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Top 100 Chinese Restaurant Awards, and more


Fat Guy
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The following is a true story.

A couple of years ago when I was writing my Asian Dining Rules book I was in a Chinese restaurant and I spied, behind the cash register, a copy of a magazine called Chinese Restaurant News. I asked to look at it and, although the thing turned out to be in Chinese, I was able to extract an email address.

This led me to Betty Xie (pronounced "shi-eh" or close to that), the editor-in-chief of Chinese Restaurant News, which is the industry journal for America's 43,000+ Chinese restaurants. I interviewed her and, in addition to an actual interview I included in the book, I found her to be a wealth of information about an industry that -- on account of the language barrier and the fact that the bulk of Chinese restaurants are small family businesses without publicists, investor-relations departments, public filings, etc. -- can be tricky to research.

A little less than a year after that (this takes us to a little over a year ago), Betty invited me to something at the Javits Center in New York called the Top 100 Chinese Restaurants in the USA awards, followed by a gala banquet at the New Yorker hotel. I had never heard of the Top 100 Chinese Restaurants in the USA awards, but the invitation indicated that this was the fourth annual iteration of said awards. I thought to myself, "It's going to take a long time to give out 100 awards." (We call this "foreshadowing.")

It was a spectacle of expectation-shattering proportions. The area of the Javits Center that was set aside for the awards ceremony -- and as you can imagine it was a large area -- could not contain the crowd. Martin Yan was there to present the awards, as was Miss Asia. It turned out that the Top 100 is a bit of a misnomer. It's actually the top 100 restaurants in each of 10 different categories (e.g., buffet, takeout, Chinese regional cuisine). This makes sense from a taxonomy standpoint, because you don't have buffets in Ohio competing in an apples v. oranges showdown with Grand Sichuan International in New York. Needless to say, giving out 1,000 awards takes a lot longer than giving out 100 awards, especially when the owners of each winning restaurant need to be photographed with Martin Yan and Miss Asia. Incidentally, I say Miss Asia singular because that's how it was represented, however there were actually six or seven Miss Asias in attendance representing various subdivisions of Asia. Miss India was particularly winsome. At the time I thought about using a photo of me with Miss India as the jacket photo for my book, but we opted to go with a cover design that didn't include a photo.

The banquet was even more of an off-the-hook happening than the awards ceremony. It was like a cross between a wedding, an inauguration ball and a variety show on Chinese-language cable television. There were something like 10 very good courses of food and an incredible amount of beverage served to hundreds of people, and my editor Gail and I were I think the only two non-Chinese-speaking people in the room. All the speeches, videos and later the karaoke, were in Chinese. Occasionally I could pick out English words like, "New York City!" or "Martin Yan!" I kept thinking, "This spectacle is occurring here and no white people know about it."

At the time I wrote a short front-of-the-book piece about the awards for a magazine (which I think still hasn't been published). In researching that story I learned a little about the awards process. A restaurant applies for an award and, presumably, pays a fee to cover the evaluation process. A "mystery diner" working for the AboutFace corporation visits the restaurant anonymously and files an extensive report, which forms a big percentage of a restaurant's score. There's also a consumer-feedback component and an editorial panel that evaluates the restaurant based on reputation, standing in the industry, etc. All these numbers are crunched together and the rankings come out of that.

This past October my book came out. Soon after, Betty Xie contacted me and said she wanted to do a story in Chinese Restaurant News on me and the book. She interviewed me and a few weeks later the November issue of Chinese Restaurant News arrived in my mailbox. Some time in the course of the previous year or two, I had kind of forgotten that the magazine is in Chinese. Here's an idea of how the article looked:

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I thought it might be culturally insensitive to be as amused by seeing myself giving an interview in Chinese as I was, however I showed it to several Chinese people and they assured me they found it even more bizarre and hilarious than I did.

Shortly after that, Betty contacted me again. The fifth annual awards were coming up and, she said, they're really planning to up their game this time (Chinese Restaurant News and its parent company, which also publishes several other industry magazines, are the driving force behind the awards). The awards ceremony and gala were to be held at the Rio hotel in Las Vegas. And, most relevant to me, they wanted to publish a dining guidebook covering all the award-winning restaurants, in English, and they wanted me to be the editor.

It seemed like a fun opportunity, so I said yes. Within days I started getting emails from various staffers at Chinese Restaurant News, including one asking what flights I wanted to be on in order to give my speech in Las Vegas. What speech in Las Vegas, you may ask? I had no idea and, as I write this, I will be giving the speech in about 40 minutes and I'm still not quite sure what it's about. I mean, I know it's about the book but I'm not exactly sure what I'm expected to say.

Then again, I was not sure what I was expecting to say last night either. At the welcome cocktail reception, Betty Xie got up to speak in Chinese. What I heard was along the lines of, "chinese... chinese... LAS VEGAS... chinese... chinese... RIO HOTEL!... chinese... chinese..." and then, ominously, "...chinese... chinese... DINING GUIDE... chinese... chinese... EDITOR... chinese... chinese... STEVEN SHAW!" All of a sudden she's motioning for me to come up on the stage. She thrusts a microphone into my hand and whispers "Say something Steven." So I give a little impromptu speech about what we're doing, then people applaud, then someone comes and gives my speech again, in Chinese. More applause.

