Growing up, takeaways (as we call take-out in the UK) were always a special treat. They would only be bought on special occasions, or on the way home from the beach if we had stayed too late to think about cooking. Sometimes on these evenings it was fish and chips, but my favourite was always Chinese. We would come home, call to order our usual dishes (chicken and cashew, chicken chow mein, prawn chop suey, egg fried rice), and then about 15 minutes later my parents would head out to collect it, leaving my sister and me in a frenzy of excitement, listening for the car in the driveway and the sound of the back gate to announce that dinner had arrived. My parents would dish everything out fairly, piling food on top of the rice (except in my sister’s case – she had her rice separately, in a bowl), and we would sit, in front of a film, enjoying that post-beach feeling of sun-baked skin and sleepiness along with the salty goodness of gravy-soaked noodles and rice. Sometimes, when the takeaway was in honor of guests, we’d add another dish, like sweet and sour chicken balls. Later on I remember they started adding free prawn crackers to our order. As I moved away from home, to university and then to London, I discovered the wide range of Chinese dishes available – and that they could be delivered straight to your door. But however different they might have been, they still retained that special quality of a rare and happy occasion.
In the States it’s so much more usual to get take-out than it was when I was young in the UK. The other day the boy I tutor said that he had picked up a Subway sandwich for his dinner; a couple of weeks before his mother picked him up a Chipotle burrito when she dropped me back at the metro. But so far it’s been difficult to get hold of the same sort of Chinese takeaways as we got in the UK. Perhaps it’s because so much of the Chinese food in the UK is specifically Cantonese food, whereas here it’s more likely to be Szechuan or some other variety. There also seems to have been a turn to healthy Chinese in some DC restaurants and you’re more likely to find steamed rice and broccoli than fried noodles and chicken balls. I also heard that much of the DC Chinese population moved out to Virginia and Maryland, and that you’re therefore more likely to find good Chinese a bit further out of the city.
As I have mentioned here before, prawn crackers do not seem to be an American thing. A neighbour of mine, hearing of how traumatic I was finding this withdrawal recently made them for me – which was completely amazing. Sadly, she was not converted and described them as prawn flavoured cardboard. I find the deep-fried noodle crisp things DC takeaways serve instead of prawn crackers far more tasteless, but I guess it’s what you’re used to.
One thing I had expected here – and had been somewhat looking forward to – was Chinese food in cardboard cartons, like they get in the West Wing.
But so far I’ve not found this – I wonder if anywhere still does it or if they’ve all gone over to microwaveable plastic containers…
What DC takeaways have in their favour is value. Many of the restaurants do incredible meal deals, where you can get a double serving of soup, a spring roll and a large main course with rice for under $10 (£7). All main dishes come with complimentary rice, which you can substitute with fried rice for about a dollar. And once you realise that you can ask for dishes to be made ‘extra spicy’, they’re really very tasty.
Finally, at the end of the year, with R’s family, we followed a friend’s advice and found a pretty good restaurant. And I found myself ringing in 2015 with that communal Chinese takeaway I remembered.