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.”
Dinner with Rougi and Cisse, in the Bronx.
My long, desperate search for a homemade African meal is over. As part of my ongoing “Dinner With” series, I finally scored an invitation to a West African household, just off Gun Hill Road, run by Rougiatou “Rougi” Tounkara and her husband, Cisse.
Before immigrating, Rougi and Cisse lived the kind of lives that remind you just how ferocious racial bigotry is in some parts of the world. Even for Africans living in Africa.
When he moved from the Ivory Coast to Tunisia, Cisse said he was spat on, by children, and had stones thrown at him, “because I’m a black man.”
“They come close to you,” said Rougi. “They scream on you, they’ll call you monkey. They call you dogs, they call you cats. But we never care.”
But of course they did. Rougi was never allowed to go to school growing up, but she’s making sure her kids get the best education possible, and they’re blissfully unexposed to the sort of name-calling Rougi and Cisse once took for granted.
So they’re happy. The funny thing is, they’re both unemployed at this point, getting by on whatever Rougi earns from sewing while Cisse looks for an IT job.
Cisse moved here just a couple months ago, so they’re in something of a honeymoon period. I wonder how long that’ll last. But Rougi’s hopeful.
“America is the best for me. I always say that, everywhere and every time. They help me a lot. To have all this opportunity.”
On the menu: acheke (a grain, like couscous, but made of cassava — it’s smoky and delicious), baked chicken (spiced with onion, garlic, and MAGGI cubes) and fried plantains. There was also a sauce, Sauce Tomate (ie., tomato sauce) that apparently included molten lava it was so hot.
Many thanks to my warm and gracious hosts.
Older woman with bag-lady aesthetic — stringy hair, face barely visible, etc — slowly shuffling down sidewalk. As she passes the Subway sandwich shop, she raises her fist and gives the store the finger. Not to any particular customer, or worker — the whole storefront. And then, once she’s past the store, she lowers her arm and keeps shuffling.
Made me wonder, what did Subway ever do to this woman?
Because there are days at work when I’m in a discount-peanut-butter-cookie sort of mood, and I run across the street to take advantage of their 3-for-$1.50 deal, and without fail, they’re underbaked and generally tasteless, and as I’m shoving yet another greasy cookie down my craw, I feel like a junkie — a steaming heap of self-loathing, perpetually un-sated.
All I seek is a delicious, homemade Malian meal in Harlem. Simple enough, no? Actually, friend, it’s rather hard.
I visit, repeatedly, this home on 128th street — the home of Fatima. Fatima is from Mali. Those kids, I’m pretty sure, are kids that she babysits now and then. Cute, right?
Aicha is 11. Mady and Bedou are 3. I got them to stick their head through the window so I could take a picture.
I’ve been going back and forth with Fatima for a couple months now. Another woman from Mali referred me to her.
The idea of my “Dinner With…” series for WNYC is pretty simple: You make a nice, hopefully delicious meal, and I eat it with you. We talk about food and family, rituals, religion, race — whatever defines your life and your people.
But each time we schedule a meal, something unexpected happens. One time one of Fatima’s aunts died in West Africa, and she had to begin fasting. Naturally we called it off.
Last Sunday, I arrived at her home as she was in the middle of prayers (she’s Muslim). None of the guests she had expected showed up. So she asked me to return on Wednesday.
So I did. But this time, she didn’t even look me in the eye. She merely spoke (in Mandinka — her native language) to Aicha, who in turn translated.
“Fatima says you told her she didn’t prepare the food properly last time,” said Aicha.
Pardon? Did she just tell me I came to her home and insulted her food?
Fatima also said she had a toothache, and kept shouting angrily at the kids. No one, I was told, was around to help her make her meal. I was beginning to feel that perhaps I was seriously imposing.
Was the West African community of Harlem — hair braiders, babysitters, business owners — muttering to one another about this obnoxious radio reporter who couldn’t be turned away?
Really, I should just give up.
But I can’t.
And in case you’re wondering, I just called them again.
And they told me, “Any day now.”
Biang! The exclamation point is part of the restaurant’s name, and w/ good reason. The food is that good.
The interesting thing about Biang! is that the food, drawn from the Xi’an region of western China, is outrageously cheap. My group of three adults and three kids ate — and ate well — for $32. But as you can see here, they don’t skimp on presentation.
What’s a suave place like this doing across the street from the Flushing public library?
I asked Wendy Chan, a cookbook author and marketing expert who senses “a groundswell of younger, more ambitious” Asian-American “trailblazers,” who “don’t want to play by the old rules” of various Chinatowns.
Biang! is an extension of the Xi’an Famous Foods chain — which has a location on St. Marks in the East Village but whose foodie temple, luring the faithful from far and wide, rests in the gritty, tube-lit basement of the Golden Mall, just a block from Biang!
Unlike that location, which uses paper plates, Biang! is more upscale while somehow keeping most of its dishes in the $5-7 range.
“I love, love, love that they’re bringing these types of restaurants to Flushing,” said Chan.
Dishes seen here, as described on the menu:
- Spicy and tingly lean beef stew with wide hand-ripped noodles
- Toasted slices of mantou (steamed bun), home-made spicy pork sausage, fried sunny-side-up quail egg on top
- Slivers of lamb on skewers barbequed over open-flame grill, seasoned with cumin, red chili powder, and proprietary spices
- Boiled tofu skin skewers, slathered w/spicy fermented tofu sauce, Szechuan bean sauce, sesame paste, garlic, and chili oil
- Simple cold salad of fiddlehead ferns w/Szechuan pepper oil and black vinegar