I go down to get off the stage and go get a drink, and a Chinese couple comes up to me. The matriarch says they own a restaurant in South Carolina, can she have a photograph with me? Sure, I say. So her husband photographs her with me, then she photographs her husband with me, then someone else photographs all three of us. By now a small line has formed of people wanting to be photographed with me. I estimate I was photographed with about 70 different people. It took about 40 minutes.

I have to go give my speech now. I'll check in later with an update if I can. For now, I'll leave you with a page from the event brochure.

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As I mentioned at the beginning of this post: all true.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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As I walked down the 1,000 miles of convention-center hallways between my hotel room and the conference room where I was to give my talk, I noticed many things, two of which were these nice washer-drier sets:

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It seemed odd to me that there would be washers and driers in the hallway of the convention center, but you see a lot of strange stuff in Las Vegas and I was in too big a rush to bother investigating.

In addition to the audience for my talk, we had a videographer, photographer, translator, sound engineer, IT team . . . if you have any interest in seeing video of the talk I'm sure that can be arranged. Mostly what I did was explain the dining guide book project to a small group of restaurateurs (I was competing against the healthy-dining panel in the other conference room, which I'm sure was more interesting than my talk -- although I did notice Miss Asia, one of them at least, checking out my talk).

Here I am giving my presentation:

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What I'm showing here are some of the very early mock-ups of pages from the book. I've only done the editorial work on about 20 restaurants thus far because most of the effort has had to be frontloaded in furtherance of developing a system for presenting the information: what graphical icon will we use to represent Sichuan cuisine, how will we say "12:00pm" (we went with "Noon" I'm pleased to say), etc. It so happens that one of the restaurants up on the display here (New Ruan's, in Brooklyn) is owned by two of the people I posed with for photos last night. They seemed nice.

Not every restaurant listed in the book gets a whole page like this -- it won't be a 1,000 page book. Every restaurant that has won a Top 100 award gets a short ten-to-a-page listing (not shown here) and has the option of upgrading to a full-page listing. I'm not sure how much that costs, but the idea is that the awards-determination process is impartial but once you've got an award you can buy a bigger entry in the book. This is basically the book's business model (though also they hope to sell copies, of course, and there is the additional hope that the existence of the book will make even more restaurants interested in competing for Top 100 honors in the first place). I'm not involved in the business side of all this -- I'm just editing the book and making a few of the project-management-type decisions. Plus I come to Vegas to give talks about it and such.

I noticed a lot of the conventioneers taking photographs of the various pieces of signage -- they were photographing everything -- so I figured I'd at least photograph a sign on which I was mentioned:

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In the next space over from where I gave my talk was the exhibit hall. A number of companies that provide the Chinese-restaurant industry with products and services were there: a credit-card processor, an environmental consultant, the Lee Kum Kee soy sauce company and many more. Were it not for the rules against transporting liquids on aircraft I could have come home with enough soy sauce to last me until the year 2309, because the quantity of soy sauce in a sample jug intended for restaurant use is approximately equal to the amount of soy sauce I use in three centuries.

There was a fruit-carving booth too. That's fruit. Really.

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There was also a panel discussion chaired by Robert Danhi, a chef, consultant and culinary educator who is absolutely revered in the Asian-restaurant community. Not as revered as Martin Yan, but right up there. The guy knows a lot. This particular panel was on environmental practices and the data he provided were fascinating: there are approximately 1,000,000 restaurants in America, each one uses on average 300,000 gallons of water and produces 50,000 pounds of waste a year. He and the experts on the panel made a compelling case for the financial and societal benefits of cutting those numbers in half, which they say is not terribly hard to do with current technologies and best practices.

I was only able to catch a bit of the healthy-dining panel because it overlapped with my talk. The one part of it that I thought was incredibly interesting was one of the early PowerPoint slides captioned "What's 'Healthy' to Americans?" The thing people coming from Chinese backgrounds don't know is, fundamentally, what Americans think constitutes healthy food. Because, from the Chinese perspective, the considerations are completely different. American perceptions of healthfulness are all about calorie counts and steamed foods, whereas the Chinese paradigm is much more oriented towards balance and moderation.

I finally found out what the washer and drier thing was about, too. Turns out, the other half of the convention space is being used by Sears for a corporate event of some sort. So there are LG appliances here and there in the convention center hallways, presumably because LG is a big brand with Sears or whatever. The thing that struck me when I saw a bunch of the Sears people line up at their snack buffet was that here we have like a thousand thin Chinese-Americans on one side of the convention center and a thousand fat non-Chinese-Americans on the other side, yet the non-Chinese-Americans think they have a better idea of what constitutes healthy eating.

Cool tie, FG!

