Insights into China (Part 2/3): A visit to a restaurant

Upscale Hangzhou cuisine in Beijing. The vertical banner reads: “Dragon Well Boat Banquet” (all photos by Isham Cook except where noted)

I begin with a textbook case of intercultural miscommunication I once witnessed in a university cafeteria in Beijing. Just as I was telling the server which dish I wanted, a female student standing next to me blurted out to him in Mandarin, “I told you I wanted the shredded pork noodles. Didn’t you hear me?”

Another student butted in between us to indicate what he wanted. The server served him first before walking several pans over to get my dish. This was logical enough; his pan was right in front of the server and mine was several paces away. But the female student was not happy about this and said to a friend standing behind her in fluent English, at which point I realized they were ABCs (American-born Chinese), “I can’t believe he’s walking away!”

Now it was clear they had a little war going on, as the server continued to ignore her. When I finished my meal fifteen minutes later, she was still standing there glaring at him.

You too would be upset if you were ignored by a cafeteria server. But that’s not what initially appears to have set things off. It could have been any number of things. I’d guess she had expected him to acknowledge her request with eye contact and grew peeved when it wasn’t forthcoming, he in turn found her to be rude, and it snowballed from there. I had dealt with this server many times and never had an issue with him. She was likely a new arrival in China, an exchange student a few months fresh off the plane, and her Chinese ethnicity wasn’t of much help as she negotiated her way around the cultural minefield. It was after all not the cook’s responsibility to explain how things worked; he was simply going about his job. She was the annoying anomaly. The moral of the story is that the fault for the communication breakdown lay squarely with her. The burden is not on the host country to explain it all to you; the burden is on you, the guest, to figure it out.

And then there was the incident back in the early 1990s when I had just arrived in Beijing to start a teaching job. It was actually my first restaurant to step into outside my new residence, the famous Friendship Hotel, when the number of foreigners in Beijing could still pretty much fit into a single hotel. The menu consisted of Chinese characters on typed white A4 sheets of paper stuck in grimy plastic sleeves (menus with photographs came later). I had studied some Chinese and could recognize 宫保鸡丁 and a couple vegetable dishes, surprisingly inexpensive at only 2-3 yuan a piece. I ordered a serving of potatoes and a serving of turnips, not sure how they would be cooked. The Kung Pao Chicken came first, filled to the brim with excess oil. Then the potatoes and turnips arrived — in raw slices. It took a moment to register why the vegetables were served raw. Oh, of course. They were meant to go with hotpot. But that’s not what blew my mind. The cooks, waitresses, and manager — the manager! — were standing by the door to the kitchen giggling at me. They had a good laugh at my expense, until I overturned the Kung Pao Chicken onto the tablecloth and walked out without paying. I heard shouting in my direction but they didn’t pursue me out on the street.

Noodle shop in Chengdu, 1990 (top); restaurant in Harbin, 1995: a ticket purchased at the booth is handed to the kitchen window for service (bottom)

They were not very nice. Other restaurants would have handled it better, patiently trying to explain to the clueless foreigner why I couldn’t order those vegetable plates alone. The verdict again, however, is that the fault lay with me. How were they supposed to know my motive in ordering the vegetables? Customers may order whatever dishes they wish for whatever reason, as long as they pay for them, and the restaurant is under no obligation to object.

Let’s turn things around and imagine you’re a Chinese customer in an American restaurant yelling “Waitress!” This is exactly how it’s done in China. You shout “Fuwuyuar!” at the top of your lungs so that your voice can be heard across the restaurant, ensuring that a waitress, any waitress, will promptly appear. It’s not considered rude at all. In the US, it would be so outrageous the restaurant might ask you to leave. And you would be wholly at fault for your ignorance of the country’s culture and etiquette.

(Not that, on the other hand, restaurants in our so-called civilized world are immune from bad management or worse. Don’t ever underestimate the depths to which the staff will stoop if they are not happy with you. In my teens, I once worked as a dishwasher in a steakhouse in Canada. When a customer sent back a steak for being too tough, the cook tenderized it by throwing it on the greasy floor and stomping on it before putting it back on the grill. We were all of us, including the cook, young and immature and thought it hilarious. But I knew it was wrong and hence it has stuck in my memory.)

