The Secret Chinese Menu

It is an article of popular faith that in many Chinese restaurants the really good dishes do not appear on the menu… at least, not the version of the menu handed to patrons who are obviously not Chinese. The notion that separate (and better) menus are made accessible to Chinese customers in these establishments sounds, of course, very much like some urban-myth – the sort that especially appeals to the more conspiracy-minded amongst us – but the question begs to be asked: Do ‘Secret Chinese Menus’ really exist? 

The short answer to the question is: Yes … in a sense, they do. If you are lucky enough to live in a place with a decent selection of Chinese restaurants you will invariably come across establishments where, in addition to the menu given to patrons, they display Chinese character ‘special’s on the wall with nary an English translation in sight. Unless you can read Chinese, these items are likely to forever remain a hidden mystery unless you either take the trouble to ask about them or are adventurous enough to just point at a selection and take your chances on what gets delivered to your table.

In addition to the Chinese-language only specials posted on restaurant walls, it is possible to see Chinese language menus get delivered to Chinese restaurant patrons whilst non-Chinese are given ones in English. Sometimes they are exactly the same in actual content but just as frequently, if not more so, they are very different indeed. If you do a ‘Google’ search of ‘Secret Chinese Menus’ you will get hits for a number of discussion groups where people trade information about restaurants that have a ‘secret’ menu that you can ask for… this, though, just raises another question: If certain dishes are posted for all to see (even if they are in Chinese), and if alternative menus are available simply for the asking, can these, in any real sense, be ‘secret’?

The answer, again, has to be a yes… although, as above, we have to qualify that a bit. Although non-Chinese patrons may obtain dishes from Chinese-only menus, it is not always easy to do so and one can often encounter reluctance on the part of Chinese restaurant workers to accommodate requests for the ‘secret’ menu, or orders for dishes from Chinese character specials postings on a wall…

A couple of summers ago, during a visit to Ottawa’s Chinatown, I was collecting paper menus from a number of Chinese restaurants with a view to deciding where I would be eating later in the week. At the Yangtze Dining Lounge I took a takeout menu from the bar and as I did so I spied a single page flyer in Chinese that was clearly advertising meal specials. I asked a nearby female staff-member if she would pass me one and she answered, rather sharply, I thought, “It’s in Chinese!” When I insisted that I really wanted one she seemed to wrestle with a decision and then handed me one with the same sort of ill grace as if I had just asked her if she had any teenage daughters I could meet.

During a different encounter, which I recorded in my review of the Ju Xiang Yuan restaurant, I happened to recognize the Chinese characters for Boiled Lamb Dumplings on a specials board. However, when I pointed to the characters indicating I wanted an order (I didn’t trust my pronunciation), the young waiter seemed disturbed my request and informed that usually only Chinese people order them. He suggested that I might prefer Shu Mai (I think it was) and I have to say that I was a little put off by this suggestion. It was only when I pointed out that I was quite familiar with Lamb dumplings that he relented and brought me some.

These are not the only occasions where I have encountered this type of reluctance to accommodate and I have heard or read of many, many similar reports so, quite obviously, these sorts of incidents are not merely isolated aberrations. In one article I recently came across, the writer recounted having visited a Fujianese restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown and was nearly hustled out by a waiter because he wasn’t Chinese. It was only when he spoke in Chinese that some patrons spoke up for him and insisted he be allowed to remain.

Obviously, that last incident goes well beyond mere reluctance to share the ‘good’ menu but it is an extreme example of what amounts to something of a cultural gulf that exists in the culinary sphere. It is this gulf, I ultimately believe, that sometimes gets expressed as as a ‘secrecy’, or at least a ‘secretiveness’ when it comes to the ‘real’ Chinese food served in some Chinese restaurants. The only question we are thus left with, then, is what might it be that is lying beneath this peculiar state of affairs?