Seigo Katsuragawa limited edition.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Then again, I was not sure what I was expecting to say last night either. At the welcome cocktail reception, Betty Xie got up to speak in Chinese. What I heard was along the lines of, "chinese...chinese...LAS VEGAS...chinese...chinese...RIO HOTEL!...chinese...chinese..." and then, ominously, "...chinese...chinese...DINING GUIDE...chinese...chinese...EDITOR...chinese...chinese...STEVEN SHAW!" All of a sudden she's motioning for me to come up on the stage. She thrusts a microphone into my hand and whispers "Say something Steven." So I give a little impromptu speech about what we're doing, then people applaud, then someone comes and gives my speech again, in Chinese. More applause.

I go down to get off the stage and go get a drink, and a Chinese couple comes up to me. The matriarch says they own a restaurant in South Carolina, can she have a photograph with me? Sure, I say. So her husband photographs her with me, then she photographs her husband with me, then someone else photographs all three of us. By now a small line has formed of people wanting to be photographed with me.

hilarious.

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I'm at the airport about to get on the plane. I'll try to assemble some further notes on the plane with whatever battery and brain power I have left -- not much -- but I wanted to leave you with this photo of me at the black-tie gala on the red carpet with three of the Miss Asias . . .

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Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I wondered what that Top 100 Chinese restaurant award was all about.

A few weeks ago, on our way home from visiting family, we found ourselves at a Chinese buffet in a tiny town in rural Arkansas (we had planned the lunch stop around a barbecue joint, but it was closed on Sunday). The buffet had a big sign by the toilets announcing its Top 100 award.

(For the record, it was no worse than a lot of other buffets. Using Steven's handy tips and advice, I managed to get a pretty decent meal. Alas, the top item was fresh fried catfish coated with cornmeal. Not a surprise in Arkansas, but not exactly Asian.)

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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That must have been Q & Y Buffet. There's actually a website for the Top 100 that's pretty comprehensive, if you want to search for winners in your area.

I think the Top 100 process makes a lot of sense -- more sense than, say, a pure public-opinion poll like Zagat -- but it has some limitations, for example the mystery diners are going to be dozens of different people and, as much as they try to hew to common standards, that can introduce some variance. It would be far preferable for them to send me to each of the restaurants for a personal, expert, consistent evaluation. Maybe I could get a Top 100 logo painted on our Honda Odyssey, and I could wear the tux to inspections.

It was impossible to get anything done on the plane on account of screaming babies, bizarre seatmates and a dying battery. And now today is slipping away so I may not get to type up the last of my notes until much later. One piece of good news, however: while waiting for the plane I ran into one of the world's greatest event-photographers, Lia Chang, and she has promised to email me a few photos including a much better one of me with the Miss Asias.

Have you slimmed down a bit?  Or is it PhotoShop.

Ever since I became a vegan, the pounds have been shedding.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Any way we could get a translation of the article on you in the Chinese Restaurant News?

Also, as you work on editing the book, are you running into any issues with being an "outsider"? Not only are you not Chinese, you don't even speak Chinese.

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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Any way we could get a translation of the article on you in the Chinese Restaurant News?

Yes, I actually have a solid English-language version of that interview. For those who want to read it in the original Chinese, it should be somewhere on the Chinese Restaurant News website: http://c-r-n.com/

Steven A. Shaw is the author of the new book "Asian Dining Rules: Essential Strategies for Eating Out at Japanese, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Korean, and Indian Restaurants" (William Morrow, 2008) and the book "Turning the Tables: The Insider's Guide to Eating Out" (HarperCollins 2006). He is the founder of the phenomenally successful eGullet.org website, a James Beard Award-winning food critic, and a contributor to Saveur, Crain's New York Business and many other publications. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.

Could you tell us about your new book "Asian Dining Rules"? What is the book about?

Asian Dining Rules is a consumer's handbook for enjoyment of Asian restaurants. It's not a collection of restaurant reviews and it's not a book about Asia. Rather, it takes readers through the basics of different Asian-restaurant cuisines they might encounter here in North America. The book covers Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian and Indian cuisines. It contains everything from advice on how to behave in a sushi bar to a discussion of why consumers shouldn't be afraid of MSG.

You have been a "fan" for Chinese food since childhood. Can you share with us what's your perception of a good "Chinese restaurant"?

I've been eating Chinese food since before I could walk, and have probably eaten more Chinese food than most Chinese people. I love Chinese food and think it's some of the best food in the world. To me there are two types of great Chinese restaurants. One way to be a great Chinese restaurant is to serve interesting food that's different, like regional Chinese food (Sichuan, Shanghainese, etc.) that you don't see on the typical American Chinese menu. The other way to be great is to serve the standard menu but to cook it better than everybody else. The restaurant with the best pork fried rice is a great restaurant to me.

What was your worst dining experience like in a Chinese restaurant? What was a good one like?

My wife and I walked into a Chinese restaurant in Gastonia, North Carolina, and the place was so dirty and dark that we left without even eating. The next year, when we drove through the same town, the restaurant was gone. My favorite experiences are when I'm in a smaller city and I stumble upon amazingly good Chinese food, like I did a couple of years ago at Sun Luck Garden in Cleveland.

