I remember when it all came to an end. I was 13 years old, much older than I cared to admit to my friends at the time. And when it was all over, my dad and I took a while to come to terms with our shared loss.
For that was the moment – sorely conflicted, but with my mind decidedly made-up – that I told my dad the time had come: from now on, there’d be no more bedtime stories.
From my very first days on earth, devoid of words or language, to a secondary-school boy on the cusp of adolescence – my dad and I had engaged in the same nightly ritual. Day in, day out, he would sit in the same old rickety wicker chair in the corner of my bedroom, draw out a book and read to me.
And I’d listen. Attentively. Hungrily. Soaking up story after story like a dessicated but thirsty sponge. And when it was eventually time for bed, I’d be so saturated with story, that my eyelids would droop down like two ponderous curtains, and sleep would spirit me away.
As the years ticked by, a succession of characters would fly off the pages and swirl spiritedly around my room; old friends who would visit me time and again.
My undoubted favourite when I was small was Lowly Worm: bedecked in bowtie and Tyrollean hat, he was arguably the most consummately-dressed nematode to have ever graced children’s literature. I’d also take great delight in his uncanny knack of popping up in the most incongruous of places. Like inside a loaf of bread. A cement mixer. Or clinging on to the exterior fuselage of an in-flight 747.
As the books became more complex, storytime became progressively longer: twenty minutes, then thirty, then even longer.
After all, how could we put the book down before discovering the fate of Aslan as he lay motionless on The Stone Table?.. Or whether Bilbo Baggins would escape the nefarious attentions of Gollum?.. Or whether Bigwig would valiantly fend off General Woundwort to save Watership Down?..
Dad and I would utterly lose ourselves in these fantastical worlds and tales of derring-do. And in so doing, we’d become part of that long lineage of storytelling that developed many millennia ago, when the first humans sat by an open fire and words spilled out from their mouths. This is how primal storytelling is. It is part of who we are.
Yes, over the years dad and I enjoyed some memorable times; these bedtime rituals became a shared endeavour that we grew to love and depend on. Which made the decision to stop, when it came, all the more heartbreaking.
And yet, on reflection, the story doesn’t actually stop there. Something that I’m only now beginning to realise: how those nights of storytelling have continued to shape and mould my life. Who I am. What I do. Indeed, its legacy has probably had an inordinately long reach.
After all, as a doctor in child and adolescent mental health, what does my job involve? Listening, attentively. Hearing about people and their lives, what they’re feeling and thinking, their tough times and their future aspirations. In other words, their stories.
Yes, I might throw in the odd diagnosis or two, but at heart it’s really their narrative, and how to make sense of it, that’s most important. And most interesting. And it’s a humbling privilege to be given such a window into people’s lives, an honour which I never take for granted.
And then in my spare time, what do I do? I write. I have no doubt that my new-found love for writing stems from those countless evenings listening to dad and all those stories and escapades.
For although I love food, and thoroughly enjoy writing about it, it’s actually the stories around food that resonate with me the most. And why so many of my articles have stories woven into them, whether be it my periodic forays into fiction, or as autobiographical memoir.
And, finally, which part of the day is now my most treasured? Storytime with my own boys. Those hours spent listening to dad, captivated by his storytelling – well, it’s now become a gift I pass down to my own children.
For now I’m the storyteller. And it’s a mantle I cherish so deeply.
And when I read them those very same stories I once knew and loved, when I relive the very moment when The White Witch loses her icy grip on Narnia; or when Bastian Balthazar Bux first realises he’s actually part of the Neverending Story; or when Taran finally discovers who he really is – I see my own dad, all snug in that old rickety wicker chair, reading to me.
And of course, inevitably, it means there’ll come a day, perhaps not that far off now, when my eldest will turn to me and say “dad, you don’t need to read to me anymore”, and I will offer him a wry smile and reply “I know son”. And you know, that’s okay…
All sorts of things can be gifted down the generations: family heirlooms, shared rituals, or impassioned interests or pursuits. Sometimes we are aware of its value at the time, other times it takes a while for their significance to surface. But either way, these things can give us a deep connection to those we feel closest to.
In a similar way to how I was enthralled by my dad reading stories to me, as a kid Frank Yeung would keenly observe his own father, Joe, in the family restaurant. His father would come to run that place for 30 years in all before retiring, and Frank’s fond memories of growing up amidst the clatter of crockery and the hubbub of a dining-room would eventually shape a decision he’d make much later in life.
When Frank decided to leave a secure City job to open Mr Bao in Peckham, it was certainly a risk, but ultimately he was following his heart and a yearning whose origins were deeply rooted in childhood. Sure enough, it turned into a roaring success, prompting him to open another venture. This time he named it ‘Daddy Bao’, in honour of his father.
Frank’s food also plays homage to his Chinese heritage, mainly in the form of big fluffy bao with its raft of creative savoury fillings. The bao themselves are delightfully springy between the teeth, and slightly sweet inside the mouth – a perfect pillowy foil for anything hot, tangy or crispy that lies within.
Tofu bao come packed with the zing and warmth of ginger, whilst kim chi lends a pungent kick and a delectable crunch. The one with shiitake marries up that particular umami appeal of mushroom with a punchy style of mayonnaise.
The snacks at Daddy Bao are addictively moreish too. Green bean fritters, lightly battered and crisped up in the deep-fat fryer, prove perfect for dunking into the sweet-salt-sour of kung-pao sauce.
Meanwhile, cool slippery slivers of aubergine are served up in a silky sesame sauce – try saying that after a few glasses of Taiwan lychee beer! This earthy dish may smack more of the Middle East than the Far East – particularly with the addition of ruby-red pomegranate seeds – yet still seems to dovetail well with the rest of the menu.
Desserts are also comprised of.. yes, bao. In this incarnation, they come deep-fried and still warm: its crispy crust yielding a gorgeously gooey interior. It’s served up with a scoop of sesame-seed ice-cream, suitably not-too-sweet: the sugar-hit instead comes from a generous drizzle of salted-miso and white chocolate sauce. It’s yet another dish that adroitly balances flavours and textures.
Frank’s father Joe may have retired from his own restaurant, but you can still find him working the occasional shift in Daddy Bao. Indeed, it mirrors how my own dad still reads out bedtime stories, albeit nowadays it’s to my boys rather than to me.
It all goes to show that some gifts aren’t just priceless, they can literally keep on giving. And that the joy is as much in the giving, as in the receiving.
Whilst we’re on the topic of bedtime stories, I’ve a couple of friends who both work for charities whose aim is to encourage and support children and families reading – so here’s a shout-out to Booktrust and Learn to Love to Read, and the great work that they do. Meanwhile, one story I loved dearly as a child – heck, it brings me to tears even now! – is Watership Down. So much so that I wrote my very own short story in homage to it, ‘The Tale of Prince Sandalfoot’, if you’d like to have a read. Do you have a favourite childhood book? – I’d love to hear about it…
Daddy Bao Daddy Bao
Daddy Bao, Tooting