Once again, if you do a ‘Google’ search of ‘Secret Chinese Menus’, you will find web postings where various people have weighed in on this interesting question and some possible answers that have been offered are as follows:

  • Many Chinese restaurateurs encounter language difficulties in translating all but the most popularly known Chinese dishes;
  • Chinese immigrants have opened certain restaurants to be social centers for their own little community and want to actively discourage non-Chinese patronage; and,
  • Chinese restaurant owners are reluctant to serve anything too ‘exotic’ to non-Chinese patrons in fear that they will react badly to it and thereby give the restaurant an unfavorable report.

I think that the first suggestion can be dismissed fairly simply. There is no doubt that some Chinese restaurant owners encounter language difficulties in plying their trade but it is difficult to accept that anyone in this situation could really be unable to surmount the problem of obtaining help in drafting a menu.

As to the second possible answer, I think that there may be some truth to the notion that there may be certain establishments that are less restaurants than social clubs for the Chinese community but I really doubt that this can come anywhere near explaining the whole ‘secret menu’ phenomenon. In the first place, simple economics would dictate that turning away a large segment of the population is hardly good business and not the sort of business practice that very many restaurateurs will employ. Moreover, the very existence of separate menus geared especially for a ‘western’ clientele pretty much runs counter to the whole theory from the outset.

The third proposed answer, I would say, probably comes closer to being an explanation than do the other two, but again, while there may be a kernel of truth at the heart of the idea, I believe it to be an oversimplification. The fear of unfavorable reviews is obviously a concern but restaurateurs know that, while people will respond to complaints about poor service, unhygienic restaurant conditions or food that is badly cooked, they don’t generally make decisions about where to eat because someone took a personal dislike to some foodstuff or other. Rather, I would suggest that the apparent Chinese reticence about sharing the culinary side of their culture has its roots in the much larger context of long-standing negative western attitudes to Asian cuisine…

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words and the cartoon above pretty much encapsulates in a single image what westerners have honestly thought about Chinese eating habits since the two cultures first began to interact. It is not a great reproduction, unfortunately, but I think you can quite plainly make out the lone Chinese man digging in with apparent relish to a pile of dead rats to the obvious disgust of other diners. The attitude expressed may seem backward and laughable today but the truth is that old misconceptions and prejudices die neither quickly nor cleanly.

In Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, author Andrew Coe takes a detailed look at the western experience of Chines cuisine from the arrival, in China of the first American ship back in the mid-eighteenth century, all the way to the state of Chinese restaurant culture in North America today. It is an excellent book, one well worth the read, and it really illustrates a very real xenophobic reaction on the part of western culture when it comes to unfamiliar foods. At page 152 of the book, Coe repeats a rather nasty, but telling little ditty that begins:

Chink, Chink, Chinaman, eats dead rats,

Eats them up like gingersnaps.

Clearly, the repetition of such a rhyme today (or even the utterance of the term ‘Chink’, for that matter) would be regarded as totally unacceptable by most people. Still, at the same time, quite a number of those same people will not be above having a chuckle at some joke concerning the absence of cats in the environs of a local Chinese restaurant. Old ideas, as I have intimated above, are not always easy to change and it is because of this, I humbly submit, that the whole phenomenon of the ‘Secret Chinese Menu’ has arisen.

Think about it for a moment… How willing would you be to celebrate some particular aspect of your cultural heritage publicly if you believed that you would be laughed at for it? I have Scottish ancestors in my family tree and when I watch a parade featuring marching bagpipers in full regalia wailing their way along the street in lockstep, I often wonder how bizarre the sight must seem to people from an alien culture. It seems only reasonable to me then that, after a few centuries of unpleasant jokes and blind prejudice about Chinese eating habits, many Chinese might be reluctant to share certain delicacies such as pork intestines or bird saliva only to have western diners snigger and make fun of them after the fact.  Ultimately then, I have come to conclude that the ‘Secret Menu’ phenomenon has little do with a Chinese desire to keep some things to themselves, but rather a very real, and understandable, fear of western ridicule.

