For award-winning Russian-Australian architect Alex Popov, smoky fried bean curd was the first dish to capture his heart, and continues to evoke the strongest memories of an adventure-filled childhood in Shanghai during a time of revolution.
Alex Popov

11 Jul 2012 - 3:42 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

Shanghai in the 1930s and 40s was a melting pot of cultures and cuisines – much like it is today. Refugees, adventurers and chancers from all corners of the globe could find a haven in the city’s various 'Concessions of the International Settlement', where English, French and Russian cultures dominated.

Both my parents had left Russia as young children in the 1920s, fleeing the Revolution with their parents ahead of the encroaching Red Army. My maternal grandfather, the lawyer Peter Vologodsky, had been the last head of the White Provisional Government that had proposed, with the support of the British and European Allies, a doomed plan to install a democratic monarchist regime in the country. As civil unrest threatened, he was whisked out of Tomsk, a city in Central Russia, on a train provided by the Japanese government, and escaped to the city of Harbin in Manchuria (north-eastern China) with my grandmother and mother Zinaida (Zena), who was three years old at the time.

My parents met while they were both at school in Harbin. When they married in 1936, they moved south to Shanghai where my father became chief site engineer of the huge Hangzhou railway bridge (it was later bombed by the Japanese during World War II).

I was born in 1942 in Shanghai’s French Concession, but in the following year, the invading Japanese army confiscated our home at 62 rue de Boissezon and we were interned in a Japanese-held building in Sechuan Road, near The Bund (the popular waterfront area in central Shanghai). Food was scarce and basics were almost impossible to come by, but my father managed to develop a process of making powdered milk, which he was able to distribute and sell outside of the compound with the help of the French consul.

In 1945, at the end of World War II, large reconstruction programs began and my father’s engineering business grew rapidly. We were able to move back to rue de Boissezon, this time with a live-in cook Lim Be, his wife Achi and their son Hoang Ku, who was charged with looking after me.

Hoang Ku would carry me on his back, or on his bicycle, while he shopped in the old market town, where the unique sights and smells of the bustling market imprinted themselves deeply on my impressionable young senses. Later, after the Red Army entered Shanghai, he even took me on two occasions to watch the public execution of 'convicted capitalist criminals’ in Shanghai Park.

To understand the excesses and dichotomies of life in Shanghai’s foreign concessions during this period, one need look no further than J. G. Ballard’s quasi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, and in Steven Spielberg’s dramatisation of that beautifully crafted book. The stately mansions, garden parties, fancy-dress balls and Cadillacs were all part of colonial life in Shanghai. But I could never equate my experience with Ballard’s portrayal of the prickly relationship between the Chinese servants and their young charges, because my sister and I were brought up to respect those who looked after us, and to see them as an indispensable part of our small family.

Lim Be skilfully mastered the art of re-creating favourite Western and Russian dishes, including borscht (beetroot soup), pirog (a square, harder-crust version of cottage pie) and piroshki (fried stuffed pastries – just like Australian pies enjoyed today). We were also frequently exposed to French cuisine since my father was president of the French Club. It was then that I clearly remember the first time I tasted pommes frites (French fries), but it was the traditional Chinese dishes cooked in the courtyard kitchen of our Spanish Mission-style compound that impressed me the most and stayed longest in my sensory memory.

When I wasn’t in class at Le Collége Municipal Français, I could usually be found hanging around the servants’ quarters, chatting easily in their local dialect, watching them cook and sharing their meals. Often, a tofu vendor would ride his bicycle into the courtyard, announcing his arrival with a cry of, 'Tzu du kwe! Tzu du kwe!" (the old Shanghai word for bean curd). I would rush out to meet him and wait impatiently while he fried sizzling slices of fresh bean curd on a hot metal plate attached to his bicycle and heated by a Bunsen burner.

The sound, smell and unforgettable flavour of that delicious tofu stayed with me long after our family was forced to leave China under escort by members of Mao’s Red Army in the wake of yet another revolution, ending up first in Repulse Bay, Hong Kong, and then later in the strangely unfamiliar territory of 1950s Australia.

Here, in the playground of my Sydney school, I was painfully embarrassed by the fact that although I spoke fluent Chinese, French and Russian, my English was halting and evidently comical. I was comfortable eating with chopsticks, and my lunchbox held piroshkis instead of white-bread sandwiches, all of which carved a terrifying gulf between me and the other children, and set me up as an easy target for their teasing.

In the interests of survival, I quickly adopted an Aussie accent and learned to eat meat pies and battered saveloys (smoked sausages) washed down with malt milkshakes and GI Juice.

From a life of privilege and affluence in Shanghai, our entire family had to adjust to the very different circumstances of our new life in completely different surroundings in Australia. And without her beloved Lim Be, my mother learned to feed the family by herself. Through a long process of trial and error, she earned a reputation as an accomplished cook of Russian, French and modern Australian dishes, many of which she still cooks today, even as she approaches her centenary year. I would love walking into her kitchen to the smells of eggplant ratatouille, baked fish pies and many salmon-based dishes, but somehow the Asian dishes that had been such an integral part of my early upbringing didn’t make it into my mother’s repertoire, just as they didn’t feature on the average Australian menu at the time – except in a few places around Sydney’s Central station.

Years passed with little discernible change in the culinary landscape of this vast, yet homogenous, continent, until I returned to Australia in 1984 after working as an architect in Denmark for 16 years. I realised that during my lengthy absence, there had been a huge shift towards multiculturalism in the Australian diet, and the dominance of Asian cuisine as a defining influence was decidedly obvious. It’s a trend that’s continued unabated to the present day.

One evening, when I was heading home to Clareville Beach and passing through Newport, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, I suddenly smelled the almost-forgotten aroma of tzu du kwe. The aromas evoked vivid memories of my childhood in Shanghai, and in our family’s courtyard at 62 rue de Boissezon, the smell of frying tofu triggering happy recollections that were now flooding back.

It appeared that a little nondescript hole-in-the-wall Thai takeaway was serving up the delicately fragrant dish that had captured my childhood heart and tastebuds all those years ago. Once again, I was completely hooked.

Since that time, I’ve hunted down every permutation of pan-fried bean curd that I could find here in Sydney. Just recently, I experienced one of the better renditions at Green Gourmet, a vegan yum-cha restaurant in Sydney’s Newtown (there’s also one in St Leonards) that’s been a favourite haunt of mine for several years.

But nothing has ever bettered – or even equalled – the smoky, spicy, pure brilliance of tzu du kwe cooked on the back of a bicycle in a courtyard in old Shanghai. This simple, unsophisticated dish has, for me, come to symbolise all that was best about a childhood filled with colour, noise, smell, taste and adventure. It takes me back to a time when I felt completely safe and treasured in a place that was pulsing with excitement, entertainment and, ultimately, danger.