Sunday, May 18, 2014

Eating Chinese food outside of China

A Chinese meal served in Beijing
When is almond chicken not almond chicken? When it’s served with peanuts instead  in a Mexican-Chinese restaurant in southern Arizona just north of the U.S. border with Mexico.

Honest. Not only that, but the waitress tried to convince me the peanuts were almonds after I pointed out the discrepancy to her. She finally gave up and asked, “Well, just what is an almond anyway?” Then she brought the cook out, and they had a conversation in Spanish, the gist of which was that she never used almonds in her almond chicken, but only peanuts, and that I should shut up  and just eat it that way. (They didn’t realize I understood Spanish).  I did shut up, but I didn’t eat the combo plate. I sent it back, but not only because of the “almond” chicken. The barbecued pork was way undercooked and the “foo yums” looked more like thick slices of deep-fried doo-doo than anything yummy. (I assume foo yums were supposed to be egg fu young, but you could've fooled me.

This is one of the dangers of eating Chinese food outside of China. It just taste or look the same. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve taken cooking classes on trips back to Beijing and then taught myself how to make other dishes I enjoy in the Middle Kingdom.

Many visitors to China never get to experience “real” Chinese food, usually because they’re afraid to eat any place but their hotel restaurant, where food is designed to appeal to Western tastes. Small neighborhood restaurants are the place to experience true Chinese food.

Picking out a neighborhood restaurant is easy. Just look for one that’s crowded with Chinese during mealtimes. If there are few diners there during what should be their busiest times, avoid the restaurant: The food probably isn’t that good.

And don’t worry about not being able to read the Chinese menu. Many restaurants have menus with English translations that are sure to spark a laugh. More restaurants now have picture menus. So you only need point to the picture.  Still at a loss about what to order? It’s perfectly OK to walk around the dining room, seeing what others are eating, then indicate by pointing to the dish that this is what you want, too.

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