On matters of taste, Eastern and Western palates have not always agreed. The historian Andrew Coe relays an amusing first account of an American eating Chinese food in his book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States: A Salem, Massachusetts, trader, who, dining in a Cantonese merchant’s home in 1819, writes of eating a meal with “messes consisting of soups, gelatinous food, a variety of stewed hashes. … Not a joint of meat or a whole fowl or bird were placed on the table.” Of using chopsticks, he wrote: “Monkies [sic] with knitting needles would not have looked more ludicrous.”
Americans have since warmed to chopsticks and Chinese cookery, most especially of the late-night hunger-sating, low-budget delivery sort. More than 43,000 Chinese restaurants dot the country, which means they appear on street corners with greater ubiquity than McDonald’s. But to the consternation of both chefs and Chinese gourmands, fried bits of pork or chicken drowned in starch-thickened, sugary sauce are usually the most popular orders. The Chinese might find this to be “proof that Westerners are cultureless barbarians,” writes E.N. Anderson in Food in China. But it sells, so “they cook it.”
It’s not entirely fair to blame the proliferation of bad Chinese food on American philistinism—Chinese menus can certainly be intimidating and confusing. A staggering number of Chinese establishments have similar names; just as a good many menu items seem to be called a variation on “pork with broccoli.” So when looking to have a proper Chinese meal, how should a discerning diner pick where to eat and what to order? Besides the oft-repeated advice that a place with a good number of Chinese patrons is a good bet, here are a few tips for the inquisitive eater.
First, rather than blindly ordering “Chinese,” it helps to figure out what kind of Chinese the restaurant has to offer. Here, a sense of geography is useful. Chinese cuisine is generally divided into four groups—northern, southern, eastern, and western. A good restaurant will feature a regional cuisine, often focusing on the style of a particular province or city.
Beijing (Peking) is in the grain country of the north, where wheat, millet, and sorghum grow. Pekingese duck is a legitimate and legitimately noteworthy dish, but a Pekingese restaurant is also likely to be a good place for dumplings, steamed buns, or noodles. A fermented black bean paste–based sauce gives heavy flavor to zhajiangmian, a pungent Beijing favorite. Shanghai, on the other hand, draws its culinary character from both the surrounding region and an international influence, with flavors that are gently sweet and sauces that are slightly glazed, and welcomes plenty of fresh greens. It is to the southeast in China’s most fertile lands—rice and vegetable-farming country.
Ordering stir-fried beef at a Cantonese joint would be an opportunity missed, since Canton (Guangzhou), in the south of the country, borders the sea, and a good Cantonese chef will have perfected steamed fish. Cantonese cooking should be light and use copious ginger, and Canto restaurants that serve dim sum on weekends are perfect destinations for large groups. Likewise, asking for lobster at a Sichuan place would be the equivalent of getting Tex-Mex in North Dakota: Sichuan, in the southwest, is landlocked (though freshwater fish and shrimp are eaten). Sichuan food is spicy and hearty, its signature dishes flavored with prickly ash that leaves the tongue tingling and slightly numbed; but add chili peppers, and discover a magical combination that leaves you salivating and yearning for more.
Beyond regions, names of restaurants and dishes both are important. In my experience, places with cardinal directions in the name often say something about where the chef is from, whereas those with city names do not always shed light as to what will be on the menu. An establishment called “Northern Star,” for example, will probably do justice to northern fare, but a place called “Beijing Palace” may simply be using the capital city’s name for easy brand recognition. This rule also stands for spots with Shanghai in the name, though Sichuan places are more often accurately descriptive—perhaps because the province is so well-known for its food. But in any case, it doesn’t hurt to ask the server what regional cuisine the chef specializes in.
When it comes to ordering, it is often more useful to look at the ingredients list and (this is key) ask how dishes are cooked than to pay much attention to the name of the dish. It is a pity that menu items are commonly given generic names like “beef with eggplant” or “Sichuan chicken,” since the names of the same dishes in Chinese are often quite poetic and replete with history and meaning. At one of the more whimsical restaurants in a Chinatown, you might see tofu described not as tofu, but golden treasure or a similarly perplexing descriptive metaphor—the Chinese are given to waxing lyrical about food.
There is a story of Qianlong, a Qing Dynasty emperor, who disguises himself as a peasant to visit the countryside. He was taken in by poor farmers in Jiangnan—the verdant farming lands of the Yangtze River Delta—who had nothing but stir-fried spinach and tofu with bean sprouts with which to show their hospitality. The emperor, the story goes, had never tasted such simple peasant food and asked his hosts with delight what rare bounty was before him. The peasants tell him that the spinach is red-beaked, green-feathered parrot and that the tofu with bean sprouts is white jade blocks cooked with gold nuggets. When my mother makes spinach at home, if she is in a particularly grand mood, she will announce without irony that we are having “red-beaked parrot” for dinner. I imagine that among Chinese families, she is not alone.
The point being, do not let seemingly mysteriously named dishes put you off. In fact, they are usually the ones most worth a try. “Lion’s heads,” for example, are a famed meatball dish from eastern China. Xiaolongbao, sometimes translated as “soup dumplings” or “little dragon dumplings” (mistakenly, because the word “long,” referring to the steamer-basket, is a homophone for dragon), are small miracles of culinary technique and ingenuity. A xiaolongbao is a steamed round dumpling filled with pork (or sometimes crabmeat in Shanghainese places) and pork broth, contained in a wafer-thin piece of dough.
Sometimes menu items are given literally translated names that do not confer the relevant level of appeal in comparison to taste. A favorite Sichuan dish called shui zhu niu rou literally translates to “boiled beef.” The name may not scream gastronomic delight, but anyone who has eaten the dish can attest that it is nothing like its bland English title suggests. The beef is indeed boiled, but very briefly and in small slices, so that the texture is moist and tender from a quick blanching. The essence of the dish comes from a potent, blistering hot (in both senses of the word) oil, a simmering concoction of red chili, Sichuan peppercorn, garlic, ginger, scallion, and bean paste poured on top.
The advice above goes double for unfamiliar vegetables. One of the great pleasures of Chinese food is the range with which it showcases the distinctiveness and subtlety of greens not normally seen on American tables. Snow pea shoots (dou miao) need hardly any seasoning at all: They have the sweet aroma of peas without their heaviness or aftertaste. In the West, luffa (or loofah) squash is more commonly used as a bath sponge than served as a dish, but it makes an appearance on many a Chinese dining table (most often those that serve southern or eastern cuisine), so when eating at one, don’t miss the chance to sample its silky mouthfeel. But even if bitter melon sounds a bit too adventurous (indeed it is aptly named, and so understandably not for everyone), whatever you do, avoid heavily sauced broccoli, the most offensive signature of a faux-Chinese dish.
Finally, if you’re not sure what to order, see if you can benefit from your server’s knowledge. If you have patience with waitstaff and leave a good tip, you might get good tips in return the next time you are back. Family-run Chinese restaurants may not be training grounds for learning silver service, but no server at a good Chinese restaurant is indifferent to the food cooked there, no matter how humble the establishment. So if you ask for advice, especially about the vegetables, and come back game to try something new, you can be sure that next time you won’t be recommended the General Tso’s chicken.