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January 13, 2009

Asian Dining Rules


Jennifer 8. Lee talks about her book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,
and how Chinese food really is all-American

by Julia Bainbridge

Sunday night at a panel discussion titled "Asian Dining Rules" at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, food critic Steven Shaw, chef David Chang, and New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee spent a good amount of time dispelling myths about Asian, mostly Chinese, food (broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable, fortune cookies are not Chinese treats) and discussing the liquidity of food's story; it's changing all the time (case in point: Jamaican-Chinese restaurants in America).

As far as what happens at the tables of those Chinese restaurants, the panelists talked a lot about how difficult it can be to find "authentic" Chinese food--whether that means Sichuan-, Shanghai-, or Fuzhou-style Chinese--in America. Some of their New York favorites (because that is, after all, where they live)? Tang Tang, Empire Szechuan, the Flushing Mall food court, the Grand Sichuan chain, Fried Dumpling, and New Green Bo.

These places are their favorite places, mind you; not all of them are "authentic." Italian-American cuisines are just that: They are the true cuisines of those immigrants who have come to America. That's what they eat. Conversely, American Chinese cuisine was invented for American palates.

So how do you get the real thing? Find out, after the jump. 

Shaw says you can go to any restaurant; you just have to know how to order. Below, some tips from his new book, Asian Dining Rules:

"Point and Stare: My email in-box is full of testimonials from people complaining that they went to a Chinese restaurant and saw a table of Chinese people eating dishes they couldn't identify or find on the menu. The simplest way to navigate that problem is to point at the dishes and ask what they are."

"Take Responsibility: The main reason Chinese restaurants don't offer the best, most interesting Chinese dishes to their mainstream customers is that they think those customers won't like or want to pay for the stuff. Before you can reach across the cultural divide and get access to the best dishes, then, you need to relieve the restaurant of responsibility. If you state loudly and clearly that you're an adventurous eater, that you're willing to pay for the special dishes, and that you won't hold the restaurant responsible if you don't like the taste of an unusual dish, you'll bring yourself several steps closer to being treated like a Chinese insider."

"Read Everything: Before you're seated, be sure to ask for every menu, whether it's in English or Chinese . . . If there are menus printed only in Chinese, point to random items and ask what they are, and also ask what the best items on the page are. If there are lists of specials on the wall written only in Chinese, again ask for the translation. If you want to dine like an insider, you need to do whatever it takes to get the information."

To get more from Asian Dining Rules, which has strategies for eating out in Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian, and Indian restaurants, too, go here.

Further reading:
* Another myth: The most authentic Chinese restaurants are in big cities. According to Shaw, one of America's finest Chinese restaurants is in a strip mall in Cleveland.
* eGullet, Shaw's phenomenally successful foodie forum
* David Chang's Momofuku empire--good luck getting a table at Ko
* Jennifer 8. Lee's work at the New York Times
* Weird Fortune Cookies
* Etiquette 101: China
* Etiquette 101: India
* Catch of the Day: International noshables

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