Some thoughts on the "Chinese Restaurant Manifesto" - A bowl half-empty or half-full?

My day began with an interesting read circulating on Facebook. An Eater's Manifesto For Chinese Restaurants | Florence Lin | Carolyn Phillips. I don't know Lin or Phillips but Phillips' self-described "rant" caused me to pause. She takes two experiences - one dining with a friend who ordered in Chinese, and one when she ordered presumably in English and different dishes - as her starting point for the rant. Phillips draws some dubious conclusions. Had she gone back and asked for the same dishes, by their Chinese names, I bet she'd have had a different experience. Chinese restaurants are not punishing you for being non-Chinese, after all. They are serving you what they (albeit often mistakenly) think you will prefer. It is our job to show them otherwise.

But first, a step back...

To understand what we wish to critique, it is helpful to know a little history. There are many reasons that Chinese restaurants and menus developed the way they did. At least for Boston's Chinatown a look at the these may be helpful in understanding how we got to where we are today.

Remember, it was not so long ago that all Italian restaurants were red sauce or pizza joints. Today authenticity and regional expressions rule the day, but this was not always the case. Few outside of Italy knew the difference between Tuscan and Sardinian ten or fifteen years ago. So it is with Chinatown and Chinese food. In its early days, the craze for this new exotic cuisine was driven by people with little knowledge of China, no appreciation for nuances of regional cuisines. I'm not a fan of the Food Network but one cannot deny its popularity and at least in earlier days it lead the way in terms of food education.

Back then, and to some extent even today, Chinese people and their food were treated with hostility or at best some curiosity. Early diners in Chinatown were not foodies. They were railroad, garment and laundry owners and managers. A little later, as The Chinese Exclusion Acts began to be repealed and our Chinese population grew, some enterprising Chinese capitalized on the growing American hunger for this new "exotic" cuisine. Neon dragons and phoenix festooned the growing number of restaurants catering to the adventurous. Ruby Foo's Den grew so popular the entrepreneur opened a second location in New York.

In the early days, when visiting dignitaries and entertainers would have their drivers bring them to Chinatown for this new and edgy experience, Chinese restaurants were happy to have them. In order to also feed their own authentic food, they began to use a yellow banner or flag hung in the window to signify that real Chinese food would be served, off menu. This was not conceived of as a way to hide these dishes from gwei lo; it was more likely that no white folks back then were interested in authentic expressions of regional dishes. They were happy to have their scorpion bowls and chop suey.

Chinese menus grew to cater to a broad variety of tastes as a matter of business survival. Here in Boston we have a regrettable habit of running lemming-like in packs to the newest, latest, he's doing what there? - restaurant. People are too quick to follow a trend, a crowd, a review. We are fortunate to have a thriving restaurant culture now. Restaurants outside of Chinatown, as well as in it, have to work hard to keep customers coming back when the sheen of being the hottest new spot has been eclipsed by the next hottest new spot.

I asked respected Boston restaurant critic "MC Slim JB" for his take on this topic and Phillips' post:

In my experience as a white man with no Mandarin or Cantonese, I have little difficulty getting access to the “good” menu, even as my countrymen are ordering General Gau’s and pork fried rice. Traditional regional Chinese vs. “debased” American-Chinese is not an either/or choice in Boston’s Chinatown restaurants, and it clearly is good business to serve an American-Chinese menu to the folks that don’t understand or appreciate traditional cooking. This inclusiveness has zero effect on the quality of my traditional Cantonese, Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Shandong, Sichuan, and other regional cuisines and specialties available in the neighborhood. I can get terrific dim sum, live-tank seafood, hotpot, BBQ, and so on, and servers don’t blink when a white patron orders them. 

I also think the author’s perspective lacks grounding in the realities of the restaurant business. Chinese restaurateurs are savvy businesspeople: does Phillips believe that they are simply naïve, blind to the gigantic opportunity she sees to educate consumers about more traditional regional cuisines? Or could it be possible that there’s still a huge portion of the American populace, that despite all our alleged food obsessiveness, just isn’t that adventurous?

