I have no recollection as to how the subject came up, but I will never forget when my friend Sara told me that one way to tell the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is through the sh- sounds of Mandarin. The subject was relevant to me because most Chinese-Canadian communities, up until recently, traced their roots to regions that spoke Cantonese, especially Hong Kong. The “Chinese” I heard in Edmonton was Cantonese. Similarly, when I was in Vancouver. (And for full reference, Sara and I went to grad school together in Toronto.) I remember seeing the word “Cantonese” written on a restaurant menu or on a strip mall sign, but rarely. Ignorance reigned until someone like a Social Studies teacher rightly tried to overturn it by asking your Chinese classmates if they were speaking Cantonese or Mandarin in the hallways.
The difference still seems relevant to me as I almost never hear Cantonese anymore. Maybe that’s a little bit of a post-1997 China reality? At a recent Sunday matinee or in a New York Times video piece, I cannot escape Sara’s sh‘s. With my newfound interest in Chinese cuisine, I hear Mandarin even more, as the Sichuan, Xi’an, and Fujian cuisines popular in NYC are not handled by native Cantonese speakers. But the sing-song nature of that language (as pointed out by this video), is still more familiar to me and is what exists in my memories: high school and university classmates, old men on the bus; salsa lessons that oddly took place on busy Saturdays at the Edmonton Chinatown Multi-Cultural Centre.
So, it felt a little bit more like home when I sat down at Noodle Village in Chinatown a few weeks ago and heard the language. The restaurant specializes in Cantonese noodles and soups, the types with plump wontons and mild broths. I almost always go brothless with my noodles if given a choice, so I went with the Duet Hong Kong style lo mein. The duet being my choice of two toppings, of which I chose wontons and shrimp dumplings. I could not tell you the difference between the two. One was slightly smaller? And I think one was shrimp and pork instead of just shrimp. Regardless, the snap of the shrimp within the large dumplings/wontons was enjoyable. The water-logged softness of the dough left along the seam was not. I was given the thicker lo mein without asking, but that wasn’t a problem. I so rarely eat egg noodles that their novelty was enough to keep me interested in the plate probably longer than my stomach would have initially allowed. The oyster sauce atop was largely flavourless, so some doctoring with the salty and spicy condiments was necessary. A bowl of broth is included, and I am ignorant of the correct etiquette. Is it to be eaten as a standalone soup? Do I dip the noodles? I was too hungry to ask. I sipped some broth on its own while it was still hot, then used a few spoonfuls to lubricate the relatively dry noodles. The broth was nice, though, delicate and clear, and I’m sure fine for those who like their noodles served submerged. The abundance of seafood in the dumplings, the light broth, the tender greens, and the lack of any notable fat on the noodles made for what felt like a very healthy meal. Flour is my friend, so the noodles and wrappers do not sully that takeaway. The question remains if it was all that memorable a meal. For the food, probably not. For the resulting language lesson, definitely.