That all being said though, I do think that the situation is changing somewhat (albeit slowly). More and more people are coming around to the idea that trying unfamiliar Chinese dishes can be a rewarding experience (as is evidenced by the growing number of related food blogs) but these new converts are still very much in the minority. Although the xenophobia of the early days of Chinese immigration is now, thankfully, disappearing, for many westerners, Chinese food means Chow Mein and Sweet and Sour Chicken balls, with anything such as Jellyfish salad or Chicken feet being regarded with shudders and trepidation.

The solution, of course, is simply for more people to shake off old food prejudices and start expanding their palates with new dishes. There is however, another suggestion I might offer and this is for more of us Westerners to actually try and learn about Chinese food in the original tongue. I am not suggesting, by any means, that we all rush off and become fluent in Cantonese or Mandarin, or anything, but I have come to the point where I can recognize enough Chinese characters to take a decent stab at deciphering many dishes on a Chines menu and I can say that, not only is this an engaging intellectual pursuit, it also immeasurably enhances ones dining experience. If more of us would give this a shot and become skilled enough to point to a Chinese only specials board with some confidence, then I think the whole idea of the ‘Secret Chinese Menu’ would eventually become just an interesting quirk in culinary history.

Just some ‘food for thought’ …

25 thoughts on “The Secret Chinese Menu”

  1. Congratulations on being able to read a decent amount of Chinese characters – that is a commendable achievement.

    As a non-Chinese that can read Chinese I have had my share of experiences shocking and confusing Chinese staff in Chinese restaurants, but thankfully I have never been hustled out of a restaurant. Sometimes I think it is rude and unaccommodating, but I totally agree with the third answer you gave – Why would they want to offer chicken feet or tripe to every patron only to have the non-Chinese ones make disgusted faces or offensive comments?

    I really like your suggestion of more Westerners learning to read enough Chinese to read some of a Chinese menu. I actually have a site that you and your readers might be interested in to help with this suggestion. At http://www.read-a-chinese-menu.com, I go over a new dish everyday and teach the characters and the pronunciation.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanx for the comment Jason…. I had a look at your site and will be checking back from time to time to see how you make out. There are several blogs which have attempted to do the same sort of thing as you and a very good one you should look at is ‘Adventures in Kake’ which is listed in my Blog roll .

    I have encountered several projects by bloggers tackling the subject of ‘Culinary Chinese’ and many have started out well but ultimately ‘fizzled out’. Even the ‘Kake’ site has dwindled in post frequency over time and that seems to be the trend, unfortunately…

    I have been thinking very hard about doing a series of posts documenting my experiences in learning the basics of ‘Food Chinese’ but I am also aware how much of a commitment it will be to blog regularly (in addition to my usual posts’). My other concern is that it will be less interesting than, say restaurant reviews, to most of my readers.

    What do you think?

    JT

    1. When I first had the idea to create a blog about learning to read culinary Chinese, I did of course check to see what I could find out there first. I had noticed that most blogs that I found on the subject barely made it to a dozen posts and then ‘fizzled out’ years ago. I had seen the ‘Adventures with Kake’ blog you mentioned though and it does look a lot better.

      I have been adding a new dish everyday up until now in order to create a site with enough dishes that it could actually be useful to somebody. I don’t imagine I will keep this pace up forever, but hopefully I don’t ‘fizzle out’ like the rest. The Chinese culinary world should be large enough to sustain a project like this for some time.

      Personally, I would be very interested in a few posts about your experiences learning ‘Food Chinese’, especially since it sounds like you can read it better than you can pronounce it (the opposite of most Chinese learners I know). I can’t speak for your other readers though.

