Why, in this era of foodie hordes, Instagramming their way across the five boroughs, do some Chinese restaurants in New York City still have double menus?
It’s always mystified me that a business would only list some of its dishes in English and keep others — presumably the best/strangest/most authentic ones — on a separate, Mandarin menu.
So I set out to understand why.
I visited Main St. Imperial, in Flushing, with Andrew Coe, the author of “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.” The storefront restaurant, far from the culinary heart of Flushing, is “the best Taiwanese restaurant in New York,” according to Coe.
Among the several dishes we devoured was a smoky, spectacular pile of minced pork, liberally garnished with chives, red chilies and fermented black beans. The dish is one of the restaurant’s most popular, but it’s not on the English-language menu.
Could be the name of the dish: “Chives with Fly Heads.”
The fly heads simply refer to those delicious black beans, but perhaps some Asian restaurateurs think that metaphor would soar over the heads of non-Asian diners. Strangely, a slew of “Putz”-based dishes remain on the menu.
For someone like Joe DiStefano, one of the city’s most famous epicures (he hates the term “foodie”), the double menu is a gastronomic hindrance. On his new site, Chopsticks and Marrow, he and readers have discussed the strangest things they’ve ever eaten, from live baby octopus to wittchety grubs.
The mood in this sector of the universe, he says, is intensely competitive: “Have you eaten eyeballs? Have you eaten duck testacles? I have!”
In that context, he argues, a double menu “creates sort of a mediated or watered-down experience for the non-Chinese diner.”
While most of the experts I spoke to say the double menu is disappearing, it still exists on Mott Street, in Manhattan Chinatown. That’s where I met Wendy Chan, author of “New Asian Cuisine” and a consultant to various Asian governments aiming to make their cuisines more popular in America.
"They don’t want their waiters to be spending time chit-chatting with you, to explore option 1, 2, 3, the difference between A, B and C," said Chan of restaurant owners. "They’d rather have you say, ‘Okay, this is what you want, this is what we give you. Hurry up and leave.’"
There’s also the matter of clashing tastes. People raised in Asia, she said, are more likely to eat dark meat than other Americans, or eat a whole fish, with the tail intact and those dead, beady eyes staring at you.
Still, Joe DiStefano figured this was the only international cuisine in New York where a second menu exists. After all, Indian restaurants don’t have a different menu for their Indian customers. But an email from Madeline Leung at RestaurantBaby.com helped reframe the issue. She wrote, somewhat cryptically, “Race and history matter,” and this sentence, “There was a time in America, when it was commonly believed that Chinese people eat rats and dogs.”
That took me back, to the 1984 movie, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” when our hero is served what many American viewers must have presumed was a classic Indian dessert: Chilled monkey brain.
Because there’s nothing better than a food scene, set in an exotic country, to show just how freakish or backward another culture is. It hits us at a primal level, whether it’s Indian food or Chinese. The rumors that Madeline alluded to, about eating rats and dogs, are old (and with dogs, bears some truth), but there are multiple discussion threads on Yahoo.com, right now, of people wondering whether Chinese people eat babies.
Thus, the creation of Chinese-American cuisine — along with the double menu — wasn’t just a culinary development, or a money-making proposition. It was also a kind of political act, one that presented a ‘moderate’ face to outsiders in places like New York, which had enough Chinese immigrants to justify a Chinese-language menu, along with an English menu.
What’s funny is that for some people, like Madeleine Leung, whose parents operated a Chinese restaurant in Detroit, the self-consciousness they developed over decades dies hard.
"One telling thing is that whenever we have friends over," she said, laughing, "we order pizza."
To hear my WNYC radio story, go here.