Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sinodining I

Have you ever wanted to order way more food than you could ever eat, loudly shovel food directly into your mouth, burp loudly, and spit bones and offal on the table or floor? No? Freud would call it denial, and I would just call you a liar. Of course we all want to, but Western culture represses us. The Chinese do not, which makes meals really fun. One drawback is that you must have a lot of faith in the table wiper, and at low end restaurants, I don’t. I’ve been to a range of places, ranging from street food to really cheap restaurants to fancy banquet halls. Nicer restaurant have tablecloths and more formality, but still support loudness and overordering. Initially, it seems kind of sloppy, until you realize it is just easier, more relaxing, and socially fluid. Which culture is more advanced: one that creates the illusion of order and grace through rules and disapprobation, or one that avoids unneeded constraints?

The Chinese are so perspicacious as to immediately notice that I don’t look like them. They don’t notice that I am nonetheless fluent with chopsticks. In most meals, they politely bring me a knife and fork, even though I am shoveling slippery noodles and peanuts like everyone else. I even drew two compliments on my chopstick skills. Yeah. Picking up slippery nuts is hard.

Waiters earn their title like nobody else. They just wait. While you are looking over your menu, they just stand there, patiently, until you order. This is unnerving at first, but you get used to it.

In the cheaper restaurants, all plates and cups are on the table, wrapped in plastic. They often serve 2 cups. One is for your tea, and they assume you will first pour in tea, rinse your glass, and pour it into another glass, because you don’t trust the dish cleanliness. Uh. Well, if the locals don’t trust it, then I sure don’t.

Many dishes are much cheaper out here. A full Beijing Duck with all the trimmings is about 9 euros. Tea costs 1 euro, as does a slice of fancy cake for dessert. A bottle of water is about 30 cents, and many filling meals cost under 4 euros. And these are prices in a sit-down restaurant. Oddly, though, across many different places, here and in Shanghai and Suzhou, cappuccino costs the same: 25 RMB, or a little under 3 euros, about the same as in Europe or America.

My parents often told me that customers in Hong Kong really liked fresh fish. Restaurants would have fish tanks, and you could point to the fish you want. I saw this happen. Then, the waitress brought the fish, still gasping and flopping, in a clear plastic bag to the table. The diners inspected it and nodded, and the fish was taken to its execution. A bit personal. Carnivorosity hinges on a strong separation between the horror inflicted on the victim and the pleasure of eating it in a sanitized and impersonal way. You can’t make people look at cows before eating them. (This was an old SNL sketch with Dan Aykroyd.) Ducks, maybe. I’d enjoy taking out the loudest quacking duck. Teach you to keep your mouth shut.

I had to adapt to the European tipping way – much smaller tips. I still tip more than the locals, and the recipients gracefully accept larger tips. The Chinese abhor tips. They expect a specific amount of money and get confused if you offer more. Admirably direct, but confusing.

Chinese toasts are much more hardcore than others. Rather than wishing you health or something abstract, their toast translates directly to a tangible, actionable order. Drain your glass. I’m told they will even sometimes look in your glass to confirm that you drained it. The American drinking game “You chug” is the closest equivalent, and it is only for college students who are alcoholic even by their standards. (And our old friend Chris Kanaar.) Unsurprisingly, Chinese drinking events are much shorter than Western ones. The table gets plastered within 1 or 2 hours and everyone goes home and pukes or collapses or whatever.

What would you guess is the most common dish in a Chinese restaurant? Assuming you are Western, you’ll probably answer “steamed rice.” They serve it with everything. It is a default side dish with most main dishes in Chinese and other Asian restaurants all over America and Europe. I haven’t seen it served once in China. Really. The Chinese eat very little steamed rice. They do have it with sizzling rice soup, but that is about it.

