Hi Everyone, Disclaimer: I am not a food critic nor do I aspire to be one.
Last week Friday (April 5), while on a brief trip to Guyana, my sister and I went to have lunch at German’s Restaurant. We wanted soup and we didn’t have to think twice about where we should go to have the soup. It must be German’s soup! The cowheel soup was on our mind but of course we’d take the beef or chicken just in case… Pat also wanted to have chicken chowmein and so I decided that I’d have that too. Mind you we had no idea if chowmein would on the menu that day, but it was. I’ll get back to that a little later.
I placed the order. First came the chowmein. I looked at the plates skeptically as I walked back to the table. Did I order the wrong thing? We didn’t want pasta; we wanted chowmein. I laid the tray with the two plates of food on the table we were sharing with two fellow Guyanese women (they were visiting from overseas). As a matter of fact, most of the patrons seemed to be visiting Guyanese. Ask one of the writers of Culture Box to explain the way you can spot “Guyanese visitors”. But I digress.
Pat leaned across the table towards me, “This is chowmein?” she asked.
“I suppose so,” I replied.
“This looks like spaghetti pasta,” she insisted.
“I know,” I said. We stabbed the noodles with our forks in disbelief. We were both so hungry and we were disappointed because there is nothing quite like being hungry, wanting something in particular to eat and when it arrives, you are disappointed. We ate in silence until Pat blurted out: “You see the canned mixed vegetables they put in this so-called chowmein?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” I responded, my voice filled with distaste.
It was all the encouragement I needed to let rip. “I cannot believe that in a country that manufactures chowmein that we get served pasta instead of the chowmein advertised. And it boggles the mind that in a country where you can get an abundant supply of a wide variety of fresh vegetables to put in things like chowmein that we are being subjected to canned mixed vegetables! This is outrageous! They charge so much money for the food and you tell me that they cannot afford to buy the fresh vegetables to put in the chowmein?”
In terms of the noodles, I considered giving them the benefit of the doubt and say that they were using the thick round noodles that come with Ya-ka Mein – a type of beef noodle soup, an Asian-American dish. But that was not the case.
There is a certain expectation within a Guyanese context when we talk about chowmein. A huge part of the enjoyment and pleasure of eating chowmein is about the noodles. They offer a particular mouth-feel and texture. The women sharing our table chimed in about their overall disappointment in the food and the system. More on the system later.
Done with the “chowmein”, it was now time to tackle the soup. By the time I had reached the cashier, the cowheel soup was sold out so I ended up buying beef soup. It was bland. And I immediately knew why. As I stood waiting for the staff to collect my receipt and get the food, I observed how they were assembling the food and serving it and their general operation behind the serving counter. I shared what I observed with my dining companions. “The broth, liquid soup comes out of a large pot and then they have the various meats prepared separately and yet another pot with the ground provisions and dumplings and when you order the soup, whether it is cowheel, beef or chicken, they then assemble the dish. In other words, they put the meat, noodles, ground provisions and so on and then ladle the soup, the liquid. That is why the soup does not have any taste because the meat and other ingredients weren’t cooked with the broth/liquid.” I pushed on, “Actually, it reminds me of some of the Indian restaurants in the USA with multiple curries on the menu – lamb, chicken, shrimp. What they do is that they have a generic curry sauce and when you order, they take the cooked lamb, chicken or beef and then heat it up in the sauce and serve it. That too is bland.”
The whole point in eating or having a particular type of soup is because you want more than the meat; it is the broth/liquid that is packed with flavour from the meat being cooked in it. There is a particular depth of flavour that comes from the long cooking or breaking down of the tissues that melds with the other ingredients to create such a pronounced taste that you get the essence of the dish is just one spoonful. As it is, what we were served as beef soup at German’s, well, it’s hard to tell what it was.
As I glanced around the room I noticed that people were opting to just have the broth in one bowl and all the “obstacles” (meat, provisions etc.) in another bowl, on the side. It was a case where the broth/liquid had a little more taste than the other ingredients and that is because the other ingredients – provisions, noodles, meat – did not benefit from being cooked together in the soup, sharing each other’s flavour to create the one-pot meal that soup is. It is the same thing with the curry. If the meat or seafood is not allowed to cook in the sauce then the two can never truly be a unified or balanced dish.
What I find particularly disappointing is that German’s Restaurant is an eating establishment built on a particular reputation – the outstanding taste of its food. If there ever was a hall of fame for soups, German’s soup would be there. Not so that day though.
The menu and the system
When we walked in, I was unclear as to where to go as there were two large groups of people. One group stood along the right side of the room where a sign hung from the ceiling indicating: pick-up takeaway orders. The other group was crowded at the front of the room. A man nearby saw my puzzled look and asked if I had already placed my order and paid for it. I told him no, then he advised me to join the group of people on the right side of the room. As I inched my way up to the front of the line, I craned my neck looking for the menu and a price list. I began to worry because I did not know what the heck to order except the soup. But what if there are other things that I’d like to have too? I couldn’t see the food in the glass case because there was a triple row of people around it and that group spilled to both sides as well. I asked my sister what she wanted and that’s when she said to get the chowmein, assuming there was chowmein.
With receipt in hand I made a couple of steps, literally, to my left. I did not know when and if I would be served. I am not one of those people who push their way in a crowd or try to wedge themselves between people or call out for honey, darling, love or sweetheart to get the attention of servers. On this note I have to say, the staff were very patient with everyone; they were busy and they were helpful.
I recounted my experience to several persons later in the day and was surprised that everyone was nodding knowingly; they too had had similar experiences at various times. One person summed it up: “When German’s first re-opened the food was up to par; reminiscent of the days of old; not so anymore. I hardly go but when I do, I have the mauby and the mac and cheese.”
Pat and I enjoyed the mauby too. But really, I wasn’t going to go to German’s Restaurant to eat macaroni pie when they were known for so much more and I was looking for a taste of home.
I am bracing myself for the bats that will arrive in my inbox because of this column.