Do you choose to go to a Chinese restaurant because you like the food or because it's convenient, or because you know the owner?

I choose based on food. Just today I drove for an hour in traffic just to have the Chinese food I like. But I think most consumers choose based on a combination of convenience and price. I think that's the economic force that's holding back the Chinese restaurant business in North America: Chinese restaurants are trying to be cheaper than each other, which in the long term is a losing game both from a business standpoint and a public perception standpoint.

What are the most popular Chinese dishes (entrees) to you, (from a diner's perspective)? Why? Is there an "authentic Chinese" dish that appeals to you? If so, what is that?

I see a lot of people ordering hot and sour soup, egg rolls, spare ribs, cold sesame noodles, fried rice, lo mein, beef with broccoli, sweet and sour pork and sesame chicken. These seem to be some of the most popular dishes in New York City where I live. Myself, I'm currently exploring Sichuan food. I've been eating a lot of dan-dan noodles, Sichuan dumplings with hot chili oil, kung pao chicken (the truly spicy kind made with lots of hot peppers and Sichuan peppercorns), twice-cooked pork (I like it fatty the way Chinese people like it) and tea-smoked duck.

What are your expectations of a Chinese restaurant, in terms of food, service, ambiance(decor), and cleanliness?

It really depends on location. In Chinatowns and areas where restaurants serve a lot of Chinese customers, I expect interesting regional Chinese food with efficient service (though the servers may not speak English well) and a minimum of ambiance. In my experience these establishments tend to be the least clean but have the best food. In more mainstream areas when I enter a Chinese restaurant I predict I'll see a boring Americanized menu, the place will be clean and attractive and the servers will have better English. But I'm always hoping to be pleasantly surprised by interesting and well-made food.

What's your comment on the fact that other Asian restaurants, like Japanese and Thai, have won more popularity than Chinese restaurants in the past decade?

American consumers perceive Japanese and Thai cuisines as light, non-greasy and exotic. Those perceptions are perfectly in line with modern preferences. Whereas, many perceive Chinese cuisine to be heavy, greasy and predictable. All of these perceptions are false. There is plenty of heavy, fried, boring Japanese food and plenty of light, interesting Chinese food. Chinese chefs are incredibly talented. But there has not been a successful, coordinated effort to change these perceptions.

What aspects do you think Chinese restaurants should improve as a priority task; or how can Chinese restaurants better compete with Thai or Japanese restaurants?

Chinese restaurants should stop trying to undercut each other on price and instead start competing against other types of Asian restaurants on quality. That means more than just adding a sushi bar or putting Pad Thai on the menu. It means emphasizing Chinese dishes that are more in line with modern tastes – I think there are a lot of excellent regional Chinese dishes that are being overlooked by most Chinese restaurants but that American palates could be taught to enjoy. This isn't an effort that will succeed overnight. It's a long-term strategy that will require a lot of patience, cooperation and investment.

Also, as you work on editing the book, are you running into any issues with being an "outsider"?  Not only are you not Chinese, you don't even speak Chinese.

A lot of the source material I've been provided with started in Chinese and then got translated into English -- sometimes not particularly well. So that requires some effort to comprehend, and occasionally I have to call a restaurant up and ask some questions (for that, it would be helpful if I spoke Chinese, but I've done fine in English so far -- after all, the people who run most Chinese restaurants in North America have to deal with English-speaking customers all the time). There's also an online editing interface I use for the database that drives the book, and I'm pretty sure it was designed by a team of Chinese programmers in China. Early on, that led to some confusion that took a week or so to sort out. Luckily, I have access to a team of three Chinese Restaurant News editors in California who have excellent English (and presumably excellent Chinese, since they publish a magazine in Chinese) and they answer my emails comprehensively and quickly. Even if it's 3am, I can usually catch one of them on instant messenger.

Not that anybody on the project has treated my as an outsider but, culturally, my outsider status hasn't been a problem. I think it's actually part of the point of bringing me on rather than doing the project in-house with their own bilingual team: they want the English-language voice of the book to be as natural, native and colloquial as possible. When we started the project one of the first things we talked about was making sure there would be no "foreign-sounding English" anywhere. We developed a style sheet to help avoid common Chinese-menu language mistakes like mismatched singulars and plurals, etc. So far the entries we've completed read pretty well to me.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I should clarify something, because I've had several PMs and emails along these lines: I'm not responsible for selecting the restaurants that will be included in the guidebook. The restaurants have all been selected through the Top 100 awards process, with which I am not directly involved. I'm just compiling and editing the information. If a restaurant wants to make it into the book, the process of applying for an award begins here.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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"This spectacle is occurring here and no white people know about it."

I think this pretty much every time I step out my door and look around my neighborhood. :biggrin:

Because, from the Chinese perspective, the considerations are completely different. American perceptions of healthfulness are all about calorie counts and steamed foods, whereas the Chinese paradigm is much more oriented towards balance and moderation.