Chinese restaurant culture today has massively evolved and is scarcely recognizable next to the functional proletarian interiors of three decades ago and their grinding and scraping metal chairs and fluorescent lighting and no decor but for a hastily tacked-on photomural of a tropical landscape, and the raucous patrons who tossed their chewed bones and cigarette butts on the concrete floor.

Nowadays, the more downhome restaurants, called jiachangcai (homestyle cooking) or nongjiacai (farmhouse cooking), are clean and comfortable in a homey way, reminiscent of the reassuringly ordinary American diner. Behind the cashier you can still find a generous selection of strong spirits (baijiu) for customers who want to party a bit since traditionally, though there are bars, there is no bar culture in China; restaurants are where people feel at liberty to get drunk. I usually just grab a beer by opening the glass-paned refrigerator that stands near the cashier and pulling out my brew of choice (the waitstaff duly note this and add it to the tab), as if popping open a beer out of mom’s fridge back home — and refreshingly doing away with our stilted “Would you care for something to drink?” ritual. The Chinese though seldom start off with a beer before eating. They sensibly order their drinks to arrive along with the food so that they’re not imbibing on an empty stomach.

Homestyle restaurant in Ningbo, 2023. I’ve removed the cellophane from the sterilized saucer, bowl and spoon set.

Ordering in Chinese restaurants is disarmingly straightforward. As you sit down at your table, the waitress (they are almost always female) is already standing there awaiting your order. One person typically orders for everyone and selects a variety of dishes. But as almost all restaurants have gone digital, printed menus are rapidly on the way out. You now scan the QR code on your table and the menu pops up on your cellphone. Each dish can be enlarged for a clearer image. I personally dislike e-menus because the photos still remain uncomfortably small when confined to a cellphone screen. Not to mention the loss of more personalized service. In fact, since you pay for the meal at the same time you order it — China has been cashless for many years now — the only physical encounter you may have with the staff is when they bring the dishes. More gimmicky restaurants eliminate human contact altogether and send you your dishes on a wheeled robot.

Robot server in upscale Chinese restaurant (anonymous, Chinese internet)

China has also perfected fast food, as in fast, and without unnecessary gimmickry. The cafeteria-style restaurants known as shitang, particularly popular in southern China, have tapas-sized dishes laid out for the taking; some soups and stewed dishes are ladled out from big pots. The food is varied, cheap and delicious. Walk in, grab what you want and sit down; there is no cashier. While you’re attending to your food a server — if the term still applies — comes up, counts the dishes, scans your WeChat or Alipay QR code, and that’s it. The eating experience is seamless, with no extraneous movements expended or delays encountered other than the two seconds it takes to open your payment code.

From top: neighborhood shitang (cafeteria) in Ningbo; their local braised “rice fish” (红烧米鱼), greens and rice for about USD $5; waitress scans payment code on my cellphone; the cooks at their own table after the dinner rush hour

International fast-food chains operating in China have rushed to keep up with these digital developments as purchasing patterns shift to pre-ordering food for takeout or at digital kiosks in the store. Most of the country seems to have taken the art of laziness to an extreme and are avoiding the hassle of going out at all. Probably the majority of restaurant food, or close to it, is now delivered. I have seen people ordering a single bubble tea or Starbucks coffee for home delivery. This mass extravagance does have the advantage of providing employment for the legions of food delivery boys. It helps that you don’t have to tip them.

This brings us to our next observation, something North Americans will appreciate about dining in China (and not a few other countries): the absence of tipping and sales tax. The obverse of this is that you don’t have a dedicated server to ensure an optimal customer experience. China has come a long way in this regard as well. Around the turn of the century service began to emerge out of its era of awfulness (satirized in my short story Restaurant Time Warp) as the restaurant business, along with the very notion of customer service, boomed. I mean those days when waitresses would routinely deny any problems and argue with you. The dish is too salty or oily? “That’s how our customers like it.” The serving is too small? “No one else has ever complained about it.” The dish is 45 minutes late? (because they forgot to cook it). “They’re cooking it right now” (it never arrives). There’s a hair in the soup? The waitress picks out the hair and flicks it away. “No, there isn’t.” I saw female customers reduced to tears by tough waitresses who did not back down or admit fault.

