Chinese, Part 1

Entire years, entire careers, entire lifetimes have been spent writing about Chinese cuisine, and yet it's arguably the cuisine least well-represented in the vast bulk of America. As hard as it to hear, the Chinese food that comes delivered in those little white Tetra-Paks™ with the red pagodas and the wire bails would be completely unrecognizable to someone leaving China for the first time.

greatwall.jpg
betta_design @ flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0

Quick, what's the staple grain for Chinese people? Rice? Not if you live in the north; they eat wheat up there, because it's simply too cold to grow rice. What's the default meat? Pork? Not if you live in the west and northwest, where the population is Muslim and lamb is consumed.

Chinese cuisine is so colossal as practically to defy classification. The country itself is huge, stretching from the Central Asian steppes in the west to the marshy fens of the east, from the forbidding mountains and steamy valleys of the south to the frigid, Siberian north, and there are dozens of culinary traditions. This sort of guide can only give the barest overview of one of the world's most ancient, most mature, most steeped in tradition cuisines.

So what's it like to eat in a real Chinese restaurant, then?

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johnnieutah @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Your tableware goes in front of you and all the food goes on the lazy Susan. Ingenious!
Walking in, you may notice signs (only in Chinese) on the wall; these are normally the specials of the house, so don't be shy about asking what they are. Depending on the size of your group, you'll be seated at a table with a spinning lazy Susan in the middle. Plate, rice bowl, teacup and chopsticks will be put, occasionally unceremoniously, on the table and you'll be handed menus. The server will probably just pause in front of your table; this is your cue to order.

Chinese food is always, always, always served family-style. (If you see individual portions plated with rice and a fried egg roll, you are in a Westernized place.) Order like the Chinese do. If you're hungry, order one dish per diner and one for the table; if you aren't, order one fewer dish than there are people at the table. (If you're hosting, err on the side of generosity.)

Some aspects of Chinese restaurant service, on both the diners' part and the waitstaff's part, come across as unspeakably rude to Western eyes. Waitstaff are summoned by gesturing and spend only as long as necessary at the table. More tea is requested with an upturned teapot lid; waitstaff may move plates in order to make room for more dishes on the table. Imperious behavior, which is not uncommon, can turn into shouting, particularly in less refined places. Regardless of the behavior you see, treat your server with respect, but don't be timid about what you want or you may find you don't get it.

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qilin @ flickr.com CC BY 2.0
Chinese doesn't have tenses, conjugation or definite articles; confusion ensues.
Another barrier to entry is the menu. It's no secret that Chinese menus are often badly translated; entire websites have grown up around the fractured English (or French or Spanish or German) of a Chinese menu. Dishes may be given fanciful but uninformative names such as "Ants Crawling Up a Tree" or "Gong Bao Three Flavors", communication of allergies can be problematic, and forget about a refund if the dish isn't to your liking. Hence, this introductory guide to Chinese cookery, with characters you can print out if you're nervous about translations.

There are relatively few rules of etiquette in a normal Chinese restaurant. Rice bowls may be held under the chin and the rice shoved into the mouth with a swipe of the chopsticks. Bones and other detritus may be placed on the plate. Slurping is commonplace. (Burping is less common, regardless of what the books from 40 years ago may say.)

ricebowl.jpg
vermininc @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Never, ever leave chopsticks in a bowl of rice.
Don't ever leave chopsticks pointing out of a bowl, particularly a bowl of rice; it symbolizes the offerings to the dead. When eating whole fish, lift the bones off the bottom fillet instead; turning the fish represents a boat capsizing. Order things in sets of 8, never 4 or, worse, 14.

In certain restaurants, particularly if you are with a group of Chinese people, your dishes may come with a large or differently-colored set of chopsticks. These are service chopsticks, meant as a polite way of serving food from the communal dish without using implements that have been soaking in saliva. If there are no service chopsticks, you may see people using the "butt end" of their chopsticks to remove food from the platter.


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