Ancient Chinese Secrets 

Real Chinese food and why you've probably never had any.

In the late 60s and early 70s, I would often go to New York City on vacation from my midwestern college, and my uncles Shaw and Hsiah would take me to Sunday lunch. Those were some of the best Chinese meals I've ever had. Call it the warped judgment of a starved kid homesick for the Far East, but Uncle Hsiah did say that the cook was formerly the personal chef to the UN ambassador from China.

The platters would arrive: bite-size dumplings that were hand folded in cascades of perfect, petite pleats, insides exploding with juicy tidbits, every drop of gravy clinched in by the paper-thin pastry; meats sliced so cunningly they melted at the touch of chopsticks. Yet if I went to the same restaurant by myself and ordered by writing in Chinese on the blank paper the waiter handed to me, the meal I got wasn't the same. It was nothing like the show of blazing technique and exquisite seasonings I'd enjoyed with my uncles. A young woman, unlike a highly respected businessman from the old country, could not rouse the efforts of the famous chef.

New Yorker Jim Lee, author of the 1968 Jim Lee's Chinese Cookbook, illustrated the situation with an anecdote. When some frustrated non-Chinese friends of his found they could not on their own order the same lobster Cantonese at the restaurant he had taken them to, he went back and listened to what the waiters hollered to the kitchen. Eventually he deciphered three phrases. Plain "lobster Cantonese" produced a bland concoction topped by a lot of pasty sauce; for those who asked for "real" Chinese food, "lobster Cantonese, Chinese style" had a little more garlic and less sauce. And "lobster Cantonese, Chinese style, eaten by Chinese" was the real McCoy, boldly seasoned and served with the natural juices from the stir-fry.

"Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown," says Jack Nicholson's sidekick in the 1974 movie. The message is unmistakable: in Chinatown nothing is as it seems, and outsiders can't be expected to understand. Ordering in a Chinatown restaurant, at least, isn't so mysterious. You just have to know what to ask for. It is possible get past the egg rolls and the chop suey by requesting the Chinese-language menu, the one that is seasonal and sensitive to the chef's training and creativity, the one that native Chinese speakers order from, the one a Chinatown restaurant staffer calls "a menu with English subtitles."

This system of culinary suppression is less the result of a shadowy practice of segregation than of intersecting forces of marketing and cultural assimilation. This is, after all, the land that reinvented pizza, then homogenized and exported it all over the world.

"They're very stubborn. They only want egg rolls. They tell you, 'I've had Chinese food since I've been ten, and that's what I want,'" says Frank Ting, a young restaurateur who owns businesses in both Chinatown and the northwest suburbs. Currently he operates Wonton Gourmet, a casual eatery in Mount Prospect. "If you want this group's business, you have to make the egg rolls and chop suey. Americans want egg rolls; we don't eat egg rolls. They want spare ribs; we don't eat spare ribs."

Ting says he is often asked by non-Chinese diners to suggest an authentic dish. Despite his warning that the dish may not be what the diner expects--that, for example, the chicken is chopped with the bone in--the diner will insist on ordering it. If the patron decides he doesn't like it, Ting says, he has no choice but to take the dish back. "You can't charge. They make trouble," he says. "They say they'll call the health department. I can't tell you how many times it has happened to me."

Longtime Chinese restaurateurs say that the majority of their non-Chinese patrons judge a restaurant by two simple standards. "They want a lot and they want a lot of sauce--but that's not how we judge food," says Peter Yung, who runs 18 Restaurant in Arlington Heights. As a result, Yung offers two menus, one a formal printed menu in both Chinese and English. But unless you knew to ask for it, or unless you were a native speaker, he would not produce the second menu, a seasonal listing handwritten in Chinese. Yung only added English subtitles to this menu in the early 90s, following a review that extolled his original home cooking. That menu features fresh fish, clams, squid, and fresh greens stir-fried, and whole chickens chopped through the bone just before they arrive at the table. Like many Cantonese restaurateurs from Hong Kong, Yung emphasizes fresh seafood; high-end restaurants in Chinatown often offer "swimming fish"--a fish that's still alive in a tank until ordered--on their Chinese-language menus. Seldom do the bilingual menus indicate the same.

Still, the dual-menu system signals a leap forward from the days when patrons were given the litmus test of ordering, as I had been in New York. After Nixon's visit to China in the early 70s, genuine Chinese cuisine began to be integrated into the mainstream, with restaurants introducing bilingual menus and listing authentic dishes in English.

So when the Hunan Houses and Szechwan Gardens began to pepper the Chicago landscape in the mid-to-late 80s, there was reason to cheer. It seemed that authentic restaurants were emerging from Chinatown into urban downtowns and suburban malls. The shingles no longer blared "chop suey," takeout receded as the backbone of the business, and art deco wall sconces replaced dangling paper lanterns. But ironically, there are very few immigrants from China's Hunan and Szechwan provinces. The U.S. Census Bureau and the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., do not break down rates of immigration by province of origin, but an embassy official says the number is minuscule. (The consensus of Chinatown community leaders is that there are almost no Szechwan natives and only a handful of Hunan natives in the Chicago area; most local immigrants hail from the southeastern province of Guangdong.) It was as if Texas barbecue restaurants became all the rage in China, but were staffed by cooks born and bred in Rhode Island.