The dish that never arrives remains one of the last vestiges of the bad old days and continues to plague even top-end restaurants. While service is now cheery (when you’re not dealing with bots) and waitresses will earnestly try to hunt down your dish if it’s unreasonably late, the problem is endemic to the way Chinese kitchens work. The order in which your dishes are served is essentially random and you have no control over it. If you’re in a group it doesn’t matter since dishes are all shared. The anticipatory surprise greeting each new steaming dish is even enjoyable. This frees up the kitchen to sequence by dish type rather than by table. They prefer to batch-cook popular dishes — killing many birds with one wok. You’ll likely receive one of these dishes soon. The less popular dishes may have to wait until there are several orders which can be then fired up in a batch. Regardless of how organized a kitchen is, someone’s dish inevitably gets lost in the shuffle and left behind. Restaurants today still are reluctant to admit they’ve forgotten your dish and will insist it’s coming right up, so that you won’t cancel it if you’re already full. The best tactic for speeding up a lost dish after you’ve finished everything else used to be to threaten to leave in five minutes if it hasn’t arrived. It would promptly arrive as soon as you got up to leave. But today, as you typically have to pay for your order at the outset, you’re stuck waiting and only in exceptional cases will they agree to refund your money.

The 2010s: state-operated restaurant in Beijing West Train Station (top), restaurant in Beijing’s 798 Art District (bottom)

Compounding the kitchen problem is the waitstaff service problem, who are not assigned to different tables but share all tables. The situation has improved in recent years as restaurants find it harder to hire waitstaff at the slave-labor wages of yore and the ratio of waitresses to customers has dropped. Fewer waitresses per restaurant paradoxically results in improved service since responsibility is less dispersed: when there are too many waitresses, they tend to stand around listlessly, assuming all tables are being attended to when they’re not. Diffused responsibility also dovetailed with the gruff, often outright hostile attitude toward service cultivated by communism, when everyone hated their job and just went through the motions. The Big Disconnect between one’s solipsistic universe and other human beings still infuses life in China in many ways. Customers have the bewildering habit of leaving the restaurant or cafe door wide open in wintertime upon entering and leaving, and neither they nor the waitstaff make any effort to close it. Inexplicably, no one seems to notice the blast of cold air rushing in. Then again, no one notices the foreigner who gets up to close the door. Well, I guess if it’s only a problem for us, it’s not really a problem.

Another example of the timeworn apathy that permeates the culture is the sudden, mysterious shuttering of restaurants. It’s somewhat understandable when a restaurant is forcibly closed and given twenty-four hours to vacate because a powerful or well-connected landlord has better ideas for using the space (an enormous share of urban real estate is owned and occupied by the army). More typically, if it’s a popular establishment, the rent skyrocketed when the lease was up. If the restaurant valued their customers, you’d think they would at least post a notice with an explanation or apology, along with contact info if reopening in a new location, but expressions of friendship toward a valued customer base are the exception. The general tenor is that all businesses are fly-by-night operations and it’s only by sheer fluke if your latest gig manages to survive past your next trip back home for Chinese New Year. Restaurants will close with no prior notice if they perceive a drop-off in patronage. They then reopen somewhere else in a new guise and menu for a fresh start. High staff turnover or walkouts due to bad management and low pay also churn this cycle. Customers in turn don’t feel much loyalty toward their favorite establishments. This gives Chinese restaurants a generic, interchangeable quality that represents the practical response to these complications. If one favorite place disappears, many others happily fill the void.

The Sichuan dish “Husband and Wife Lung Slices” (Kung Pao Chicken on the right)