Pizza Hut and KFC are prevalent in China, like everywhere else. Like elsewhere, KFC is fast and cheap. Unlike elsewhere, Pizza Hut is a fancy restaurant. They are owned by the same company, and so I wonder why they decided to upgrade Pizza Hut in China. Perhaps they hoped that most Chinese don’t understand that “Pizza Hut” is pretty far from “Pizza Palace” or “Pizza Mansion.” “Hut” is closer to words like “shack”, “shanty”, “lean-to”, or “shithole.” At least the suits who made the decision didn’t also try to inflict Taco Bell out here, since it is also owned by the same company. Toxic Hell is widely considered among the worst of American fast food chains, barely above Whiskey Ted’s Puke Bowls. Perhaps that is unfair. Alcoholic puke can’t be that bad.

I did say, many times, that someone should open a Mexican food place, such as a taco shop or Chipotle, near a major university in Atlanta or many places in Europe. I was walking from my hotel to the Wudaokau subway station and passed “Avocado Tree Mexican Grill”. I told my newfound buddies about it while we cruised around the Temple of Heaven, and we were excited to go. Being a good tourist, I led my colleagues in prayer. We knelt before the Hall or Prayer for Good Harvest, clasped our hands in a Christian style prayer, and pled in English for a good harvest, just like the Buddhist monks surely did. It promptly rained, so we escaped to Pearl Market and then to Avocado Tree. The fuckers open on Tuesday, one day after I leave. To further taunt me, they let us go in, where we all agreed it is a blatant ripoff of Chipotle. They even have avocado. And it is much, much cheaper. I tried to bribe them into miracling some food right there, but no luck. We settled for curry.

Table of cultural dining norms






Spitting food

Totally cool


Nunca, cabron!

Is anyone watching?

Order delay

Waiter waits. At your table. Until you order….

Waiter unavailable; must yell or get lucky with gesture

Like Germans, but laid back about ignoring you

Waiter discreetly leaves until you decide, then helps


Order way too much

Order correct amount

Order tapas until full

Order way too much

Then what?

Waste it. Leftovers are for losers

There won’t be any restilessen. If so, waste leftovers

Yankee stupido, why did you order so much?

Doggy bag! If you can finish meal, you were underfed


Very polite (to foreigners)

Very polite. Please, thank you, would you like, etc

Waiter instead commands you to order: “digame”

Generally polite, like Germans. More chatty, though

Food to mouth


Half a meter

A little less

Is anyone watching?

Toast word(s)

Drain your glass




Toast action

Bang glass on table

Look each person in eye while clinking each glass

Much less formal

Look toward middle, clink glass in central mess


More popular in the south

Single chili flake produces tears

Similar. Spain ain’t Mexico

More popular in the south

Fish freshness

Fish alive until you pointed at him, asshole

See any map. Hope you like fish from river or Baltic Sea

See any map. Very fresh but often octopus

Varies by region; San Fran fresher than Denver

Free refills?

Unlimited hot water with each teapot

Don’t even have refills. New glass every time

No free refills; maybe a new glass

Free refills on tap water, most nonalcoholic drinks

Weird meats

You name it

Cow lung soup


Rocky Mtn Oysters

Table settings

Plastic wrapped

On plate, knives inside forks, lined up neatly

Similar but more variable

On table in specific pattern cuz Emily Post said so


OK, round-eye.

Default at Asian restaurants.


Default at Mexican or Asian restaurants.


Ubiquitous and cheap.

Fairly common. Pretty cheap

Don’t really know.

Yessuh. Why, we even have Kentucky!

Pizza Hut

Fancy. Also serves steak, Chinese food.

None. “American” pizza has corn, broccoli, salami


“Hut” is a glorification. Bad pizza and little else.

.5L water bottle

30 cents


€2, but cortados are better for €1

$2, and they always bring free icewater


About €3

About €3

About €3

About €3

Payment type

Cash is king. Fuck plastic

Cash or credit

Lo mismo

Cash or credit, but cash tip preferred


Did you misread the bill? Huh?

Round up to nearest euro

If that. Cortados are damn cheap

15-20%, unless they violate above

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