch him smile secretly to himself and go dreamy-eyed. He's thinking back to old days when people knew how to order B.B.Q. and weren't so picky and uptight about getting their $10 or a pound's worth of B.B.Q. He may also be thinking about how wonderful it would be to chew on a couple of ribs of Siu Yuk accompanied by a shot of rice wine in front of the t.v. after a hard day's work. Not only do we get a smiling B.B.Q. chef happy to serve us who will recognize us and treat us like regular customers right away, we may even get some extra B.B.Q. for free!
So as for Chinese B.B.Q., it is for Tango (you knew that this was coming, right?)
If everything works in Tango as my mother thought it should for Chinese B.B.Q., the amount of effort I put in Tango should equate to the Tango result I get at the end of the day. But is this true?
When I'm well-rested, wearing comfortable shoes, dancing on a very good smooth floor to the best music, does this mean that I will dance my best?
When I've danced my best, will I be able to achieve my best again if I try consciously to duplicate everything I did on that former occasion (down to the adornments I was doing and the perfume I was wearing)?
Do dancers who have taken classes with fifty or more "big name, big hype" teachers dance better than someone who has only followed one or a few local or less well-known teachers?
Do dancers who have spent $$ on private classes always dance better than dancers who have only taken group classes and never spent a dime on a private class?
Not at all.
Will a dancer who has traveled to Buenos Aires ten times, or has spent ten months (or more) in Buenos Aires end up dancing better than dancers who stayed home?
Not in Toronto that we've seen.
Will channeling "Fino Rivera" or "Tete" or "Fabian Peralta" or "Javier Rodriguez" or "Chicho Frumboli" or "Pablo Veron" or the current ubiquitous trendy "Campeonato style" in posture, step repertoire, haircut and fashion details make you as good a dancer as the original (or at least getting there?)
Would the ability to write good resume, to craft an ambitious "Tango World Domination Master Game Plan" and plenty of effort in self-promotion make you better at Tango?
As George W. Bush once said: "You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on." But it won't make you better at Tango.
Unfortunately, it seems from our tango experience that $10 in Tango input does not equate in a $10 Tango return. It may even result in considerably less!
"What kind of idiot is looking for a good rate, or equivalent rate of return on their Tango investment?" asked Man Yung. "Why can't they just enjoy it without worrying about what they can get out of it or what kind of status they can achieve with it?"
Scientists and economists have not yet been able to identify and measure units of Tango. Sometimes, grasping at all of Tango's mysterious, nebulous Tango-ness can be quite frustrating.
Luckily, Tango is one of the things that can give you a lot more than you intentionally put in. On good days, Tango can even give you a little bit of the infinite.
Happy 2010 to everyone and may everyone find vast amounts of Tango bliss wherever they go!
Martha's Apartment in Buenos Aires
A Non-exhaustive set of Tango links in Toronto
- La Cachila - weekly milonga
- Paradiso -- weekly milonga
- Practica El Beso
- WE Tango
- Tango Sur - classes, shows
- Rhythm and Motion - classes, milonga, practica, annual Toronto Tango Festival
- Tango Obsession - classes, weekly Practica La Coqueta
- Tango Lirico - classes, practica, weekly milonga
- Tango de Oro - classes, shows
- Tango Soul Productions - classes, weekly milonga, shows, El Congreso annual Tango Festival
- Vivatango - classes
- Tango Argentino - classes
- Club Milonga - classes, special events
- Alternatango - classes, weekly milonga
- University of Toronto Tango Club - classes, practica
- El Abrazo - classes
- Tangoloft - twice monthly milonga