The first words we learned on the initial day of Cantonese language study had to do with eating. One can travel throughout the world and can find Chinese restaurants everywhere. The Chinese know a lot about eating, cooking, and running restaurants. Most Westerners don't understand Chinese food at all. After many years of living in Hong Kong and eating a lot of Chinese food, I feel that I am somewhat of an authority on the subject – at least as much of an expert as a foreigner can be.
The first thing to keep in mind about eating Chinese cuisine is that it is to be served hot! There is a reason for this. Over the thousands of years of Chinese history, fuel for cooking has often been very scarce. Cooking over open fires in woks requires one to cook fast. The oil is heated; and the food, already bite-sized so that it can be eaten with chopsticks, is stir-fried. It is served with rice in communal bowls, "family style." The simple thing to remember when ordering at a Chinese restaurant is to share. Individuals do not order entrees for themselves, but, instead, several dishes are ordered and everyone at the table gets some of each. Ordering Western-style can be a disaster. I still chuckle about an American lady friend of mine who on her first jetlagged evening in Hong Kong ended up with a plate of broccoli for dinner. The other first-timers laughed until their meals arrived. Each had one dish in front of him with one thing on the plate. I am sure the waiters were amused or confused.
Chinese menus present choices in categories. Chicken, pork, beef, seafood, and vegetables are standard fare. The basic rule of thumb is to order one dish per number of persons at the table – plus one! Four persons, five dishes. It is fun for each person to choose a category and each make a selection for the group accordingly.
Rice or noodles are the foundation for the entrees, and are not necessarily considered entrees themselves. Ordering both rice and "chow mien" (fried noodles), is like ordering a baked potato and fries together.
In all of Hong Kong and the massive mainland of China there is no such thing as a Chinese "take‑out" joint. The Chinese don't eat that way, McDonald's notwithstanding. The Chinese like their food hot from the wok. The idea of ordering food by phone and having it delivered is a very Western adaptation. Eating food out of those little cardboard containers is hardly very exciting. For that reason, I rarely eat Chinese food in the States. Most restaurants that cater to Western palates are so unlike what one would find in Asia that it is just not worth it to me to be disappointed.
However, if one is intent upon finding an authentic Chinese restaurant outside of China, here is a clue to look for: Chinese patrons. If at least ninety percent of the clientele are Chinese, it is likely authentic. If most of the patrons are gwailos (foreign devils), forget it.
One has to understand something about China itself to understand the way the people think and act there. China is the most populous nation on earth, with some of the highest population density in the world. China is a crowded place, and the people who grow up among the "teeming" millions are quite comfortable in a throng. A typical Chinese restaurant is a teeming place, to be sure. The din is overwhelming as everyone seems intent upon being heard above the fray. The crashing and clattering of dishes, shouting of orders, and peals of laughter say, "We are having a good time." The Chinese word is Yiht-Nauh. It means literally "hot noise." Soft mood music and intimate conversation is nowhere to be found. It is foreign. Restaurants are places for having fun with family and friends, and are associated with special events. Because crowding has confined housing size throughout Asia, in-home entertainment is nearly out of the question – especially special events like weddings, graduations, and business openings. Having banquets for a hundred or more people is not unusual. After all, one has only so many lucky auspicious days to celebrate.
I cannot even begin to recall all the wonderful feasts of celebration I had the joy of attending during my years in China. However, I do remember the food, the noise, and the heartburn. Foreigners have a different palate than the Chinese do. For authenticity, one has to attend a Chinese wedding feast. The dishes that the Chinese order differ quite a bit from what the average Westerner might be comfortable trying. Duck feet and sea slug don't often make it into the top ten for most Americans and Europeans. However, the Chinese say: "If its back faces the sky..." you can eat it. And they do. In abundance.
I was never sure if it was the MSG or the sea urchin, but I do remember many sleepless nights with strange things bubbling and gurgling in my stomach. Finally, in despair, I asked one of those "old China hands" to tell me what to do.
"That's easy," he answered authoritatively. "When you come home, have a bowl of cornflakes. That familiar taste in your mouth and on your stomach will go on top of all the weird and unfamiliar tastes, and your Western stomach will be at ease."
He was right! From then on, I always had a bowl of Wheaties on top of all the strange and exotic delights, and slept without Maalox. It worked like a charm.
Years later, while entertaining a large group of Chinese friends in my own home, I mentioned this technique. To my surprise, they all laughed uproariously!
They all nodded knowingly. "After we go to dinner with Westerners, we go home and eat rice!"