But this is not to say that Chinese restaurants are all the same. On the contrary, there is no more colorful window into Chinese culture than its culinary industry. More interesting than the myriad existing books on Chinese cuisine and cooking would be a history, which remains to be written, of Chinese restaurants. They are in a constant state of flux and change and mind-boggling variation in the mad race to keep up with the latest food fads. Dishes that were standards in the ’90s — Boiled Pork in Spicy Soup (水煮肉), Shredded Pork and Garlic Sprouts (蒜苗肉丝), Husband and Wife Lung Slices (夫妻肺片) — are now hard to find, while Kung Pao Chicken (宫保鸡丁), Fish-Flavored Shredded Pork (鱼香肉丝), or Duck’s Blood and Beef Tripe in Spicy Soup (毛血旺) appear to be inviolable. Explanatory note: “Boiled Pork in Spicy Soup” was supplanted in popularity by “Boiled Fish in Spicy Soup” in the early 2000s. Though delicious, the garlic sprouts of “Shredded Pork and Garlic Sprouts” came to be regarded as too rustic. The bizarre-sounding “Husband and Wife Lung Slices” consists not of human lung but beef tongue, tripe, heart and head flesh steeped in chili pepper oil. “Fish-Flavored Shredded Pork” is not fish-flavored but cooked in the style of fish. “Duck’s Blood and Beef Tripe in Spicy Soup” is a challenging (for Western stomachs) stew of solidified duck blood, various parts of cow stomach (tripe, rumen, omasum), spam, squid (or eel) and soybean sprouts. Meanwhile, some dishes seem to have sprung up out of nowhere, such as Wanzhou-style broiled fish (万州烤鱼) traditionally from Chongqing, a whole fish broiled in a pan steeped in layers of vegetables and spices, which took the country by storm in the early 2000s. It is now a staple of most home-style restaurants and every city has restaurants devoted exclusively to its infinite permutations.

Wanzhou-style broiled fish with compartments for two fish seasoned in different styles

The restaurant revolution that erupted around the turn of the century involved much more than the proliferation of new dishes. Branding was discovered and everything was scaled up; chains multiplied and the size of restaurants ballooned. Whole buildings were not merely taken over; they were purpose-built by venture capitalists. Five, six, seven-story restaurants with each story more exclusive than the one below; restaurants with luxury spas occupying the upper floors; bathhouses with five-star buffets and star chefs and in-house prostitutes in private rooms; garishly lit seafood restaurants as big as American supermarkets; waitstaff on rollerblades and walkie-talkie headsets for instant relaying of orders. In the anti-corruption drives under Xi Jinping, we’ve seen a scaling back of these excesses. What continues into the 2020s are more incremental yet steady refinements of aesthetics and taste in both interior design and the culinary arts.

From top: outdoor dining in Shanghai, Nanjing, and Ningbo

At the lower end of the pecking order, small eateries, noodle shops, and portable vendors still crowd the streets, with the difference that sanitary regulations have imposed higher standards on the entire restaurant industry after years of scandals over the use of recycled “gutter” oil and other toxic or poisonous adulterants. In 2016 alone, 500,000 violations were reported by China’s Food and Drug Administration — they were the ones that were caught. The most shocking cases involved restaurants secretly poisoning the food of a rival restaurant to drive their customers away. You can’t entirely protect yourself when eating out except by not eating out. Recycled oil looks and tastes exactly like fresh oil; the carcinogenic toxins are invisible. From a business perspective, however, restaurants would be foolish not to use the cheaper recycled product. But in all fairness, unless your constitution is hyperallergic, and you stay away from the shabbier sort of food outlets, I don’t think your restaurant risks in China are greater than in any other country. The US is not exactly pristine when it comes to the multitude of toxins we consume in food products throughout our lives. Chinese food has one advantage in that dishes tend to be cooked by scalding, which succeeds in killing most bad bacteria and is why they traditionally avoid eating raw vegetables. I’m still alive anyway. I regularly eat out in China and have never experienced anything serious enough to send me to the hospital, though I came close once after a serving of Bacteria Fried Rice in Guangzhou back in 1990 that sent me to my hotel bathroom for the rest of the day.

Restaurant culture dominates life in China, and the Far East generally, to a greater extent than it does in the West. This is because people’s homes tend to be small and cluttered and not set up for entertaining guests. It’s rare for the Chinese to invite friends over for dinner and more logical to invite them out to restaurants. Accordingly, restaurants are outfitted with private rooms with large round tables and Lazy Susans for a more intimate setting. On more formal occasions, it would be unthinkable not to book a private room. Long dinners are often combined with singing in restaurants that have karaoke equipment, and it’s party time. Chinese restaurants don’t really have closing hours; they stay open until the last guests leave, and they may continue accepting new guests until very late. There is no clear demarcation between food-and-beverage and other entertainment establishments in China, leaving a fluid conceptual space that has spawned countless fascinating variations. I’ve mentioned luxury restaurants being combined with bathhouses and spas. In the early 2000s, I recall a nice cafe in a Beijing shopping mall next to a high-end massage venue, with a separate entrance in the cafe that opened directly into the massage shop’s lobby. I then found out that the cafe was owned by the massage shop. Also around that time in Beijing, there was a fad for 24-hour teahouses with tatami-lined private rooms ostensibly for the purpose of protracted business negotiations and yes, sexual negotiations too. North American restaurant culture is much more rigid and the only combining of different functions and spaces we have is the separate bar or lounge area for those who only want to drink or have a drink while waiting for a table.