But at the time, the rising popularity of such restaurants seemed to confirm the rise of educated taste among the public and a good-faith effort by Chinese businesses to bring their culture into the mainstream. Most heartening of all were the bilingual menus. To me this represented a victory of Chinese integration. What a pleasure it was to walk into a room of linen-topped tables and read a neat, permanent menu in two languages--English on the right and Chinese on the left, side by side, same-same.

Sadly, such integration exacted a price. As I walked into one fine-dining establishment after another, what I got was, unfortunately, same-same. Those equalized English-Chinese menus were nearly identical. America had entered the era of kung pao, a classic Mandarin dish characterized by hot chilies exploded in oil. Although chop suey and chow mein were waning, they were being replaced by a predictable string of choices: kung pao chicken, Mongolian beef, hot and sour soup. Soon, every little take-out joint was serving kung pao dishes, which were typically toned down by the Cantonese chefs. In the process of elevating the lowest levels of Chinese dining, the highest level had been lowered.

The set repertoire of some 50 dishes on the new, integrated menu didn't encourage experimentation. At least in the old two-menu system, a chef could respond to seasonal ingredients, customizing meals for knowledgeable diners. Though chefs who still produced variable menus continued to thrive in certain enclaves, the integrated menu caused creative stagnation within an already small talent pool of native cooks, who even today only account for about 30 percent of all chefs in the area, with most of those trained in Hong Kong.

Alfred Hsu of Szechwan East in Chicago traveled to Szechwan in search of chefs shortly after China reopened to the West in the 70s. He concluded that the strong regional Szechwan flavors had to be adapted to American tastes. Even though chefs in Taiwan had carried on the tradition of Szechwan's hot and garlicky flavors, they had modified the cuisine of the western province over time. "Szechwan food, like the rest of China, was hidden for 40 years," he says. The real thing was much too spicy and intense for the American general dining public.

Hsu handpicked four malleable young chefs. "During the conversations [with older chefs] I found they were so original that the food would not be that acceptable for the American palate," he says. "We asked [the younger chefs] to watch and to learn our tastes before creating their own."

The noted London-based Chinese cooking teacher and author Kenneth Lo wrote back in the 70s that Chinese chefs abroad were losing touch with their training and tradition. After years of cooking an unvarying menu, they no longer sought new culinary expressions. If it was difficult for a French chef in England to keep his standards up, he wrote, it was that much more difficult for a Chinese chef, "for whom communication [with the dining public] is practically nonexistent," to do the same.

To remedy the situation, Lo created a dining group in London called the Chinese Gourmet Club. He appealed to chefs to join, encouraging and reassuring them that he was sympathetic to their plight. "The chefs were all trained the hard way, in China, by years of apprenticeship," he says. "With no recipe books to refer to, and after some years of cooking abroad and preparing the same dishes over and over again, their memories of authentic Chinese classical or regional dishes began to recede." At the dinners the club hosted for Londoners, Lo lectured on the finer points of the menus before each meal. He put into practice what Alfred Hsu jokingly suggests is the best way to get a great meal in a Chinese restaurant: "Go with a Chinese."

Chinese and American diners also have different expectations, says Hsu. "The Chinese come and they talk about foods they prefer and get the chefs to come out to talk to them about it." It is the performance of a chef that counts, not ambience and entertainment. In contrast, he says, "Americans look for service, decor, presentation."

Americans also expect consistency from one restaurant to the next. That attitude doesn't encourage change, especially when a high percentage of an establishment's revenues comes from non-Chinese. Ting says non-Chinese diners account for 40 percent of his business, while Hsu estimates that 80 percent of his business is non-Chinese. But he insists that many of his clients are knowledgeable diners, often businesspeople who have traveled the Pacific Rim, who expect such authentic dishes as clams stir-fried with black bean sauce and snails with ginger and scallions.

Short of going "with a Chinese," the key that opens doors in a Chinese restaurant is communication. Anyone can extract the best effort out of the cook. "Chinese style, eaten by Chinese" is rarely hollered into kitchens anymore. Most restaurants employ a good English speaker, and often the most primitive communications, such as watching what others are eating and pointing to it, go a long way.

At Ting's fast-food noodle operation in the suburbs, which he has run for six years, the staff speaks English and there's a balanced mix of Eastern and Western diners. In this fluid, lively atmosphere, he gives his diners many opportunities to observe and experiment. Both the Americanized English-language menu and the bilingual menu are immediately handed to patrons. Attitudes among Americans are beginning to change, he says, but it has been slow; only recently have they begun to order such entrees as roast pork on plain rice, as a Chinese would, rather than fried rice.

Hsu, who offers just one menu, says anyone can ask for customized service, but "it's a matter of communication." Even with a Chinese patron ordering for an entire table, Hsu will take the time to learn that patron's tastes and preferences. "I would find out if he comes from the north, south, east, or west of China," he says, quoting a Chinese expression by way of explanation: A perfect meal is a result of "heaven's time and place, of ritual, and of people."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Dorothy Perry.

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