This is a phenomenon I have witnessed again and again throughout my travels in Asia. Westerners will joyfully eat something merely because it is delicious, like cheesecake or pizza; and while we know it's a caloric dirty bomb, most people shrug it off.

In Asia, on the other hand, people will joyfully eat something merely because it's healthy. I can't count the number of times when I've been confronted with a table full of live octopuses/silkworm grubs/cobra hearts/deer antler wine and asked, "So...why are we eating this?" and been met with, "Good for health!"

I've heard it so often it used to be my signature line.

Of course this is a gross generalization, and all kinds of westerners eat only healthy things, and lots of Asian people eat cheesecake, but there is definitely a cultural difference in the way we perceive healthy food. In Asia, you can offer a wider array of foodstuffs to people and sell them on it by outlining the health benefits; in North America, I feel confident in saying that no amount of discussion of increased sex drive will induce your average man to eat bugs.

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Please forgive the attempt at sarcasm. I am still very much a dilemma-free omnivore.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Please forgive the attempt at sarcasm. I am still very much a dilemma-free omnivore.

Christ almighty, you had me worried. I'll sleep easy in my bed tonight now.

Please accept my apologies for not spotting said sarcasm. Now, back to our regular programming...

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Whereas, many perceive Chinese cuisine to be heavy, greasy and predictable. All of these perceptions are false. There is plenty of heavy, fried, boring Japanese food and plenty of light, interesting Chinese food. Chinese chefs are incredibly talented. But there has not been a successful, coordinated effort to change these perceptions.

While I agree with this in principle, the reality is that it's true - much Chinese restaurant food is heavy, greasy and precictable, and I find that the Chinese food I cook at home is, in many cases, light years better than that which I am the recipient of in about 99% of the Chinese restaurants we dine at.

Having immediate access to Chinatown (for those hard-to-find ingredients) as well as access (outside of Chinatown) to fine meats and vegetables both local and from afar makes it somewhat easy, as does having a really nice cookbook collection, including some of the old classics (Irene Kuo) as well as some modern ones (Fuschia Dunlop).

But it's the cheap ingredients, poor technique and excessive use of oil that really gets me. A long time ago I learned to avoid stir frying when ordering in a restaurant, because that's where the oil use really shows...why do you need 1/4 cup of oil to stir fry a dish for two? In a wok that is basically non-stick? And when an ingredient is fried, it can come out basically greaseless, but never does.

So, I'll continue to eat in Chinese restaurants, ordering roasted meats, braised dishes, dim sum, soups and the occasional noodle dish or sauteed vegetable. But I long for the day when we can go to a Chinese restaurant and expect the same care with the cooking, and the same care with the ingredient selection, that I expect at all the places where we dine out.

Thanks for helping to start us on the right path, SS.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

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Steven, this is a truly fascinating adventure. Thanks for sharing it.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

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I think Fat Guy is channeling our household. I learned to use to chopsticks before I learned to use a knife.

We are currently in love with dan dan noodles and other Sichuan specialties (our favorite place was highest on the list for overall experience in Washington - hooray for Szechuan Chef!) We drive a lot farther than the closest places for better food.

I've eaten Chinese food outside Lisbon, in small hamlets in England and Ireland, and in beach towns along the Pacific Coast. Some very good, some not so much.

And Steven, next time you are in Seattle, try Lee's Asian in West Seattle - it has many of the factors you mentioned about what the restaurant should be doing - appealing to modern tastes, but doing interesting Asian food. They gifted us a salmon in coconut curry sauce last time that was amazing. These guys long ago worked for the infamous Wild Ginger - and opened a hole in the wall family run business. It may not be as sophisticated as WG, but we like it much better. If you are bothered by pan-Asian, this will be a problem, but they do it well.

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I've eaten Chinese food outside Lisbon

We had Chinese food in Oporto. It was bizarrely bad.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Thanks, FG, for this very interesting and informative thread! I just glanced at the Top 100 website and saw a restaurant in Maine that I've driven past without trying many times - now I know better.

"Life itself is the proper binge" Julia Child

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Okay, so to wrap up the reporting phase of this topic (we can of course talk about stuff forever), here's a bit of what unfolded during the rest of that evening at the Top 100 awards gala.

Here we have Martin Yan with 5 of the Miss Asias. I am working to identify each Miss Asia and match her photo to her name and bio, but so far have not pulled it off.

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Here I am chatting with Theresa Lin aka the Julia Child of Taiwan.

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Here I am flanked by, among others, Martin Yan and the Mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman.

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And here I am with my idol Robin Leach.

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The actual ceremony began with a dragon dance, after which there were many presentations that my little camera wasn't powerful enough to photograph legibly. John Curtas did get a shot of the fruit-carving display, though.

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There was a banquet, with interesting food, though not as good as what I had on my tour of Spring Mountain Road restaurants with John Curtas.

Here's the menu. If you can't make it out, I can type up some of the dish descriptions.

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At one point Betty Xie noticed that the guy from the National Restaurant Association was struggling with the noodles, so she served him (and the rest of us -- I was dropping more noodles than anyone).

