Micropolis: Mystery of the Chinese Double Menu

Monday, January 21, 2013 - 02:20 PM

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, Chinese 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.

Why not?

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 enough, a slew of “Putz”-based dishes does 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 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, but there are multiple discussion threads on, 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."

For more on Arun's forays through New York City, visit his Micropolis Tumblr.


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Comments [17]

Vanessa from Canada

I wonder if you read Andrew Coe's, Chop Suey, in which he thoroughly details how people in the Western world came to believe that dog meat is commonly served and enjoyed in China? This point may have been raised (and I am surprised went unchecked by Coe in a pre-published draft), in your article. Unfortunately, this unchecked point leads un-read readers to continue down a path of belief founded on racism.
I'm glad you included Madeline Leung's account, as it aligns to other empirical evidence of how other cultural things have been commodified to suit the market.
Though "authentic cuisine" is sought by "foodies," the varied deprecation of "Other" (social, economic, political...) continues to control presentation of identity. In this case, presentation in the form of two menus that will separately be valued (or at least retrieve adequate revenue) to maintain sustain business. If (or when) "real Chinese food" gains mainstream esteem, one menu will certainly be warranted since, really, it's too much work to maintain two divergent lists of ingredients, preparations, storage, etc... not unlike not being able to present as some sorta "authentic self." This does not preclude the fact that perhaps the "real Chinese menu" should be priced at higher points and those selecting from it should be willing to pay for its worth. What I'm getting at is this is not a one-sided issue of racism; there's internalized discounting of culture and ethnicity going on here. Yet, too often Chinese-identified foodies are willing to throw down top-dollars for an "authentic," say, French bistro... Or a place deemed worthy by Others.
Either way, this singular menu will, as through history, continue to shift with context.

Jan. 27 2013 05:14 AM
Henry Pau from Ottawa, Canada

Back in the 1970's I was the first Canadian Chinese family to move into an upscale Montreal West Island washpish neighbourhood (Wendy Chan whose voice you heard earlier may remember visiting me there.)

One problem I had was the neighbours' dogs and cats ruining my rose garden. Complaints brought no results, until one day I asked one of the neighbour's kids gently if she had ever heard that "Some Chinese eat dogs and cats".

Problem solved !

Henry Pau,

Jan. 26 2013 11:47 AM
Gayle in NYC from New York City

This reminds me of my experience renting a loft at 50 East Broadway in 1973. My landlord was the Lo Clan, and someone there recommended that I try the restaurant down the street (long gone) and ask for "house soup" ...not on the menu. House soup was the best, said my landlord. I went and assured the waiter that I did not want the menu printed in English, I wanted the house soup. So they brought it for me and my boyfriend, and then all the other Chinese patrons snickered while we gasped in horror at...chicken foot soup....a big bowl of broth with a wrinkled claw in the bottom of the bowl. I sent it back and asked for the regular menu. BTW, I'm now a vegetarian....could this be where it started? Hmmmmm.

Jan. 24 2013 03:55 PM

(I should hastily add that I would be shocked if such dishes were ever served in New York! I am referring only to what I know first hand about Asia. I kiss American soil, in part for its relative respect for its creatures, especially endangered ones -- as I'm sure do many Chinese and other foreign-born people living in America & for the same reasons.)

Jan. 24 2013 11:05 AM

High end (up to 1-10k per diner) restaurants in certain parts of Asia normally serve dog meat and monkey brains (among other things). In fact the chinese appetite for the monkey brains is wiping out whole subspecies across Southeast Asia. Meals of dog meat are actually common. I have no idea why your reporter would imply that such meals are fallacies, or judge them at all, as part of a story about Chinese restaurants having two menus. Five minutes of research online or by phone will enlighten the truth-seeker.

There ought to be a WNYC response (from the editor if not the reporter, at this point) to this, given that it is a popular story that is spreading misinformation.

Contorting news and cultural information in a "politically correct" direction can be both dangerous and boring and, if a piece is critiqued as such, ought be corrected or at least re-checked. Think of all the thousands of listeners who heard this piece and just rolled their eyes at the incorrect info rather than bothering to comment. I definitely applaud the reporter's enthusiasm, imagination and effort to cast a new light on something with which we are all familiar, a Chinese menu. But it does him or the station no favors to allow the story to morph into (what is being accused as) possibly deliberate misinformation.

Long-time watchful WNYC supporters -- not to mention critics or haters of public radio --ought not be presented with possible evidence of the common critique of WNYC and NPR -- that it promotes a worldview that, for reasons of naivety, politics, popularity, whatever, is overly PC-- even at the expense of explaining and dealing with some of the world's harsh realities.

Jan. 24 2013 11:02 AM
Loretta Chin

I was a little offended by the way this article was written. To allude to an old stereotype about Chinese people eating cats and dogs, and rumors of eating babies without any clarification to follow-up on dispelling them in their current context is irresponsible. Does this somehow allude to the idea that the double menu may have comparable items? I sometimes believe that yes indeed, it does matter who writes about a certain race or culture because only a person of that background would have the sensitivity and historical knowledge to write about it correctly.

Jan. 24 2013 02:08 AM

Just re-read your story again.

