Sunday, August 16, 2009

how to order Taiwanese brunch

(Xue Cai Rou Si Mian)

So, as many young ABCs (American Born Chinese) may attest to, it seems that there is one thing that we will never fully grow into as adults. We may figure out how to file our own taxes and buy a used car, but having that true Chinese restaurant experience - the kind we used to despise when we were dragged along by our parents - that's extremely difficult to achieve.

My goal with this post is to encourage and empower anyone who feels this way to rediscover that Chinese restaurant experience. I am focusing on Taiwanese brunch - my personal favorite - and please understand that I am only talking about the kind of Chinese restaurant that's known to have a following of Chinese people (in Boston, this would include Shangri-la in Belmont, Mulan in Cambridge, and Chung Shin Yuan in Newton. It would not include "The Kong" - home of the Scorpion Bowl - in Faneuil Hall).

Truthfully, the first barrier is probably your company. Most likely you are not arriving at the restaurant in the company of three generations of chatty Chinese/Taiwanese family members. Most likely you are with a diverse group of friends from school or work, or a significant other who may or may not be Chinese.

What will happen is that the restaurant's host/hostess - who likely also serves 6 tables and makes the dumplings - will give you a once over, determine there is no Chinese-literate person in the group (correctly, in my case), and grab a handful of "American menus".

When you sit down, you must ask. "Do you have a Chinese menu? Can I please have one?" (Say it in English, if you'd like.) And it's ok to ask for glasses of water all-around. We all know Taiwanese brunch can get spicy, and it is difficult to chug hot tea (though no, Chinese people don't really drink glasses of water, especially not with ice in it). Also, don't forget to ask for chopsticks if they were removed from your table before you sat down.

The reason you want the "Chinese menu" is that it has more delicious stuff...the good, the interesting, the authentic stuff. I still haven't figured out why they leave all this off of the American menu, but in most places I've seen, they do (I hardly ever see preserved duck egg with tofu on the American menu). Note: the "Chinese menu" often has English words on it, too - you will know that you have the "American menu" if it is Saturday brunch time, and your menu has something like "Stir-fry Beef with Broccoli" on it.

So now you have the Chinese menu, which, of course, presents all types of potential language problems. Most often, the menu items will be written in Chinese characters, with English descriptions to the right. The issue is that the English descriptions are not very helpful - for instance, steamed pork bun could mean little steamed buns with translucent wrappers (xiao long bao), or big steamed pork buns with vegetables and fluffy white exterior (cai rou bao). Some restaurants excel at the first (xiao long bao done well means the bun actually bursts with broth when you bite into it), and it's a must-order. But if a restaurant is not known for this dish, you can rest assured it won't be pretty - better not to order it.

What helps the situation is that many of us ABCs, while illiterate, do a decent job of listening and understanding Chinese. As such, we can read and decipher Pinyin (the phonetic approach to Chinese using, well, our Roman ABCs). True, no restaurant would ever bother to write out their menu items in Pinyin, but I also have very nice parents who have done exactly this for the Taiwanese brunch menu at one of their favorite restaurants:

Please click here to download three pages (PDF) of delicious Taiwanese brunch menu items, written in Chinese characters, and translated into Pinyin with English descriptions.

So with this handy guide, you can be totally self-reliant the next time you need to order yourself some tasty Taiwanese brunch. For anyone who can read Pinyin, this reference tool should be very helpful; for those of you who are English only, hopefully this will be somewhat helpful (should you ever end up at a place with a Chinese-only menu).

Crispy Sesame Pan Cake and Chinese Fried Dough, anyone? (Yep - that would be shao bing, you tiao - yum).