A Taste of Home
Russell Zheng ’20, Silvia Shi ’20, and Alice Yu ’20 step into Kowloon Village, a Chinese restaurant in Bethel, and are greeted by warm smiles as they come in from a chilly ten-minute walk from campus in February. It’s clear they’ve been here before. While most patrons would wait to be seated, the three Gould 12th graders casually walk to the back of the restaurant and find a familiar booth.
Russell goes into the back and gets tea for the table, while Silvia visits with a nearby group of Gould students already enjoying their dinner. They exchange greetings, and Sylvia returns with samples from their table to try.
Within a couple of minutes of settling in, bubble teas and bowls of rice arrive at the table. No need to order, that was all taken care of 40 minutes earlier on campus via the Chinese social app WeChat. An order at Kowloon doesn’t typically take that long to prepare, but they aren’t ordering numbered dinner combinations with pork fried rice. What they’ve ordered isn’t on the menu at all.
The Secret Menu
For years at Gould, there have been rumblings and rumors surrounding the “secret menu” at Kowloon. Diner’s mouths water and eyes widen as they watch all varieties of dumplings, simmered sauces, and steamed fresh vegetables travel past their own tables en route to Gould students in the know.
But, spoiler alert, it turns out there is no secret menu. There’s no conspiracy or secret back-alley deals.
International students simply request dishes from their home country, and Su C. Chen P’22 obliged. Word spreads from class to class, and Kowloon’s “secret” menu is now a Gould staple.
For the past 19 years, Man S. Tse P’22 and Su C. Chen P’22 have been the proprietors of Kowloon Village in Bethel, Maine, and for the last seven, they have created authentic Chinese cooking for Gould’s international population, especially students from China.
Gould students from all over China make requests so they can enjoy something familiar while they are a world away from home. Many regional dishes are foreign even to Su. Learning how to make them used to require her to contact other restaurateurs or even make a trip to China Town in Boston.
“Years ago we might need to make a trip to learn how to prepare a dish,” says Su C., “Now we can just learn to create unknown recipes online, which makes it a lot easier.”
The students certainly appreciate the effort. They visit the restaurant at least once every few weeks, but they also arrive in large groups to celebrate important Chinese festivals like Lunar New Year with hot pot.
“It’s a way to relax I think,” says Alice. “When you feel stressed from schoolwork, you just come here with your friends and have a taste of your home town. Your family food.”
Dinner is Served
Moments later, the first dish arrives. It’s a simple tomato and eggs stir fry that Russell explains is one of the most common meals in China.
“These are the real authentic ones. One of the most basic meals in Chinese cooking. If you meet a Chinese person, and they say they’ve never had this, they aren’t from China,” he adds, smiling.
Suddenly three more plates show up: an intensely spicy sautéed beef, delicately poached fish, and Sichuan stir-fried green beans. When pushed for descriptions and names of the dishes, the kids mostly come up empty. It doesn’t translate well. But the flavors are universal.
Other than a bowl of rice for each, no one has their own order. The whole table is communal. Another example of how this replicates the experience of dining in China.
“It’s the idea of sharing,” says Russell. “It always happens at the table. Between families and between friends.”
The conversation is a lot like dinner. Everyone is sharing and jumping in between bites.
“I think the custom of eating like this started out of necessity,” says says Sylvia, “because families were so big and there wasn’t a lot of money. But it became a social thing, and a way to share everything. Also this way you get to try a lot of different things.”
Russell points out that their selections reflect the five flavors of Chinese cooking, intended to help achieve balance.
“The idea here is that you have a sweet dish, a sour, a spicy, and that one is salty. A little bit of everything.”
Thank You, Come Again!
The meal ends the way it began. They don’t wait for a check or for dishes to be cleared. They casually head to the register and catch up with Su C. for a few moments before paying and saying good night. It’s not a big deal. It’s familiar, it’s comforting, and it’s part of their lives.
The relationship is mutually beneficial. Su C. and Man S. love having Gould students come in, and order authentic Chinese food from their homeland.
“They are very good kids,” says Su. “I once heard that when one speaks to another, they listen with their ears; however, when one speaks with the person’s own language, they listen with their hearts. It is our pleasure to have them.”