Shaanxi Biangbiang noodles

Among the Puritans in Colonial America, talking was forbidden during the family dinner out of respect for the gift of food. Silent eating is still practiced by many in northern Europe. The Chinese believe that talking while eating is bad for digestion, not to mention the increased real risk of choking on food. But when it comes to socializing over dinner, these niceties are dispensed with among the Chinese. It’s a loud, intense affair, making repasts almost everywhere else in the world staid by comparison. The Chinese tend to find both Western cuisine and the Western dining experience intolerably dull. This can partly be blamed on food nationalism and ignorance. Food nationalism, or food ethnocentrism, is the belief held as commonsense that the cuisine of your own country is — surprise! — the best in the world. Indeed, next to the vast panoply of Chinese gastronomy, our meager culinary ambassadors in China — McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut — must seem pathetic, though there is a patronizing kind of soft spot for this peculiar snack food, as these chains have successfully been in operation in China since the ’90s. Many Chinese assume that American cuisine must be more varied and sophisticated than that. Yet when they travel to the US they usually turn out to be disappointed. This might have to do with the fact that restaurant choices in hotels and on the road tend not to go beyond so many variations on the sandwich.

From top: Muslim restaurant in Beijing just before lunch rush hour; their Lanzhou-style beef noodle soup and mutton skewers; Xinjiang-style mutton fried noodles in a Urumqi restaurant; Xinjiang nang flat bread (cognate with Indian naan bread)

Understanding the culinary culture of a new country requires patience, time and effort, and it takes experience to hunt down more distinctive food. The American palate extends far and wide, with regional dishes galore, innumerable variations on traditional European dishes, vegetarian and vegan alternatives, and over the past decades, an explosion of ethnic food brought to the country by immigration. To insist on what exactly constitutes “American” cuisine misses the point. It’s about the breadth of cuisines available, the internationalization of food, and the possibilities and opportunities for acquiring a cosmopolitan stomach. China has a comparably extensive culinary landscape of countless regional dishes, along with its many ethnic or “minority nationality” varieties in Yunnan, Tibet, Xinjiang and other provinces with their distinct flavors and spices. Chinese cities have a wide choice of Korean and Japanese, and increasingly, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants as well; Korean food has a long history in the country not as a foreign import but as a significant ethnic minority in China’s northeast. This infinite cornucopia is begging to be explored by foreigners in China with an interest in food, just as the rest of the world’s cuisines are waiting to be explored by Chinese who travel or live abroad. It’s not a contest among the world’s offerings or a question of replacing one cuisine with another. On the contrary, enlarging your palate deepens your appreciation for your own country’s cuisine. However, it takes a rare faculty to propel curiosity out of its comfort zone. A select number of Chinese living in the US manage enthusiastically to expand their palate beyond their homeland’s food to no detriment of the latter. For the rest, they wouldn’t touch the stuff and home-cook their own food exclusively. And equally sadly, there are all too many Western expats in China who aren’t able to deal with Chinese food for the same reasons; it’s not uncommon for those married to a Chinese spouse to eat separately from each other at home.

