Kate's Global Kitchen

Kate Heyhoe  

Chinatown Dining
& New Year Feasts

by Kate Heyhoe


"One day I hope to write a book about all the wonderful Chinatowns in the world," Martin Yan told me in an interview around 1994. Now, less than a decade later, he's done just that in his latest book and TV series, Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking, illuminating these exotic cultural centers in eleven cities stretching from London to San Francisco to Yokohama, with stops at Chinatowns in Australia, Canada, New York, and Singapore.

Chinese Barbecue Pork

Chinese Barbecue Pork

"How and why did the Chinese end up in these far-flung places?" writes Yan. As with turn-of-the-century Europeans, many traveled to seek their fortunes. "But the Chinese had a few more reasons. And a lot more people—there were simply too many folks farming too few rice paddies. In addition, if locusts didn't wipe out the crops, there were ravaging warlords and foreign powers to do so."

Steady work, be it on the high seas as merchant marines, on London docks as stevedores, in California mining camps and railways, or in the sugar plantations of Hawaii, promised these emigrants a life without want—if they were willing to work harder than they could imagine. The enormous adversities facing them were staggering, but perhaps these challenges also contributed to the intensity with which Chinatowns evolved. These emigrants formed extraordinarily tight communities, reinforcing both their heritage and forming networks of stability: economically, politically and culturally. Food in China has profound symbolic importance, and as one would expect, became a potent unifier within these concentrated Chinese communities.

Almost every large city has its own Chinatown, developed originally by Chinese emigrants but today more likely to be a haven for refugees of many Asian nations. Still, the Chinese influences dominate in elaborate dragon gates, dim sum restaurants, lacquered red motifs, and the aromas of char shu and mahogany-colored ducks wafting down narrow streets from the meat markets and delis. For a "foreigner" in Chinatown—that is, anyone who has not lived within the Chinese culture—deciphering menus and ordering food in a restaurant can be daunting. Many servers speak little or no English, or the dishes themselves may defy easy transliteration. Furthermore, the do's and don'ts of Chinese dining customs are enough to ignite fireworks in Miss Manners' brain.

In the excerpt below, Martin Yan offers his personal tips for crossing the cultural bridge when dining in Chinatown. Remember them next time you visit your local Chinatown, especially when celebrating the Lunar New Year.

How to Order in a Chinese Restaurant

"Hunger is the best chef," goes the Chinese proverb. But if you want to have a real Chinese dining experience, rather than just a meal, here are some tips for ordering in a Chinese restaurant.

  • Ask the waiter for help and suggestions. What are the house specialties? What are their regional favorites? Let the waiter know that you're really open to new ideas and suggestions.
  • Don't get lost in the translation. Dishes are often translated literally from Chinese to English. Sometimes misspellings make for a good laugh—such as bean "crud" instead of bean curd. The truth is that restaurant menus are often copied so that when one restaurant makes spelling or translation mistakes, other establishments reprint the same errors.
  • Try at least one new dish every time you go to a Chinese restaurant. Just as you wouldn't order hamburger with a steak on the side in an American restaurant, order something other than five stir-fried dishes. A Chinese meal often begins with sliced cold meats, pickled cucumbers, and blanched or golden crisp peanuts for appetizers, followed by a whole fish as a centerpiece, some soup, a vegetable dish, and a rice- or noodle-based dish for the complete dining experience.
  • Forget one person, one vote. With a group of six or more people, put one person in charge of ordering to keep the menu balanced, or you'll end up with six dishes that are too similar to one another.
  • Eat with the seasons. Freshness is the name of the game, so order dishes that are made with seasonal ingredients. Asparagus is in season during the spring; Dungeness crab between November and February. And although most Asian vegetables are now available all year round, they are at their peak during the spring and summer months.
  • Chinese food is regional food. Don't expect a Sichuan chef to be able to prepare Cantonese Steak Kew, or a Cantonese cook to deliver un appropriate spicy meat with bean curd. Ask what area of China the restaurateurs and chef hail from, and order those regional specialties. If they say they can prepare Cantonese, Hunan, and Sichuan food, move on to another restaurant.
  • Keep your balance. Not everything should be cut into cubes and stir-fried. In fact, such dishes are meant to be accompaniments to steamed items like fish or tofu, or items such as braised seafood or meat. Order a selection of dishes that are balanced in colors, flavors, and textures. Chinese cooks often use a variety of ingredients such as water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, wood ears and cloud ears that have no distinctive flavors but provide textural contrasts.
  • Categorizing dishes as yin (cold) and yang (hot) doesn't refer to the temperature of the food when it is eaten, but to the temperature that food will create once digested. Chinese believe that every bite we eat is medicine. When people have colds or fever, they need cooling foods like winter melon and watermelon. If the internal fires need stoking, yang foods like lamb or beef are recommended. Other yin and yang foods include bitter melon, pear, and papaya (all yin) and lychee and lotus root (yang).
  • Get fishy. The Cantonese word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for abundance and plentiful, and since fish were scarce in inland Chinese regions until recent times, a whole steamed fresh fish is often the centerpiece of a special meal. During Chinese New Year and on other festive occasions, fish is served to symbolize abundance and good fortune.
  • Always order soup. Typical southern Chinese restaurants (such as Cantonese ones) serve soup before the meal or after the appetizer. Northern Chinese have soup toward the end.
  • Who says it's not polite to point? If you notice an appealing dish on the table next to you, just point and tell the waiter you'd like to try it. Even if the waiter tries to discourage you, keep pointing. And if the waiter says, "You won't like it," then insist on trying it! Surprise the wait staff with your adventurous taste buds.
  • Become a regular. If you find a restaurant you like, visit it frequently to build up friendly relations. Chinese call this practice guanxi, the American equivalent of brownie points. The stronger your personal relationship with a chef and a restaurateur, the more they'll understand how serious you are about eating real Chinese food.

Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking
200 Traditional Recipes from 11 Chinatowns Around the World
by Martin Yan
William Morrow / an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
$34.95 / hardcover
Illustrated with 200 color photos
ISBN: 0060084758
Excerpt reprinted by permission.

Buy the Book!


Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking


Lunar New Year Recipes, Cookbooks & Columns

Customs, Recipes, & Cookbooks for Lunar New Year
Asian New Year: Honoring the Kitchen God
Entertaining Asian Style, by Martin Yan
Martin Yan Recipes and Fun New Year Facts (1999)
Mung Bean Sprout Salad & Year of the Tiger Tale (1998)
Chinese New Year Dinner with Susanna Foo (1997)
Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (Cookbook Profile with Recipes)
Asian Noodles (Cookbook Profile with Recipes)
Yin Yang Almond Cookies
The Chinese Kitchen (Cookbook Profile with Recipes)
Authentic Vietnamese Cooking (Cookbook Profile with Recipes)


Lunar New Year Handbook


Kate's Global Kitchen for February, 2003:

1/03/03     Around the World: Recipes 2002
1/10/03     The Essential Chicken Stock
1/17/03     Chicken in a Global Bowl: Broths & Soups
1/24/03     Food of Love: Schiavelli's Sicilian Connection
1/31/03     Chinatown Dining & New Year Feasts

Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.

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