Do you all know what Three Cup Chicken is? How about Yun-Nan Pork? Happy Family? Sautéed Three Jades with Garlic Sauce? The Curmudgeon doesn't know either.
And here's the really frustrating part: if you go to a Chinese restaurant and study their menu, upon leaving, you will find yourself no more enlightened than when you first entered the establishment.
Like most New Yorkers, I've always known that Chinese food was one of the five basic food groups (Chinese, pizza, bagels, pastrami, and coffee). By the time we're out of booster seats, most of us have learned what Kung Pao, General Tso, and Moo Shu are. But inevitably, Chinese food menus also include dishes we've yet to memorize, and some we've never even heard of, all listed without description, leaving us completely in the dark. For example, off the top of my head, even having eaten Chinese food all my life, I couldn't describe General Ching's Shrimp to you. I'm not sure of the difference between Buddha's Feast and Mixed Chinese Vegetables, or between Mongolian Beef, Hunan Style Beef, and Szechuan Beef. I have no idea what Empress Chicken is, let alone Capital Spare Ribs, Shrimp Singapore Style, or Fish with Chinese Kitchen Special Sauce.
Yet there they sit on the menu . . . undescribed.
Understandably, American patrons tend to do the easiest thing and stick to what they know. (It's my guess that Chinese restaurants serve far more Wonton Soup and Sweet and Sour Chicken than Ma-Po Tofu with Meat by a vast margin.) But let's say you want to wander away from the typical choices for a change. Now comes the hard part: getting information.
Whether because of the often-present language barrier or the well-known fact that the Chinese hate us, there seems to be a reluctance on the part of Chinese restaurants to enlighten patrons about ingredients. Maybe it's a cultural thing; maybe it's considered rude in Asian countries to ask what, specifically, one might be ingesting. Or maybe we're expected to study up before attempting to dine. Whatever the reason, when asked to describe dishes, it's been my experience that servers offer as few clues as possible: "Hi. I was wondering: what's in the Flowering Garden Rice?"
"Flowering Garden Rice. Vegetable."
"Oh . . . so how is that different from the Vegetable Rice?"
"Vegetable Rice. Rice with Chinese vegetable."
"Oh . . . but . . . aren't those the same? Is there a sauce involved?"
"Same thing. Same thing. Which one you want?"
"Then why do they list both . . . you know what? Just bring me a Wonton Soup and a Sweet and Sour Chicken."
Friends have privately confessed that, like me, they often feel intimidated by the minimalist answers, the stone-faced scowls, and the apparent impatience coming from waitstaff at Chinese restaurants. They share my constant worry that I've committed some inadvertent faux pas. Are my orders too predictable? Are my attempts at cordiality viewed as foolish? Am I taking too long? Is my existence an affront to your people? Attempting to ingratiate myself, I always overtip and leave as quickly as possible to avoid any further offense. I do this knowing full well I'll be back, my insecurities notwithstanding, because Americans will endure all sorts of humiliation to get a good Chinese meal.
Still, one wonders why, if customer questions are so burdensome, Chinese restaurants don't just list each dish's ingredients on their menus rather than watching us weigh the risks of asking what the House Special Chop Suey is, or the House Special Duck, or the House Special Squid, or the House Special anything for that matter. Wouldn't that make more sense, just to avoid all these bothersome questions from pesky American patrons who seem have this bizarre obsession with knowing what's in their food?
It's my dream to some day be able to confidently order a Dragon and Phoenix, or Lemon Soo Gai, or Double Cooked Chicken, or Imperial Fried Crispy Duck, and know what I'm asking for. I'd like to rattle off "Triple Delight, please" without even looking at the menu. "And my friends will have the Sizzling King Prawn with Peking Sauce, a Wandering Dragon, and a Palace Style Chicken, with an order of Yung Chow Fried Rice for the table."
But until that day . . . .I guess we'll just have four Wonton Soups and four Sweet and Sour Chickens and leave as soon as possible.