No Meal Is An Island

Travel agents describe the tiny commonwealth of Dominica (pronounced dom-in-NEE-kuh) as the only island in the present-day Caribbean that Columbus would recognize. Dominica's nickname – "The Nature Isle" – celebrates unspoiled wonders that have survived the ravages of colonialism and mass tourism: plush upland jungles, towering cliffside waterfalls, nourishing volcanic soil, brisk mountain springs shot through with hot jets of geothermal groundwater. 

But the capital Roseau, a genial waterfront town on the leeward shore, would confuse a 15th century navigator in search of his fortune in the East Indies. Behind the cruise ship dock and the neighboring fishery jetty, a time-traveling Columbus would stumble across tantalizing red herrings that might convince him he had indeed navigated to the edge of Cathay. A pair of brawny foo-dog guardian lions post watch at the foot of a bridge. Chinese engineers with clipboards move in knots through the raucous after-school bustle. Nestled among the open storefronts are restaurants with names like Hung Hing, Great Wall and Dynasty.

Even to a modern visitor, the proliferation of Chinese restaurants in Roseau's compact eight-by-eight block city grid is a head-scratcher. With the exception of pub grub and a handful of high-end dining rooms, Chinese is the only international cuisine to have taken root in Roseau. How do these places get by?

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At its worst, Chinese food in Roseau tracks the survival cooking of yesteryear's diaspora: a starchy brown-sauce cuisine prepared from dusty bottles and jarred imports. Restaurateurs stock their larders with biannual bulk shipments of Chinese goods, or hop puddle jumpers to buy groceries on more cosmopolitan islands. Kitchen logistics are further complicated by cruise ship provisioners who ransack local markets to resupply their onboard galleys.

A shrewd cook copes with island supply problems by developing a menu of preserved ingredients: quick-thawing cuts of frozen fish tossed in a hot wok with jarred black bean sauce, stir-fried slices from a hunk of braised beef that keeps for days in the fridge. The tableside condiments are local: a ketchup squeeze bottle plus a smoldering West Indian pepper sauce made from Scotch bonnet chillis and crushed papaya.

Infrastructure projects funded by the PRC bring to the island a small but demanding patron base for Chinese eateries. Contractors from the Chinese mainland are a captive audience on Dominica. They'll eat anything that reminds them of home, although they aren't always happy about it. When asked about Chinese food on the island, one contractor delivered a wistful rhapsody to the rice noodles (米粉 mifen) of his native Hunan, ending bitterly, "Here, there is only spaghetti."

Cruise ship day-trippers, scuba divers, whale watchers and yachties make up another potential clientele. One restaurant owner observed that while European tourists tend to seek out Caribbean cuisine, Americans go out of their way to sample the local takeout. And on Sundays and during the off-season, international tourists resort to Chinese food for the same reason American Jews eat Chinese on Christmas: Everywhere else is closed. 

But going out for Chinese doesn't mean the same thing to mainland Chinese contractors as to Western tourists. How many American cruise ship passengers pine after Hunanese mifen? That's not to mention the more basic problem – a menu that targets the spending power of international visitors prices out the largest market on the island: locals.

For Dominicans, Chinese is not a balanced diet for daily nutrition. It is outing food, an occasional indulgence to titillate the taste buds. Menus that appeal to the local palate highlight the lowest common denominators from American shopping mall combo-plate chains: spaghetti chow mein, soy sauce fried rice, sweet and sour meats with emphasis on the sweet.

The competing expectations of foreign versus Dominican eaters present a conundrum. One key indicator reveals how a restaurant aims to thread that needle: the sugar-to-vinegar ratio in the sweet and sour sauce. 

Chinatown, a prominent sit-down spot overlooking a central crossroads, features a wall menu of inexpensive local favorites. In an order of sweet and sour pork, a goopy tomato marmalade globs onto thin-sliced shoulder in such a way that the inner contours of the deep-fried meat hold a dry and satisfying crunch over the duration of a meal. The thoughtful, if oversweet, preparation appeals to Dominicans as well as takeout-loving Americans. But, says the owner with a tight-lipped smile, "these are ten-year-old prices."

A few blocks over at Are You Hungry?, a second-floor space above a Chinese laundry, the sweet and sour dorado arrives in a bright and tangy dressing that wouldn't be out of place in the owner's native Guangzhou. After ten years in restaurants, she proudly and somewhat defiantly describes herself as a home cook. Her big gamble is that Chinese homestyle cooking, hand-rolled noodles and all, can sustain itself in Roseau at a price point only international visitors and local elite can afford. She offsets the risk of this precariously narrow market segment by supplying housemade doufu to upscale area restaurants.