This brings us to the realization of how profoundly psychological a grip food has on us. Let’s say I’m a local male in China with good English who has invited you, a Western woman, on a date to a hotpot restaurant. I make small talk by saying, “I’m not like those usual Chinese guys who expects you to conform to traditional notions of feminity, and you don’t really need that bra of yours.” I’d guess you’d find my suggestion offensive, to say the least. If I said instead, “I can see you’re a little befuddled about how to eat hotpot but why don’t you give it a try?” With this suggestion, you surely wouldn’t have a problem. The actual food, however, would confront the same entrenched defiance, if not your outraged sensibility then deep down in your gut, especially if it involves things like pig neck, intestine, kidney and brain in a bubbling cauldron of chili-pepper oil, to mention some of the weirder delicacies hotpot lovers seek out. Strange food and sex are enigmatically conjoined in their implacable resistance to comprehension, and you recoil by plugging the pacifier of your ingrained habits and prejudices back in your mouth. Yes, let’s out with it: the less openminded you are about food, the less openminded you probably are about sex, and vice versa.

From top: rabbit head for home delivery; a suspicious-looking (to Westerners) Mutton Pot advertised with a brand of strong spirits, but the same image would have a more appealing connotation among locals in this Nanjing restaurant; likewise the snack food at this typical streetside stand (clockwise from upper left): duck heads, necks, wings, clavicles, claws, pig hoofs, chicken claws, duck hearts, gizzards, and thighs.

One thing that distinguishes Chinese cuisine from the rest of the world’s cuisines is the work involved in its consumption, and the most fanatically consumed dishes tend to be those that involve the most work. People’s fingers are very busy around the Chinese restaurant table, and not just with chopsticks. They don’t feel they are really feasting unless they are fiddling with skeletal structures, pulling apart the bones of animals and birds where they give at the joints, peeling away the shells and cartilage of crustaceans and fish, slurping out sheep shank marrow or the brains of a rabbit head, or nibbling away at the skin and tendons of spicy duck neck or chicken claws. This isn’t “work” but more of an almost sexual struggle. We also fiddle with bones — ribs, legs and wings — a vestige of our carnivorous past. But the Chinese go much further than we do in the excitement with which they dismember their food. Theirs is a more intense, tactile, primeval eating experience, further enhanced by the communal aspect of it, everyone sitting entranced and rapt around the shooting steam and flames of a hotpot or grill, worshipping and diving into the same food together.

My theory is that it’s the closest thing the Chinese have to a recreational drug culture. Nowhere is the use of recreational drugs such as marijuana, Ecstasy and psilocybin tracked down and punished more relentlessly than in East and Southeast Asia (Thailand excepted, with its newly relaxed cannabis laws; Uyghur restaurants openly sold the latter to foreigners — we all knew the Arabic word hashish — in the Ganjiakou and Weigongcun neighborhoods in Beijing in the ’90s until they were all cleared out and sent back to Xinjiang). In China, all drugs merge into one and are identified in the public mind with a hasty death and hence viewed as terrifying. But without quite realizing it, the Chinese are nonetheless drawn to mind-altering substances, as we all are. They seek out refuge from the harsh monotony of the day and find it in the restaurant and the feast. And I mean “mind-altering” here not in a metaphorical sense but literally so: the fragrant odors, the salivating expectation, the shock to the system of a massive dose of chili peppers, topped off with alcohol to generate a potent euphoric haze. Alcohol is seldom enjoyed for its own sake but is treated as an ingestible social lubricant and a more than adequate mind-altering one; it is the only legal psychoactive drug allowed (nicotine and caffeine don’t quite cut it). Of course, alcohol is a drug even if not identified as such in the Chinese mind, a gendered drug as well; only men are encouraged to drink to the point of inebriation, with their toasting rituals and regimens. Women take a risk in drinking at all, as it signifies to the males present a potential sexual openness. But they do have their mind-numbing Sichuan peppercorn and chili peppers, intoxicants of a worthy sort.

Spicy Crayfish (麻辣小龙虾)

A final few words are due on Western cuisine in China today. It has also come a long way. In the top-tier Mainland cities, above all Beijing and Shanghai, followed by Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing and other tourist centers, superb international cuisine now abounds. A sea change came in the 2010s when Western entrepreneurs, genuine gastronomes steeped in the restaurant business, pounced on China and launched stylish brewpub chains with shiny ceiling-high fermentation tanks (Great Leap Brewing, Jing-A Brewpub, Slow Boat Brewery, and Arrow Factory Brewing in Beijing; Boxing Cat Brewery and Stone Brewing in Shanghai), and beer varieties expanded well beyond weak Chinese lagers. Marvelous wine bars could be found within five minutes’ walking distance in almost any direction in the French Concession and Jing’an District in Shanghai. Italian restaurants brought their pizza up to international standards with Neapolitan flour and fresh tomato sauce, and locals learned not to slather pizza in ketchup and Tabasco sauce. Artisanal bakeries discovered whole-grain breads with textured crust and reduced sugar content (bread is regarded as a kind of cake rather than a staple in China). Coffee and coffeehouse culture burgeoned (borrowing heavily from South Korea’s vibrant coffee culture, as I document in The Classic Coffeehouse: Ten Essentials).

