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’ …