      Jason

      1. I haven’t had much feedback to my post… Well… actually just you so far, Jason… But I think I will start doing some posts on ‘Food Chinese’. In fact, I am thinking of calling the feature ‘Eating in Chinese’. It will likely be a while before I do my first post though as I am still mulling over how am I am going to go about things but if you check back from time to the I think I may have something to get started with in the next few weeks…

        Ciao

        John

    1. Thank you so much … Restaurant reviews are easy and pleasurable to write and recipes, though more time consuming, not much harder. This post, however, took me about a month or so. I am very happy that you enjoyed it!

  3. Thanks for linking me here, I enjoyed reading this article. My husband, who is about as Anglo-Saxon looking as you can get, frequently experiences something similar when he goes alone to a Chinese restaurant. Last time it was over a bowl of dried scallop congee. The waitress kept trying to convince him that he wouldn’t like it, which of course just made him more determined to eat and love every drop of it.

    Your suggestion rings pretty true to me. Under the veil of internet semi-anonymity it’s pretty easy for me to say that I love pig ears and tripe, but you’d never hear me mention those things if you met me in person. The number of times I’ve heard “Chinese people eat dogs” with disgusted groans and laughter has put me off ever sharing such a thing with someone I don’t already know to have similar food tastes.

    I’d also be interested in reading about your efforts in learning culinary Chinese, as it’s something I really should do myself. They treat me pretty well at the Chinese restaurants because I look Chinese enough, but sadly I am just as lost as my husband when it comes to actually reading the menu.

    1. I hate tripe.. like ears just fine.
      Have you ever heard of being ‘whited’ in a Chinese restaurant?.. It basically means having the chopsticks taken away as you sit down and a knife and fork substituted… I take that one in stride as i don’t think anything malicious is intended but it is still something that needs to change… of course it is inevitable that it will.

      My Chinese language progress is slow but still fun. It would help to have a friend who could help me with the difficult parts.

      I should go back and check your blog, but where are you?

      1. Heh, “whited.” I saw that happen when I lived in Toronto, but not since moving to Vancouver. There is a small but significant group of white people here who are die-hard Asian food fanatics and who can definitely blow me out of the water on Chinese food knowledge. I think if you are white and walk into a Chinese restaurant here, especially a non-Americanized (sweet and sour pork and pineapple chicken) one, it’s assumed that you’re one of that group.

        On the other hand, I met a white man recently who lives in Richmond, a few doors away from the award-winning Kirin Seafood Restaurant and within a few blocks of a few other of the better Chinese restaurants in the city, who had no idea that Richmond even had Chinese restaurants, much less that they were some of the best on this continent. His favourite restaurant is Milestones. There’s one that would need a fork if he were ever to walk into a Chinese restaurant!

  4. Hi John,
    I found your analysis of this quite well considered and I agree with quite a lot of what you’re saying. Although western tastes are beginning to warm a lot more to the more unconventional Chinese dishes, there is still room for a lot more improvement.

    It’s very funny because as recently as a couple of years ago, on an Australian program “Masterchef”, even very renouned chefs (who obviously have well developed palates and have eaten their way across the world) turned their nose up at some Chinese ingredients such as century egg and salted duck egg. So of course there would be reluctance for restaurants to present these to regular punters.

    I guess the prevalence of these ‘secret Chinese menus’ doesn’t help either because they continue to perpetuate this myth that Chinese food is just about sweet and sour pork. Perhaps if some restaurants would be more brave and present these ingredients/dishes into the mainsteam, it’ll allow more westerns to become acquainted with them.

    Also, I feel that there is still this gross misconception that Chinese food is uniform. China is a HUGE nation and its cuisine differs greatly from region to region. Cantonese cuisine remains the most prevalent in western countries, but it is by no means representative of all Chinese food. Which leads me to another gripe, when a Cantonese style restaurant tackles other regional Chinese food badly! But that’s a story for another day…

    Well done on learning Chinese, it’s not an easy language to master.

