February 24, 2009

The Death of the Chinese Restaurant

Believe it or not, I don't really like Chinese food. My wife doesn't either. "Wait a minute! Ain't she Chinese?" you might ask. Technically, she is Taiwanese, but we won't pick nits.

Let me clarify my initial statement: We don't like what Americans pass off as Chinese food. According to my wife, who should know, that food is not what is eaten by over 1 billion people on the other side of the globe.

Be aware that I am generalizing here, as I am sure there are decent Chinese restaurants around. But most of the restaurants follow this same pattern:

  1. You all sit down with clear plastic-coated tables, where your bare arms will stick if left motionless for too long.
  2. Everybody reads the menu and chuckles at the comical dish names, like "Happy Smile Yum Yum Platter", "Fragrant Fungus Sinew Pot", and "General Tso's Left Ventricle".
  3. While waiting for the food, everyone discusses the Chinese zodiac chart on their paper place mats (I'm a "snake", if you're interested). You all realize that you are zodiacally incompatible with your spouses.
  4. A tray the size of a satellite dish comes out with a dozen or so bowls, plates, and tea pots. The table is woefully undersized for it all to fit, so everyone helps to rearrange everything. (Tip: You won't need the little wire holder with the soy sauce, salt, pepper, and sugar. Set that on the table next to you. Ignore the annoyed stares from the people eating at said table.)
  5. You dish out a portion of food, and then fumble awkwardly with the chopsticks. Food goes everywhere except in your mouth. You all have a good laugh, deride the silly things, and replace with forks.
  6. After the meal, your bill comes with individually-wrapped, tasteless cookies with little strips of paper containing words of wisdom, lottery numbers, or Mandarin lessons. These are good for about 2 minutes of entertainment.
  7. Ten minutes after leaving the restaurant, you're already searching for something else to eat, like a 20-oz steak or an all-you-can eat pasta bar.

This is the quintessential Chinese restaurant experience that you can "enjoy" just about anywhere. Except in China.

"But wait a minute! Aren't those restaurants run by *Chinese* people? They sure look Chinese." Yes, they are Chinese. You can tell when they talk to other Chinese-looking customers, and you don't know that they are saying. Translated loosely, they are usually saying: "Yuck, look at what these Americans will eat! Come sit over here and I'll serve you some real food."

You see, the Chinese are cunning business people. In order for them to succeed in the U.S. they need to serve what Americans want to eat. They know that if they deviate from the expected pattern, we will complain: "Hey! Where are my chopsticks that I will eventually throw down in futility?" and "Waiter, we need some fortune cookies so we can add the phrase 'in bed' to each and have a good, juvenile laugh. Go get some, chop chop!" (Tip: Although you may think you are clever by saying "chop chop", that is actually unknown gibberish to the Chinese. Please don't embarrass yourself.)

So what's wrong with the food? For one thing, every dish is the same thing: some kind of stew-like concoction poured over rice. The rice keeps the sauce from running off the plate and onto your arm, which is stuck to the table. It doesn't matter if the meal contains beef, pickled herring, pine needles, or gummy bears; it will all taste like the sauce. Every dish is served with copious amounts of sauce. Enough sauce to bathe in. These sauces are delivered daily to the restaurants in 50 gallon drums labeled "Yum Sauce #1" and "Yum Sauce #2". The swankier places also order "Yum Sauce #3 Deluxe".

And I'm sorry to say that the Chinese fortune cookie is as Chinese as french fries are French. These little morsels of philosophy were invented in California based on a traditional Japanese cracker. Chinese fortune cookies could be the only product in the world that is not made in China!

So what do we do about this? We must demand that Chinese restaurants actually serve Chinese food, not platters of stereotypes. Until they do, they should turn in their fish tanks and close down. We gave the world our great cuisines of pizza and hamburgers and Kentucky fried chicken, so now it's China's turn to share their food heritage.

Let your voice be heard! Sign my petition (the comments section)!

Until that happens, as a service to our dear readers out there who deserve good, authentic Chinese food, we will post articles of real dishes from the Orient. Not often, though. Frankly I can't stand the stuff (just kidding).

Stay tuned, and practice those chopstick skills. 1,330,044,544 people can't be using the wrong utensils.

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