From top: Peiping Machine Taproom, Beijing; women ordering wine at Marina Kitchen, a steak and seafood restaurant in Ningbo; Margherita pizza, Grande Alimentari, Shanghai; pizza with cuttlefish-infused black crust, Cafe Groove, Beijing

For all these leaps and bounds, there is one remaining and seemingly insurmountable obstacle. I have yet to find a Western restaurant in China that has learned how to serve a table’s entrees at the same time. Surely they must know, or I imagine they must know, that we do not share our dishes and it is essential we are served together and no one is left waiting so that we can begin to eat. But it seems to be something they just cannot bring themselves to do. I don’t have experience running a Western restaurant in China, so I don’t what goes on behind the scenes (I do have years of working experience in restaurants in the US and Canada). I reckon it comes down to this. For one, it goes against everything Chinese cooks have been trained to do: timing a table’s dishes to be ready at the same time rather than churning them out one after the other results in a train wreck of confusion for them. Western cooks are trained in this at the outset so it comes naturally (though in reality not all of a table’s dishes are finished at exactly the same time; those done early are placed under a heat lamp until the others are ready). For another, Chinese servers likewise are not trained to carry the large food trays, capable of holding four or five entrees, that Western servers deftly balance on their shoulder; they prefer to hand carry just one or two dishes at a time. When trays are in evidence, it is not to bring the entrees to one table but to different tables. Now compound these challenges with “the dish that never arrives” syndrome mentioned above. I cannot enumerate all the occasions when at a Western restaurant in China one of us was served our entree twenty, thirty, or forty minutes after the other, and no amount of protest helped. It puts you in a bind: you can wait patiently for your partner’s dish to arrive while yours gets cold, or you can start eating at their insistence, eating slowly, very slowly, in the hope that their dish arrives before yours is finished.

A beloved wonton soup restaurant in Shanghai

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Other posts of interest by Isham Cook:

Insights into China (Part 1/3): A walk down the street
Insights into China (Part 3/3): A stay in a hotel
Restaurant time warp. A short story
The classic coffeehouse: Ten essentials
The Chinese-Japanese cultural chasm on display at Starbucks
Black forest cake blues: The customer service problem

3 replies »

  1. I enjoyed your piece on Chinese culture and food which brought back many memories and experiences. Based on the experience of cooks in China though, almost NONE of the actual cooks are culinary trained except in very high end restaurants, whereas in the U.S., even smaller restaurants often have a culinary trained chef in charge of the kitchen. Not having actual culinary trained skills and associated leadership in the kitchen is what leads to many of the problems you spoke of. One of the biggest is the issue of sanitary procedures like WASHING your hands with soap and water after taking a shit. Believe it or not, it is the fecal matter under the fingernails of the restaurant worker that often makes guests sick. I saw this many times in restaurants in Beijing where cooks would go into the bathroom and walk right past the sink on their way out and back into the kitchen. Another interesting situation back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s anyway, was that restaurant workers were actual SLAVES in the restaurant. They actually lived in the restaurant….sleeping on the floors or on the tables after the place closed up. I often wondered why there often was a shower nozzle in the bathroom of many restaurants…it was so the workers could shower standing in guest piss and whatever body fluids after work. And if they didn’t sleep in the actual restaurant they lived in LOCKED shabby dormitories somewhere and were only allowed one day a week to get away on their own.
    In Chinese culture, caring about customers in an actual friendly kind of way is simply a part of Chinese culture NOT to care about anything/anyone other than yourself and your family. Just look at the Chinese university experience whereas in western countries, bonds with the school and classmates/teachers often shape one’s entire life and connections are often made for many years later. In China there are no such warm and fuzzy connections with anything/anyone as universities are viewed as a stepping stone to get to another place in one’s life. There are no university class reunions because that place and those people have no logical purpose in their lives anymore.
    As for China becoming fantastically modern in their culinary pursuits and robots delivering food etc., what has been lost perhaps forever, is that most young Chinese today do not know anything about their culinary history OR how to actually cook any food themselves. Of course this is not just China in this ignorance and apathy towards their shared culinary history as many young westerners are just as lost. I realized that I knew more about Chinese cooking and history than most of my students when teaching in Wang Jing.

