As a child who tried resisting all things Chinese - violin lessons, the Last Emperor, belching at dinner - there was one thing that attached me like an umbilical cord to my culture.
Thank God for dim sum, without which I might have been lost to cheeseburgers.
Yum cha, that Cantonese tea-house tradition during which dim sum is served, is for the greedy. One is never full, and there is always more. Order as many of those small dishes as you possibly can, and talk loudly. With your mouth full.
The traditional time for yum cha is midday, Sunday, when all the aunties get together and “wah!” at how tall you are, how pale you are, how fat you are now - it’s a sign of family.
Lunch is elevated from a meat-and-two-veg affair to being the excited heart of the Chinese community. The meal is a sequence of rituals. There are rules you should learn. Serve tea to others before yourself. Tap fingers on the table to thank those pouring tea into your cup - a gesture not, as my friend thought, a sign of impatience or atrocious manners. Cock the teapot lid to show that the teapot needs refilling.
If you can successfully navigate the ritual of yum cha, you warrant inclusion. Golden Palace in Harrow, the hub of the Chinese community in the suburbs of northwest London, had been the scene of many dramas before it closed down. It was where boyfriends were first taken to meet the family, where celebrations and commiserations were held. My parents judged on whether guests would gutsily try that chicken’s foot. Or at least laugh if they didn’t.
There is no more Golden Palace, sadly. But, keeping things palatial, our alternative is Baker Street’s Phoenix Palace, which is consistently delicious and does all the traditional dishes, like char siu bao and siu mai, but (refreshingly) innovates too. The sort of restaurant you might see in Hong Kong, the huge familial place has a soundtrack of chopsticks clacking in hungry fervour under the chat and you may very well find yourself near Chinese grannies seated by their begrudging but respectful iPod-wielding grandsons for their big Sunday lunch.
Look out for me if you’re ever there, and say hello. I shall be proffering cartilaginous chicken’s feet with my chopsticks to see if you're worthy of company.
5 Glentworth Street, London NW1 5PG
Tel: 020 7486 3515