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As I left, I noticed an LG appliance display that I hadn't seen yet:

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Note: the website they set up for the Top 100 awards event actually has a lot of good information that goes well beyond the scope of my posts here.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Steven, this is one of the most interesting and bizarre accounts I've read in quite some time. I think the world of Martin Yan, we Canadians see him as a gracious and gifted ambassador. I met him superficially in Toronto when he was guest on an episode of Christine Cushing Live and thanked him for his decades of inspiration.

A few comments:

Ever since I became a vegan, the pounds have been shedding.
And here I am with my idol Robin Leach.
I'll assume these statements are equally truthful.
Here I am flanked by . . . . the Mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman.
He's not aged well at all since the Six Million Dollar Man days.
. . . . in North America, I feel confident in saying that no amount of discussion of increased sex drive will induce your average man to eat bugs.
I'm not so sure.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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I never imagined that my experience earning a B.A. in Chinese Studies in 1979---which involved a month in Taipei, two weeks on the mainland (not easy to do in '79), and six months in Hong Kong---could be so impressively melded with the wonderful times I have enjoyed while accompanying my husband to various Star Trek conventions. Thank you for sharing.

Roadfoodie can't wait to get hold of the Top 100, for all those hungry drives across the country; even if Kansas is dry, there must be some estimable dumplings in the interior?

Please visit my new blog, Roadfoodie.

There's driving, and then there's Driving.

The chronicles of a food-obsessed traveler: her exploits, meals, and musings along the highways of America and beyond.

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    • By liuzhou
      Big Plate Chicken - 大盘鸡 (dà pán jī)
       

       
      This very filling dish of chicken and potato stew is from Xinjiang province in China's far west, although it is said to have been invented by a visitor from Sichuan. In recent years, it has become popular in cities across China, where it is made using a whole chicken which is chopped, with skin and on the bone, into small pieces suitable for easy chopstick handling. If you want to go that way, any Asian market should be able to chop the bird for you. Otherwise you may use boneless chicken thighs instead.

      Ingredients

      Chicken chopped on the bone or Boneless skinless chicken thighs  6

      Light soy sauce

      Dark soy sauce

      Shaoxing wine

      Cornstarch or similar. I use potato starch.

      Vegetable oil (not olive oil)

      Star anise, 4

      Cinnamon, 1 stick

      Bay leaves, 5 or 6

      Fresh ginger, 6 coin sized slices

      Garlic.  5 cloves, roughly chopped

      Sichuan peppercorns,  1 tablespoon

      Whole dried red chillies,   6 -10  (optional). If you can source the Sichuan chiles known as Facing Heaven Chiles, so much the better.

      Potatoes 2 or 3 medium sized. peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces

      Carrot. 1,  thinly sliced

      Dried wheat noodles.  8 oz. Traditionally, these would be a long, flat thick variety. I've use Italian tagliatelle successfully.    

      Red bell pepper. 1 cut into chunks

      Green bell pepper, 1 cut into chunks

      Salt

      Scallion, 2 sliced.
         
      Method

      First, cut the chicken into bite sized pieces and marinate in 1½ teaspoons light soy sauce, 3 teaspoons of Shaoxing and 1½ teaspoons of cornstarch. Set aside for about twenty minutes while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

      Heat the wok and add three tablespoons cooking oil. Add the ginger, garlic, star anise, cinnamon stick, bay leaves, Sichuan peppercorns and chilies. Fry on a low heat for a  minute or so. If they look about to burn, splash a little water into your wok. This will lower the temperature slightly. Add the chicken and turn up the heat. Continue frying until the meat is nicely seared, then add the potatoes and carrots. Stir fry a minute more then add 2 teaspoons of the dark soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of the light soy sauce and 2 tablespoons of the Shaoxing wine along with 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium. Cover and cook for around 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are done.

      While the main dish is cooking, cook the noodles separately according to the packet instructions.  Reserve  some of the noodle cooking water and drain.

      When the chicken and potatoes are done, you may add a little of the noodle water if the dish appears on the dry side. It should be saucy, but not soupy. Add the bell peppers and cook for three to four minutes more. Add scallions. Check seasoning and add some salt if it needs it. It may not due to the soy sauce and, if in the USA, Shaoxing wine.

      Serve on a large plate for everyone to help themselves from. Plate the noodles first, then cover with the meat and potato. Enjoy.
       
    • By liuzhou
      Way back in the 1990’s, I was living in west Hunan, a truly beautiful part of China. One day, some colleagues suggested we all go for lunch the next day, a Saturday. Seemed reasonable to me. I like a bit of lunch.
       
      “OK. We’ll pick you up at 7 am.”
       
      “Excuse me? 7 am for lunch?
       
      “Yes. We have to go by car.”
       
      Well, of course, they finally picked me up at 8.30, drove in circles for an hour trying to find the guy who knew the way, then headed off into the wilds of Hunan. We drove for hours, but the scenery was beautiful, and the thousand foot drops at the side of the crash barrier free road as we headed up the mountains certainly kept me awake.
       