  2. Another very interesting and superbly written article which I really enjoyed reading thanks! I also appreciated the photos which I’m assuming you all took yourself. Please let me add my own two cents. 1) Your reminiscences reminded me of the first time I came to China and on one of my first trips around the country with a girlfriend came across a friend of hers, a beautiful girls in her twenties, who would repeatedly just spit on the restaurant floor in front of her, probably due to the level of spice in the hot pot we were sharing. This was in Chongqing in 2006 but wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing goes on today. Obviously whole books could be written on this topic, but the main factor is probably just culture and how it forms us, usually unconsciously. We are used to things being a certain way and it’s usually bad news when we don’t comply with them, so for me to go to a place where it seems I could almost do anything at the dinner table one feels a certain sense of freedom. It takes time to learn that in fact there are rules just like at home, it’s just that I was ignorantly ignoring them or still acting according to my own culture so just bypassing them unconsciously. Either way it’s fascinating to me and I think it can most obviously be seen with food. Take your point about the food not arriving all at once. In fact, there isn’t a ‘right’ answer here since you can make arguments for both methods. There is however a ‘right’ way in American and a ‘right’ way in China and knowing what these differences are is useful. 2) One other point I’d like to mention which I don’t think you touched on (at least didn’t emphasize) is the speed that food usually arrives in China. It always surprises me how quick meals can take and how quickly one can go from arriving to having the food in front of you. I realize this is sometimes because food is pre-prepared but that’s not always the case. It’s a rare restaurant in which I don’t have some (or all) of the food in front of me 5-10 minutes after ordering. 3) I was slightly surprised that you wrote that “The Chinese find both the cuisine and the dining experience in the West intolerably dull.” since this isn’t my experience (some do though for sure). I’d say the average Chinese restaurant is ‘lively’ but sometimes the restaurants I go to aren’t much different to ones at home. As with driving and walking in your previous article, standards and overall quality are improving rapidly. One of the strangest things about coming to China was being disappointed with the food. This is obviously partly because Chinese food has such a good reputation, but also because the standards just weren’t that good in the past. It’s rapidly changing though, and I could use several examples but only the other day went to an excellent Korean BBQ restaurant that I think anyone would be impressed by if they went to, with draft beer and a very reasonable price tag. This is why I agree with the Chinese that think that their “cuisine…is… the best in the world”. In fact, it is and I think that’s not really debatable (only contender would be France). That’s not really surprising though given that China is “a civilization pretending to be a country”. It’s more reasonable to compare Chinese food with food from a bigger region like European or SE Asian food imo.

  3. My habit in the eateries where you purchase a ticket at the counter was to look at what other customers were eating. If they were all eating noodles, I wouldn’t ask for dumplings even though they were on the menu. I figured the dumplings would take ages but the noodles would be quick. When I went to such a place with an unseasoned laowai who insisted on getting dumplings my suspicions were confirmed.

    Something else which occurs to me which could be added to the above is the Chinese non-understanding of vegetarianism. “But I ordered vegetarian!”
    “Yes it has vegetables, see.”
    “But meat too…”

    I’d like to add an anecdote about the sanitary habits and conditions of wait staff mentioned in the comment above. I have a Korean friend who opened two Korean BBQ restaurants in Shanghai. The wait staff he hired were all from the countryside. He paid them (in 2014) 3000 RMB a month, and provided them with dormitory accommodation and food. Not a bad deal. He said his biggest problem was getting them to wash their hands after going to the toilet. He told me this as I was chomping down in the restaurant but it wasn’t a surprise, I barely blinked. Describing them as people he said 心好但是习惯不好, They have good hearts but bad habits. I found this summing up quite memorable.

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