I used to live near a Chinese takeaway, and I find myself missing it. It wasn’t much to look at – just a gaudy sign attached to an otherwise anonymous unit on a small industrial estate. We would order from there at least once a month, always going for the specials: a cheap selection of appetising bits, designed to be attractive to the impoverished students, which flooded the local area every year.
My memory of the precise content of this nourishing care package has faded over the years, and all that is left is an image of the ribs: always in the same thin plastic container; always burnished with an impossible to decipher mix of spices; always sitting atop a mixture of slightly wilted vegetables – spring onions, serrated carrot and Chinese leaf. They were simple, superb and utterly moreish.
I am about to make a generalisation here, and for that I apologise: the ribs produced by Chinese food vendors – whether restaurants, takeaways or carts in the middle of a crowded street – are the best ribs. I am sitting here, salivating at the thought of peeling sticky flesh off clean bones with my teeth, and I’ve not long since eaten. I have tried to recreate a really good rib in my own kitchen, and never quite got where I wanted to.
My memory is equally foggy regarding the place where all of this started, but I have an image burned on the back of my mind with utter clarity: A big silver tray, probably about A4 in size, with a white card as a lid; the card had been simply printed, with a vague description – I would tell you what it said, but I was likely too young to read – and the mandatory list of ingredients and legal bumf.
Inside the metal carton were ribs, and they were my introduction. In retrospect they were very probably very bad, but we loved them. They were hunks of greasy meat in a thick gluey sauce. They were probably flavoured “Chinese” or “BBQ”, or somewhere between the two, if such a grey area can ever exist. I’m not even sure we had them as a meal; more likely just a greedy devouring.
And then they were gone. Not just the pack that we had bought, but the whole supply of them. We had picked them up from a discount shop called Job Lot, which specialised in nothing more than doing deals with food companies to take the largest amount of stock off their hands at the lowest price, and then sell it on at a small profit. It led to a revolving door of interesting random foods.
We searched Job Lot for them for years after that, never to be successful, our rib fixation to be left permanently unsated. The paltry few ribs in a metal container from the local Chinese takeaway, although good, were far too expensive for our wallets and far too sophisticated for what were then our tastes. Those cheap, factory-produced ribs left a dark shadow across so much of my childhood.
OK, that’s over-egging it a bit, but I looked for those ribs in every cheap shop I could find for many years to come. I obsessed about them so much that I very much doubt I would have recognised them if they were ever to end up in front of me again. But they started me on taste for great ribs.
A fried chicken shop I stumbled upon in Camberwell one fuzzy night, many moons ago, takes the dubious honour of the worst I have ever consumed. While they had a nice flavour to them the meat was entirely unrecognisable as coming from any part of the anatomy of any animal I care to bring to mind. There were myriad lumps of cartilage, bonded to sheets of fat and the occasional morsel of chewy meat. They were bad, and if someone told me they had been dog meat I wouldn’t question it.
Recently, the magnificent Jay Rayner reviewed a Chinese restaurant in Blackpool, and described a dish of ribs so fabulously that I am looking for any excuse in my life to take myself to Blackpool to gorge myself on plates of them. He says that they took him back to being seven years’ old, and I can absolutely sympathise. It’s not that I want food to transport me back in time, it’s just that I have been on a quest for these foods for at least as long as that. My quest, it seems, is never ending.
While so many of our top chefs and food writers try to emulate ‘nursery food’ with sweets and chocolate, I want it savoury, and I want it made of meat. As a very small child, during family outings to the supermarket, my parents would placate me not with a bag of sweets, but a quarter of prawns, peeled and fresh from the deli counter. I would happily munch on them all the way round the shop, and we would pay for the empty packet at the end. Other parents would recoil in horror at this.
Put simply, I like to eat, and I like what I like. Once a food fixation has worked its way in to my head, like a piece of catchy music, it is very hard to dislodge. Jay put the idea of ribs back in; Jay gets me.
My partner, on the other hand, less so. She loves Chinese food, just not the abomination that is Anglo-Chinese food, the substance of which flows out of countless takeaways up and down, and even across, the land. She doesn’t like it fake and Anglicised. She doesn’t like the gloppy sauces, all dripping with cornflour and salt. It means that I don’t get to eat Chinese ribs very often any more.
If I make them, I can eat as many as I want, and she will more than happily join me in their avid consumption. Home-made is simultaneously not fake and not real. I do a mean rib, cooked and then glazed in Guinness, but it’s not what I am looking for. I’m looking for Chinese ribs, and I am looking for a texture I know not how to recreate. I want the whole package, wilted vegetables and all.
Do I go to Blackpool for a rib? Do I head back to St Andrews? I have considered the logistics of such a trip several times before: is it acceptable to order Chinese takeaway to a smart B&B, or will the lady hostess be put out that the calibre of her guests is on the wane? Do I just suck it up and try the local Chinese takeaway, regardless that my partner will be excluded? No, that would be too far. Even for a rib.