      After an eternity of bad driving along hair-raising roads which had this old atheist praying, we stopped at a run down shack in the middle of nowhere. I assumed that this was a temporary stop because the driver needed to cop a urination or something, but no. This was our lunch venue.
       
      We shuffled into one of the two rooms the shack consisted of and I distinctly remember that one of my hosts took charge of the lunch ordering process.
       
      “We want lunch for eight.” There was no menu.
       
      The waitress, who was also the cook, scuttled away to the other room of the shack which was apparently a kitchen.
       
      We sat there for a while discussing the shocking rise in bean sprout prices and other matters of national importance, then the first dish turned up. A pile of steaming hot meat surrounded by steaming hot chillies. It was delicious.
       
      “What is this meat?” I asked.
       
      About half of the party spoke some English, but my Chinese was even worse than it is now, so communications weren’t all they could be. There was a brief (by Chinese standards) meeting and they announced:
       
      “It’s wild animal.”
       
      Over the next hour or so, several other dishes arrived. They were all piles of steaming hot meat surrounded by steaming hot chillies, but the sauces and vegetable accompaniments varied. And all were very, very good indeed.
       
      “What’s this one?” I ventured.
       
      “A different wild animal.”
       
      “And this?”
       
      “Another wild animal.”
       
      “And this?”
       
      “A wild animal which is not the wild animal in the other dishes”
       
      I wandered off to the kitchen, as you can do in rural Chinese restaurants, and inspected the contents of their larder, fridge, etc. No clues.
       
      I returned to the table with a bit of an idea.
       
      “Please write down the Chinese names of all these animals we have eaten. I will look in my dictionary when I get home.”
       
      They looked at each other, consulted, argued and finally announced:
       
      “Sorry! We don’t know in Chinese either. “
       
      Whether that was true or just a way to get out of telling me what I had eaten, I’ll never know. I certainly wouldn’t be able to find the restaurant again.
       
      This all took place way back in the days before digital cameras, so I have no illustrations from that particular meal. But I’m guessing one of the dishes was bamboo rat.
       
      No pandas or tigers were injured in the making of this post
       
    • By liuzhou
      Note: This follows on from the Munching with the Miao topic.
       
      The three-hour journey north from Miao territory ended up taking four, as the driver missed a turning and we had to drive on to the next exit and go back. But our hosts waited for us at the expressway exit and led us up a winding road to our destination - Buyang 10,000 mu tea plantation (布央万亩茶园 bù yāng wàn mǔ chá yuán) The 'mu' is  a Chinese measurement of area equal to 0.07 of a hectare, but the 10,000 figure is just another Chinese way of saying "very large".
       
      We were in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County, where 57% of the inhabitants are Dong.
       
      The Dong people (also known as the Kam) are noted for their tea, love of glutinous rice and their carpentry and architecture. And their hospitality. They tend to live at the foot of mountains, unlike the Miao who live in the mid-levels.
       
      By the time we arrived, it was lunch time, but first we had to have a sip of the local tea. This lady did the preparation duty.
       

       

       
      This was what we call black tea, but the Chinese more sensibly call 'red tea'. There is something special about drinking tea when you can see the bush it grew on just outside the window!
       
      Then into lunch:
       

       

      Chicken Soup
       

      The ubiquitous Egg and Tomato
       

      Dried fish with soy beans and chilli peppers. Delicious.
       

      Stir fried lotus root
       

      Daikon Radish
       

      Rice Paddy Fish Deep Fried in Camellia Oil - wonderful with a smoky flavour, but they are not smoked.
       

      Out of Focus Corn and mixed vegetable
       

      Fried Beans
       

      Steamed Pumpkin
       

      Chicken
       

      Beef with Bitter Melon
       

      Glutinous (Sticky) Rice
       

      Oranges
       

      The juiciest pomelo ever. The area is known for the quality of its pomelos.
       
      After lunch we headed out to explore the tea plantation.
       

       

       

       

       
      Interspersed with the tea plants are these camellia trees, the seeds of which are used to make the Dong people's preferred cooking oil.
       

       
      As we climbed the terraces we could hear singing and then came across this group of women. They are the tea pickers. It isn't tea picking time, but they came out in their traditional costumes to welcome us with their call and response music. They do often sing when picking. They were clearly enjoying themselves.
       

       
      And here they are:
       
       
      After our serenade we headed off again, this time to the east and the most memorable meal of the trip. Coming soon.
       
       
    • By liuzhou
      It sometimes seems likes every town in China has its own special take on noodles. Here in Liuzhou, Guangxi the local dish is Luosifen (螺蛳粉 luó sī fěn).
       
      It is a dish of rice noodles served in a very spicy stock made from the local river snails and pig bones which are stewed for hours with black cardamom, fennel seed, dried tangerine peel, cassia bark, cloves, pepper, bay leaf, licorice root, sand ginger, and star anise. Various pickled vegetables, dried tofu skin, fresh green vegetables, peanuts and loads of chilli are then usually added. Few restaurants ever reveal their precise recipe, so this is tentative. Luosifen is only really eaten in small restaurants and roadside stalls. I've never heard of anyone making it at home.
       
