Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Order in the restaurant!

A 14-dish feast at my relatives' house in Shanghai. No rice necessary, mind you.

Sometimes I think Chinese restaurants are some of the most democratic of restaurants, I know, ironic given the motherland's political leanings. But Chinese restaurants will basically serve you anything you want, as long as you like it and want to pay for it. Unfortunately, this has led to the prevalence of very inauthentic, yet popular food. For example, if you want to pour soy sauce and vinegar all over your baozi, or ask for ice for your tea, they'll do it for you. If you ask the waiter at your French restaurant to serve your pate with ketchup squirted all over it, you can expect a few raised eyebrows.

Although proprietors at American Chinese restaurants may subscribe to the freedom-loving, make money style of doing business, the interests of the diner are more aligned with the socialist ideal. Because meals are eaten family style, the interests of other diners must be taken into account. When sitting down for a Chinese meal, people often instinctively delegate an "orderer," usually the person who has the most standing, and people expect that he/she will take care of their eating interests.

You may think I'm joking, but ordering is an art. I hate it when I eat out with a bunch of people who don't understand this, and end up with two noodle dishes, a rice dish and no soup. Or two chicken dishes (because they both sounded so good) and no seafood. It's not rocket science, but balance is key. The basic idea is you want to balance carbs, red meat, white meat, seafood, vegetables and soup. People who get a bit more nuanced say you should balance yin foods (like mushrooms, seaweed and duck) with yang foods (like chili peppers, ginger and chicken). The idea of taking other people's interests into account may be a new concept for some diners, since it may seem like a foreign concept to forego a favorite dish for the sake of the balance of the entire group. Which brings us back to the eternal debate between valuing the individual or society, or west vs. east.

Next time you're at a Chinese restaurant, try thinking about balancing the universe with your humble dinner, and harmonizing yin and yang in your stomach. You could try something new, just don't get all woo woo about it. ;-)

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