At first blush it seems extraordinary that mainland Chinese families in the 21st century would relocate to a small Caribbean island. Is Dominica, of all places, seen as a land of opportunity? Are the streets of Roseau cobbled with gold? In fact these practical-minded immigrants from Jiangxi, Henan, Shandong and Guangzhou were not stirred by gauzy promises of fortunes to be won at the edge of the world. The truth is rather more mundane. At the right moment in their lives, they accepted an offer to work in a restaurant overseas. In time they either bought the business or branched off on their own.

Take the enterprising young man from Qingdao who acquired a restaurant called Great Wall from his old boss. How did he end up in Roseau? He responds in frank terms. "Not everyone from Qingdao has money. I'm from the outskirts."

His menu makes perfunctory concessions to island eating – deep-fried bananas and a few curries – while the decor comes straight from the rural China lookbook, complete with pixelated printouts of idealized dishes and private dining rooms with mahjong tables. Stepping into Great Wall was strangely disorienting, like going through a portal.

The owner's wife recently moved from China to help operate the restaurant. She had been in Roseau a month and seemed stunned by her new life abroad. But her husband had worked two years in Africa and felt at home in the Caribbean. His manner betrayed a familiar wanderlust, a glass-half-full approach to carving out a life on some far-flung shore. At least in Dominica the air was clean. The tap flowed with fresh spring water. He says with easy confidence, "Sure you can earn a living here – if you do your job well." Once his wife settles in, they plan to bring their six-year-old from China to broaden the child's horizons.

That's how a Shandong family finds their way to Roseau. Not by being blown off-course, but through a series of course corrections while sailing into the wind.

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The picture of Chinese food in Roseau wouldn't be complete without a glimpse at Hung Hing Chinese Restaurant, a one-room cafeteria counter so hateful to the mifen-loving contractor that he refused to speak its name. Other restaurateurs labeled the Hung Hing owner as Caribbean-born Chinese, though we weren't able to confirm it.

The posters in Hung Hing are identical to the ones in holes-in-the-wall across mainland China: photoshopped babies in extreme soft focus, horses galloping through a dreamscape, an oversaturated postcard image of a tropical paradise. Here is a mystery: The one item of culinary heritage that translates directly from China to Dominica is the weird posters?

The wall menu boasts a head-spinning blur of Chinese and local elements: fish and chips, fried chicken fried rice, curry pork, shrimp chow mein, plus a Caribbean-Chinese innovation – fried rice and chopped spaghetti topped with deep-fried wingtips and gristly joints – known as Chicken Nancy Glory.

Carb double-downs like Nancy Glory do not fly in China. Inventing this dish is the kind of thing that might get you exiled to the far side of the globe. But that, on its own merits, hardly makes for just cause to speak against a rice-pasta marriage. A similar mash-up appears in the Chinese-Peruvian diaspora: chaufa al aeropuerto (airport-style fried rice with noodles), a comfort food South Americans have enjoyed going on a hundred years. Only after Gaston Acurio got hold of chaufa did the English-speaking world take notice – and then with rapturous acclaim.

Sadly for Hung Hing, no amount of soy sauce or reheating can rescue too-old rice or overfried spaghetti. Hung Hing's Nancy Glory is only palatable after a diluvian slather of ketchup and pepper sauce. Condiment squeeze bottles provide a constant ambient sputter during the after-school lunch rush, which, despite everything, is quite a scene to behold. Patrons holler their Nancy Glory orders from the open doorway as they come in from the street. Teenagers wander the space with chicken bones dangling from their lips like cigarettes. Styrofoam clamshells, studded with rubbery inches of chow mein and telltale flecks of chicken batter, litter the gutters of Independence Street.

Thus Nancy Glory, the signature dish of the busiest Chinese restaurant in Roseau, is an offense by every measure but one. It goes down coarse and prickly. It knocks about your stomach like a tree stump in a truck bed. It is almost worse in hindsight than at the moment of consumption, and that's saying something. But it fills you up for half the price of a Chinese lunch elsewhere, so it thrives. By undercutting the competition, Hung Hing appears to have found a winning formula, although the margins must be razor-thin at two and a half US dollars per portion. 

Absent the constraints imposed by the bottom-of-the-barrel price point, Nancy Glory could be a marvel. One can imagine a not-too-distant future when an island chef, perhaps one of those teenagers picking her teeth with a chicken bone, revisits the Nancy Glory of her childhood with a loving tribute characterized not by cost-cutting imperatives but the affection of remembered youth. To her, chow mein and fried rice will be as Dominican as yams and conch shells.


Recommended reading

The earliest Chinese communities in the Caribbean arrived during colonial-era migrations. Some of the resulting foodways, like the criollo-china diners of the Chinese-Cuban diaspora, are doomed to extinction; see Michael Y. Park's dire reporting for Lucky Peach. To sample a mature Caribbean Chinese cuisine, check out Grace Young's award-winning video recipe for a Chinese-Trinidad mango chicken stir-fry, adapted from her also-award-winning cookbook Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge.