‘Would you date a guy with a really camp voice?’ I ask as we pass a tall, smartly dressed young man speaking to his friends with certain flair. ‘Ummmmm, would I date myself, you mean?’ he answers with a sly sideways glance, ‘why yes, yes I would.’ I try to protest that he doesn’t sound that effeminate but I’m cut off. ‘Sometimes on the phone people think I’m a woman, you know. Like, they’ll ask my name and when I tell them they say, “oh, that’s an interesting name for a woman”’. I howl with laughter on the fourth floor of Westfield, tripping over my penny loafers with glee.
When I was eight we moved from one side of the city to the other, over the famous bridge, and another less famous one, from the leafy north shore of Sydney to the hot, concreted inner west. Away from my school and my friends and the few suburbs I knew; away from the eat-in Pizza Hut Restaurant and Friday night noodle markets, toward Bar Italia’s gelato and Il Cugino’s anchovy-rife Pizzeria.
We are what we eat, and what we eat is kind of who we are. A hand of bananas, rib of celery, ear of corn, head of lettuce, mango cheek, heel of bread, kidney bean, artichoke heart, potato eye, a thumb of ginger. And all that we have in common with food becomes more apparent when you consider drunken tofu, sweet and sour pork and the genius that is jerk chicken. We eat when we’re lonely, happy, depressed, in love, hysterical and anxious. I’ve plonked myself down in a chair at the Happy Chef restaurant many times, but am yet to find the Lonely Café, filled, as it would be, with multiple tables for one. Food attaches itself to memories, recalling the best and worst moments without prejudice. The croissant you devour on your first trip to Paris; the meal you bring back up the first time you get drunk; a birthday cake baked by the love of your life; the first dinner you ate together in silence. The amorphous fried pork/steamed prawn/spring roll/duck pancake/chicken feet/mango pancake/sticky rice of Yum Cha is tied up in knots with memories of my favourite people, knockout conversations and best times. My first Yum Cha was at Marigold, with my oldest friend and her father, who has since passed away. He chose wisely, laughed loudly and if I didn’t love every morsel as I do, I’d love it because of that experience alone. I’ve over-ordered, and finished it all, with a new friend who matched me bite-for-bite without judgment or complaint. Then sat with her at the exact same table months later as we both pretended to exercise restraint. I joined in the family feast of my very best friend as she celebrated a special, and secret, milestone. All in that same red-carpeted, white-clothed, gilt-edged, cavernous dining room, with its steaming, rickety trolleys and the irritable ladies pushing them. But I’ll eat Yum Cha anywhere and have eaten no better than the post-flight feast on my first trip to Perth, to celebrate a pal’s engagement. On a lonely Sunday I drive to see an old mate, meet her brand new son, and go out for lunch. We met at work where almost the first words she spoke to me were, ‘I’m not worried, you’re a good writer.’ Those seven words that keep me writing, even on the worst days. Before she was pregnant she’d let me finish anything she was too full to eat; when she was pregnant the scraps and seconds stopped. Now, at her local Grand Lotus Chinese Restaurant, with her tiny, perfect, five-week-young boy asleep in his pram, we sit down for Yum Cha. She orders tea for us both; I order chive and scallop dumplings, pork dim sum, prawn dumplings, Chinese greens, BBQ pork buns, sticky rice, mango pudding and mango pancake ($48.20). For us both. The chow here is hot and fresh, the service brisk and the room small enough to ensure your dumplings don’t circle the floor for an hour. Just like all of our lunches before, she listens to my woes, bolsters my spirits, makes me laugh til I snort and pushes the last prize in the steamer to my side of the table. She’s wise and honest, whip-smart and piss-in-your-pants funny. She is a compassionate listener, the least judgmental advice-giver and now, an outstanding mother. As if there was ever any doubt. Grand Lotus Chinese Restaurant is a fair name, but I’ll always remember this place as Dynamite Friend Yum Cha.