  5. If you would like a scarily effective way to teach yourself Chinese characters you should check out memrise.com. It has been recently set up by a couple of memory and learning experts and kind of automates and gamifys the learning of langauge. All free for the time being.

    Very effective in my short experience. Two days ago a Chinese menu looked like a mess of squiggles to me and today after doing the “Read a Chinese menu!” course I can at least get an idea of what is going on and pick out all sorts of detail.

    Plenty of more advanced courses on there as well. Take a look.

      1. Ha, bad timing… Looks like they are back up and running now. Actually it has been a bit unreliable over the past few days. I think a bunch of people read the same article in the Guardian that I did and they are a bit overloaded. Hopefully they sort themselves out because I am addicted now.

  6. Luckily the massive influx of Chinese students and tourists into England in recent years has made it quite easy, in big cities at least, to find regional Chinese food. Even my favourites like 水煮鱼 are readily available.

    The trouble is people will complain – that’s why I hate it when I get asked in a Thai / Indian / Indonesian restaurant if I want the dish I just ordered spicy!!!!!!!! That is my cue to leave and never return.

    I mean, I want it how it comes, surely the ‘chef’ is going to balance the flavours, if I ordered a spicy dish then of course I want it spicy! who would order a non spicy Som Tam or an extra spicy Korma! So I blame the locals – ordering a spicy dish without the spice is like ordering a mango lassie without the mango.

    No wonder Chinese restaurateurs are reluctant to put anything too adventurous on the menu.

    My advice: 学习普通话!

  7. Hi, I’m a Chinese student studying in the US. I’ve been puzzled for a long time why Chinese food tastes so different here in the West. You have some really interesting ideas in the blog entry. While I agree that the third reason for the secret menu (fear of being ridiculed) is very plausible, I’d like to suggest that the first two reasons are indeed possible as well.
    1. Many Chinese dish names are metaphors and it’s hard to translate them without causing misunderstanding. We also use very different vegetables and ingredients so those might be hard to explain too.
    2. For the social-gathering point: not serving genuine Chinese foods probably will not turn away a large portion of non-Chinese customers, since most of them were contented with westernized Chinese food. My point is that there is not much financial loss to the restaurant owner as you might have imagined.
    However, my actual reason for replying this blog entry is that if you need any help with learning culinary Chinese, I’d love to help! I love Chinese cuisine and I hope more people can have the opportunity to appreciate it:)

    1. Thank you for your interesting reply … I am actually trying to put together a Culinary Dictionary of Chinese cooking words and terms. It is slow going though, what with other projects and commitments 😦

      You are probably right on point number 2. As to point 1, I am not sure that metaphorical names present too much of a difficulty. The term ‘Dragon and Phoenix’ appears occasionally in dishes containing shrimp and chicken…. and, while a ‘two winters’ dish (with bamboo and black mushroom’ is still not that familiar to most westerners, it really wouldn’t take long for them to become more widely known if people started using the name on menus.

      I am glad you thought enough of my post to respond!

  8. This was an interesting article. As I read through the three most obvious possibilities, I was already empathizing, thinking, “Yes, yes, if I had, say, a “Caucasian” approach me, I would be suspicious, not just curious. ‘Who is he/she? What is the true agenda here?'”
    Just as a simple example, I have had many friends of mine refuse to share my jiaozi from the open market shadowed by the Transamerica pyramid bldg. in San Francisco, simply out of fear and strongly prejudiced ignorance. If I were a Chinese restauranteur or waiter, I would be hesitant too, even leery. And, I would not want to bother with them, too much trouble, esp. at night when all staff is worn out.

  9. More probable to me, is that some staff might just be trained to “push away” strangers, due to the scarcity of those special items on the “private menu.” That is what first entered my mind. ‘How, as a Westerner, can I fully appreciate this special entree which is so limited in availability?’ “Let’s gently nudge him/her away from it, so that our regulars can order it!”
    Is this conceivable? 😉

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