I agree that better translations, better server language skills, and an aggressive approach to marketing the virtues of traditional cuisines would lure more non-Chinese patrons across the great divide. But it’s still a business, and most restaurateurs would like to make a buck at their trade – if they can educate the heathens and bring them to a new world of joy in the process, that is proverbial gravy, but it’s a fool’s errand if they lose money and go belly-up in the process.

If Phillips wants to see more restaurants doing traditional cuisines in a way that edifies and educates the poor ignorant Anglophone masses, I welcome her to try it: I suspect she may be in for a rude shock at how very difficult it is to pursue her grandiose vision and keep the doors open for six months. In the meantime, I will continue to eat quite well and traditionally in Chinese restaurants, and hope for the day that more of my countrymen will throw down their prejudices, ignorance and monolingualism, and start exploring a bit on their own. Sometimes, the problem of culinary authenticity is not in our restaurants, but ourselves.

My approach

Because I live so near Chinatown, and lead historically-driven culinary tours in Chinatown, and I eat in Chinatown regularly, I get to see first-hand a broad view of Chinese food lovers from those that order nothing but chow mein and crab rangoon, to those that are curious. A whole table orders three types of fried rice. Diners who wrinkle their noses and say "Eeuw" at food that is so fresh it's still alive when you've ordered it, or comes to the table with a face. Meat on the bone, heaven forbid.

I am also the first to complain that a menu is poorly translated, ("baked pork chop" which turns out to be beautiful, fall-off-the-bone, red-braised pork rib but goes unordered because of the bad translation). But let's remember, these folks conduct business in a second language. How's your Cantonese? Your Mandarin? Mine are non-existant.

So what is a well-intentioned, mono-linguistic adventurous diner to do?

Here's what I did long before I met my Cantonese-speaking husband, long before I was trained to conduct the Chinatown tours. Perhaps these tips will serve you well:

  1. Find something on a near-by table that intrigues you and ask for that dish.
  2. If kitchen staff are cleaning a box of produce that just came in that day at a back table, GET THAT. I've discovered more than one regular favorite by ordering this way.
  3. Ask the server for a dish that is typical of their region. Know what region you are talking about.
  4. Insist politely that you "don't want tourist food." I used to have a wallet card that had this phrase translated into several languages. It was always a good ice-breaker.

Here are some other tips, I've incorporated more recently:

  1. Pick up a book on Chinese food and learn what some key ingredients or iconic dishes are in the main regions. (Two current favorites: Grace Young's Stir-fry to the Sky's Edge, Pat Tanumihardja's Asian Grandmother's Cooking)
  2. Go to a restaurant that serves a particular regional cuisine. Get the dishes that represent that region.
  3. Take a Chinatown tour.
  4. Do not pour soy sauce, chili garlic sauce over your food as if it were mustard on a hot dog.
  5. Learn how to say please or thank you in the appropriate language - here, usually Cantonese or Mandarin.
  6. Ask the server to read the specials to you. This you may want to do this off-hours. You're not going to win any friends by stopping service at peak hours to read what is, after all, authentic dishes.
  7. If it's peak hours, simply ask "what is fresh, best today?" That will always get you some suggestions.

bowl chopsticks_OPT

A bowl half full

We could look at life as a bowl half empty or half-full. We could question whether a provocative rant is simply trying gain visibility for an upcoming cookbook release. But I prefer to look at the world as a bowl half full. We have a wonderful opportunity to explore the globe through television, the internet, through cookbooks and  most importantly through food. Thankfully we have more restaurants and better ones than ever. Why not take a positive approach?

Don't assume that Chinese restaurants are trying to dupe you or are interested in serving you bad food. In my experience, they are genuinely happy if someone is curious or adventurous about their cuisine and they're proud to share it.

Don't hold Chinese restaurants to a different standard than others. Do you call out Italian eateries for serving dishes from more than one region? Indian restaurants also often represent a variety of regions on their menus. I don't mind so much if more than one region is represented but ask which is their speciality.

I suspect much of the pro-rant tweets and posts are coming from a group of sophisticated food lovers who may be greatly over-estimating the general dining public's preferences. But the more sophisticated the ranter, the higher the bar I'm gonna hold you to. Meet them at least half way and you'll find a much improved experience.

  • What are your favorite tips for dining out in ethnic restaurants?

  • What are your favorite books about regional cuisines, Chinese or otherwise?