Wednesday, July 13, 2011

eating non-chinese with the chinese

i love going out to eat chinese food. everyone sits at a round table and we order a large variety of dishes. food starts coming out to the table as each plate is prepared, every few minutes something new lands on the table accompanied by oooh's and ahhh's. in the center of the table is a lazy susan, and each dish is rotated effortlessly around the table for all to take a scoop, piece, or chunk of whatever is still available while the plates orbit the table.

usually we discuss what dishes we would like to eat while casually scanning the menu before the waiter comes. when it’s time to order, the waiter interacts with only one person, the table representative. this person's job is to consolidate everyone's input and create a final order presented to the waiter. i have only been this person once or twice, as this task is usually appointed to the person who is most senior and of chinese ethnicity. bonus points if the complete ordering conversation is done without any english.

i remember the first time i ate this style of dinner, i was completely out of my element. see, i grew up eating only the one dish that i ordered at a restaurant, perhaps once in a while i'd take a small bite of someone else's meal simply to taste it. if we all wanted to eat the same dish at a restaurant, then we'd all order the same dish. it wasn't uncommon for a waiter to read back "okay so we have three orders of the ribs and two orders of the salmon". most of the time i had no idea what the others were going to order until i heard them tell the waiter what it was they wanted.

i also grew up following rules such as, when at a restaurant, nobody was to start eating until all orders had reached the table. this is similar to the rule that when eating at home nobody eats until everyone has served themselves. for example, on spaghetti night, nobody starts eating until the bread, salad, spaghetti, have all been passed around the table and everyone has had the opportunity to take what they like.

at a chinese restaurant, the moment a plate hits the susan, it’s dished and eaten. there’s no waiting for all the food to arrive, or waiting for everyone to serve themselves. in fact, there is a hurry to get all of one dish served as to make room for other incoming dishes.

now, when things get interesting, is dining at non-chinese restaurants with a predominantly chinese table. it is a hybrid of both experiences, and interesting for me to observe just how things pan out.

first of all, orders are discussed and coordinated prior to ordering with the waiter. there are two reasons for discussion prior to ordering.:

1.) to make sure there is not a duplicate order.
2.) to make sure that everything on the menu that people want to try, has been ordered.

in reference to #1, if two people want the same dish, then it is assumed that they will split it. ordering two of the same dishes is unimaginable, and may result in immediately terminated friendships. yes it's that serious. the only exception to this rule is when one order of a particular dish is not large enough to allow each person who wants a taste. for example, if an order of crab cakes comes with 3 bite size crab cakes, and there are six people at the table who want some, ordering 2 orders of crab cakes is acceptable. and it is understood that nobody wants 3 bite size crab cakes to themselves. it’s almost as if the ultimate goal is to have each bite be different than the next until you are completely full. a redundant bite is simply a waste of stomach space.

not disclosing what it is you plan to order, prior to giving the waiter your order, may also land you in hot water. without knowing what you plan to order, other members of the table will have to guess what you are ordering, and plan their collective order accordingly, this can cause frustration for the table.

#2.) if you were to record what one person consumes at a chinese restaurant, it would show a few bites of many dishes. if you were to do the same at a non-chinese restaurant, it would be 100% of one entrée and possibly an appetizer or salad. it’s easy to see just how different these two palates have evolved?

moving on, when the food at a non-chinese place comes out, each person has an entrée in front of them. this is when the two people who wanted that one same entrée, divide that entrée in half and split it. the other entrée that they ordered is also cut in half, so they end up with two ½ meals each. most everyone else will consume 80-90% of the entrée in front of them, the 10-20% is dedicated to giving bites those who ordered something else.

this effort is done to somewhat mimic the chinese restaurant experience of having many small pieces of larger entrees. i’m not one to say it does or does not work, but it does not replicate the experience fully. occasionally asking for a few extra plates will help attain a more chinese restaurant experience at a non-chinese place, but only for a few individuals and not the entire table.

understanding this dynamic has helped me dine harmoniously. for myself, understanding why something occurs, helps me understand and accept it. i know why i have to disclose what i’m ordering to the table before the waiter comes. i am ready to give 20% of my dish to everyone at the table, and receive a bite of everyone else’s dish even if i’m not all that jazzed about what they ordered. and i know that unless i want to make enemies, i’ll be sure to order a dish that hasn’t yet, and will not be ordered by anyone else at the table.


jonyangorg said...

This is a great blog post and I may steal the idea for an article for a Chinese magazine. Unless you want to write it?! We should always eat Chinese style. It's much better. I hate it now when people eat only their own meals... boring.

Post a Comment