How to Order Chinese Food

My MO has always been simple: find a well-liked, clean-looking takeout joint near my office with a lunch special that consists of an entree and a Diet Coke for close to $5; through process of elimination pick out something they do well, like eggplant with shrimp and broccoli, or sesame tofu; and then order the same dish every time. Voila! Perfection.

Turns out I’ve been doing it wrong.

Ordering stir-fried beef at a Cantonese joint would be an opportunity missed, since Canton (Guangzhou), in the south of the country, borders the sea, and a good Cantonese chef will have perfected steamed fish. Cantonese cooking should be light and use copious ginger, and Canto restaurants that serve dim sum on weekends are perfect destinations for large groups. Likewise, asking for lobster at a Sichuan place would be the equivalent of getting Tex-Mex in North Dakota: Sichuan, in the southwest, is landlocked (though freshwater fish and shrimp are eaten). Sichuan food is spicy and hearty, its signature dishes flavored with prickly ash that leaves the tongue tingling and slightly numbed; but add chili peppers, and discover a magical combination that leaves you salivating and yearning for more.

Beyond regions, names of restaurants and dishes both are important. In my experience, places with cardinal directions in the name often say something about where the chef is from, whereas those with city names do not always shed light as to what will be on the menu. An establishment called “Northern Star,” for example, will probably do justice to northern fare, but a place called “Beijing Palace” may simply be using the capital city’s name for easy brand recognition. This rule also stands for spots with Shanghai in the name, though Sichuan places are more often accurately descriptive — perhaps because the province is so well-known for its food. But in any case, it doesn’t hurt to ask the server what regional cuisine the chef specializes in.

In Ruth Reichl’s fabulous memoir Garlic and Sapphires, about her tenure as the New York Times’ food critic, she describes a dim sum experience she had in Flushing with a graduate student from Hong Kong. The student’s advice was to begin by ordering fancy tea.

“If you do not order tea,” she said, “they bring you the cheapest swill they can buy. It is dreadful stuff, nothing you would want to drink. But even if you do not care about the quality of the tea, by demanding the best you make the establishment understand that you know what is good and are willing to pay for it. And then you get a better meal.”

I had a similar experience once dining in Chinatown with an older woman who spoke fluent Mandarin and had lived in Shanghai for many years. Ordinarily mild mannered, she surprised me by beginning to speak loudly and sharply to the waiter. Since I am always scared of offending servers, I shrank back in my chair, but the waiter looked pleased, even after she ordered dishes from memory rather than from the menu, which I wouldn’t have the temerity to do.

The food was delicious.

Still, it’s one thing to interrogate a waiter and to set yourself up as a person who deserves to be pleased if you have the language or experience to back it up. If you’re a total novice like me, maybe it makes sense to stick with the stir fries. On the other hand, food fortune favors the bold.

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