Contrary to the impression you give. It IS a tradition to eat dogs in some parts of Asia and WAS historically a larger tradition before the idea of dog as pet took of in that part of the region.


I wonder really-if this story is about you (the writer). If so, it would have been a much more authentic and sincere piece of you talked about how the actual menu and cultural practices in the "old country" can be embarrassing to a "assimilated" person living in NY.

Given the oversight about the dog and monkey brains-I can't help but wonder if this is the true impetus for you writing the story.

If so-it certainly would be an authentic angle for you to take.

Jan. 23 2013 05:27 PM

Interesting article up until the part where you suggest a film that shows the eating of Monkey Brains must be saying a culture is backwards. You are clear to say it is NOT and Indian tradition to eat Monkey Brians. O.K.

But it is a tradition in sections of the world to eat Monkey Brains-so much so that in Indonesia Monkeys are on their way to becoming a threatened species.

In trying to seem culturally sensitive you may have done the opposite. Are you saying that it is important for us to know it is NOT Indians that do it but some other group of people that "lessor"? Or are you saying that the tradition itself is something negative?

You may have over-reached and slightly soiled an otherwise pristine story.

Jan. 23 2013 05:17 PM
Stel from NYC

I was told my grandpa took all the boys (grandsons only since females are of no importance in the chines culture) to have monkey brains when they were young. It is supposed to make them smarter! I am so lucky to be a girl.

Jan. 23 2013 04:45 PM
Adam from Amsterdam

John Jung, that is precisely the set of racist assumptions that should push the double menu out of existence. You are assuming what I will or won't eat based on my ethnicity, something you have no right to do. It's insulting. Your "valid purpose" is to exclude me from dishes that you've decided I don't have the right to eat.

Jan. 23 2013 03:07 PM

How do we first judge an ethnic restaurant? We look around at the customers. If a Chinese restaurant has a lot of Chinese customers, it's probably going to be a decent Chinese restaurant, if at least somewhat authentic. Chinese people make this observation as well. New York has a huge Chinese population, and judging by the customers in many restaurants in Flushing, they don't really need non-Chinese speakers to help with their business.

It may sound slightly racist, but a lot of Chinese restaurateurs simply don't think that non-Chinese people can appreciate or understand the cuisine. I'm not saying that they don't have anything to gain from being more open, but I am suggesting that it will take more than instagramming "foodies" to change their minds.

My parents were serial Chinese restaurateurs in upstate New York and while they didn't have lines of Chinese customers to warrant a second menu, they certainly integrated the more authentic dishes as weekly specials. They knew their audience, but they were also experimenting with ethnic exposure.

Jan. 23 2013 02:26 PM

i'm indian and i can tell you what i get at most indian restaurants wouldn't be what i'm eating normally at home. We don't necessarily have a second menu but what you get served at restaurants is more feast/celebration type of meals, not every day meals. also, cuisine varies greatly in India but outside of major cities, you probably don't get access to all of that.

Jan. 23 2013 01:58 PM
Anne Mendelson from North Bergen, NJ

Sometimes though not always, the Chinese-language names are very difficult to render in English, especially considering that Chinese-English or English-Chinese dictionaries are absolutely hopeless on food terminology and the families running Chinese restaurants in immigrant neighborhoods don't have the time, leisure, or skills to figure out graceful translations. If you can make out some of the characters, you won't be at a total loss reading English entries like "oatmeal vegetable" (for "mei cai," a kind of preserved vegetable) or "air pot chicken" (chicken steamed in a particular kind of pot with an internal spout for condensing the steam).

Jan. 23 2013 10:49 AM

? You mixed stereotypes and interesting points with *mis* information in order to make "foreign" food sound less mysterious and more "maligned" than it really is.

Second "white meat" menus for non-Chinese? Rude.
Dog meat and monkey brains on Chinese menus -- just racist stereotypes promoted by small-minded westerners? Obviously you haven't been to an expensive Asian restaurant! Whole sub-species of monkeys and dogs are dedicated to menus.
Interesting story but please don't be overly quick to make the whole world sound benignly homogeneous.

Jan. 22 2013 07:59 PM
Alison Clark from Queens

Many Thai restaurants in the city will also have a second menu, but are much more discreet about it. (EG, you have to ask for the Thai menu.) I expect this is most likely due to a perception that Americans can't handle very spicy dishes.

Jan. 22 2013 04:59 PM
John Jung from California

In places where there are large Chinese populations, consisting of many who can read Chinese but not English, it makes sense to provide a menu written in Chinese for them. Furthermore, many dishes on the Chinese menu are ones that most non-Chinese would not eat due to unfamiliarity. The double menu is not simply the same dishes written in English and Chinese versions but serves a valid purpose. You don't find a need for double menus in American-Chinese restaurants, the kind that serve Americanized Chinese dishes.

Jan. 22 2013 02:14 PM
Erik from Brooklyn

Dog meat in Chinese cuisine is no rumor. Cities like Meizhou in southern China take pride in their dog dishes. Morally, I have no problem with this as long as the dogs are raised humanely.

Jan. 22 2013 09:00 AM

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