I remember the first time I had real (American) Chinese food with Chinese hot mustard. (Of course back in the 70's my mom occasionally made chop suey from a can and mixed it with ground beef, but that qualifies for Chinese food about as much as Spagettio's qualifies as Italian--but we never had hot mustard with it that version of chop suey.) Early in my career, I went with some co-workers to a Chinese restaurant where we started lunch with some eggrolls. Following everyone else's lead, I unwittingly dipped my eggroll into a generous portion of Chinese mustard. Seconds later, a volcano rolled through my sinuses and I grabbed my water to douse the flames. But what I found really amazing was that I immediately wanted more!
And so began my love affair with hot Chinese mustard and its cousin, wasabi. In fact, wasabi became the real reason I love sushi. I love the rush and the feeling of risk that maybe this time I might have taken too much... then “Ahhhhhhh!” the sweet release as it flushes out my sinuses. In much the same way that you should never eat at a barbecue restaurant tif you can't smell it from a mile away--if you didn't have a runny nose when you leave a Chinese restaurant, you should cross it off your list.
Way back then, when I first came to love hot mustard, I didn't even care about the eggrolls; I just needed a vehicle for dipping into that awesome, gratifying, sinus-clearing hot stuff. You could have given me a plate of cardboard toilet paper rolls and I probably would have declared them "fantastico!" if the mustard was good.
Flash forward to the present. Because of our recent long, drawn out moving process and having to take care of two houses for a while, we spent a lot of time on the road which meant we didn't feel much like cooking. And so we have had more pizza and Chinese food delivered in the past year than in all previous years combined. This has made us experts on eggrolls and Chinese hot mustard. But after a few deliveries, I began to notice that the "mustard effect" wasn't quite what it used to be; it was taking more and more mustard to get a decent fix. Had I developed a tolerance, like a meth addict?
We switched to a different Chinese restaurant for delivery but nothing changed, the mustard didn't seem hot at all. In fact, upon close examination I realized that the mustard looked and tasted more like the yellow mustard I had eaten growing up than it did the Chinese mustard I had come to love. In desperation we bought a dry hot mustard mix from the grocery store, but this too tasted bland and heatless.
Where oh where had my hot mustard gone?
Sadly, it appears to have undergone the slow but inevitable Americanization process that many original foods and flavors fall victim to. We don't appreciate cultural or regional differences when it comes to food. You can find the same chain restaurants, in virtually any city in any state. PopEyes is considered authentic New Orleans fare to many of us. And Taco Bell is "Mexican" food. But we don't want surprises in our food. And we want a Taco Bell bean burrito to taste exactly the same wherever we go whether we're in Anchorage or Albany. With this homogenization, some foods slowly morph together, and the masses get what they want. Thus, Chinese restaurant owners have undoubtedly, over time, catered to the non-adventurous American tongue by subbing familiar mild yellow mustard for their authentic, fume-inducing Chinese one.
I suppose it's democracy at its best but the victory of plain, banal yellow mustard over Chinese mustard makes me weep, the way a good dose of Chinese mustard used to. Guess I'll go make myself a chopped ham sandwich.