      In order to promote tourism to the city, the local government organised a food festival featuring an event named "10,000 people eat luosifen together." (In Chinese 10,000 often just means "many".)
       
      10,000 people (or a lot of people anyway) gathered at Liuzhou International Convention and Exhibition Centre for the grand Liuzhou luosifen eat-in. Well, they gathered in front of the centre – the actual centre is a bleak, unfinished, deserted shell of a building. I disguised myself as a noodle and joined them. 10,001.
       

       
      The vast majority of the 10,000 were students from the local colleges who patiently and happily lined up to be seated. Hey, mix students and free food – of course they are happy.
       

       
      Each table was equipped with a basket containing bottled water, a thermos flask of hot water, paper bowls, tissues etc. And most importantly, a bunch of Luosifen caps. These read “万人同品螺蛳粉” which means “10,000 people together enjoy luosifen”
       

       
      Yep, that is the soup pot! 15 meters in diameter and holding eleven tons of stock. Full of snails and pork bones, spices etc. Chefs delicately added ingredients to achieve the precise, subtle taste required.
       

       
      Noodles were distributed, soup added and dried ingredients incorporated then there was the sound of 10,000 people slurping.
       

      Surrounding the luosifen eating area were several stalls selling different goodies. Lamb kebabs (羊肉串) seemed most popular, but there was all sorts of food. Here are few of the delights on offer.
       

      Whole roast lamb or roast chicken
       

      Lamb Kebabs
       

      Kebab spice mix – Cumin, chilli powder, salt and MSG
       

      Kebab stall
       

      Crab
       

      Different crab
       

      Sweet sticky rice balls
       

      Things on sticks
       

      Grilled scorpions
       

      Pig bones and bits
       

      Snails
       
      And much more.
       
      To be honest, it wasn’t the best luosifen I’ve ever eaten, but it was wasn’t the worst. Especially when you consider the number they were catering for. But it was a lot of fun. Which was the point.
       
    • By liuzhou
      Chinese food must be among the most famous in the world. Yet, at the same time, the most misunderstood.

      I feel sure (hope) that most people here know that American-Chinese cuisine, British-Chinese cuisine, Indian-Chinese cuisine etc are, in huge ways, very different from Chinese-Chinese cuisine and each other. That's not what I want to discuss.

      Yet, every day I still come across utter nonsense on YouTube videos and Facebook about the "real" Chinese cuisine, even from ethnically Chinese people (who have often never been in China). Sorry YouTube "influencers", but sprinkling soy sauce or 5-spice powder on your cornflakes does not make them Chinese!
       
      So what is the "authentic" Chinese food? Well, like any question about China, there are several answers. It is not surprising that a country larger than western Europe should have more than one typical culinary style. Then, we must distinguish between what you may be served in a large hotel dining room, a small local restaurant, a street market stall or in a Chinese family's home.

      That said, in this topic, I want to attempt to debunk some of the more prevalent myths. Not trying to start World War III.

      When I moved to China from the UK 25 years ago, I had my preconceptions. They were all wrong. Sweet and sour pork with egg fried rice was reported to be the second favourite dish in Britain, and had, of course, to be preceded by a plate of prawn/shrimp crackers. All washed down with a lager or three.

      Yet, in that quarter of a century, I've seldom seen a prawn cracker. And egg fried rice is usually eaten as a quick dish on its own, not usually as an accompaniment to main courses. Every menu featured a starter of prawn/shrimp toast which I have never seen in mainland China - just once in Hong Kong.

      But first, one myth needs to be dispelled. The starving Chinese! When I was a child I was encouraged to eat the particularly nasty bits on the plate by being told that the starving Chinese would lap them up. My suggestion that we could post it to them never went down too well. At that time (the late fifties) there was indeed a terrible famine in China (almost entirely manmade (Maomade)).

      When I first arrived in China, it was after having lived in Soviet Russia and I expected to see the same long lines of people queuing up to buy nothing very much in particular. Instead, on my first visit to a market (in Hunan Province), I was confronted with a wider range of vegetables, seafood, meat and assorted unidentified frying objects than I have ever seen anywhere else. And it was so cheap I couldn't convert to UK pounds or any other useful currency.
       
      I'm going to start with some of the simpler issues - later it may get ugly!

      1. Chinese people eat everything with chopsticks.
       

       
      No, they don't! Most things, yes, but spoons are also commonly used in informal situations. I recently had lunch in a university canteen. It has various stations selling different items. I found myself by the fried rice stall and ordered some Yangzhou fried rice. Nearly all the students and faculty sitting near me were having the same.

      I was using my chopsticks to shovel the food in, when I noticed that I was the only one doing so. Everyone else was using spoons. On investigating, I was told that the lunch break is so short at only two-and-a-half hours that everyone wants to eat quickly and rush off for their compulsory siesta.
       
      I've also seen claims that people eat soup with chopsticks. Nonsense. While people use chopsticks to pick out choice morsels from the broth, they will drink the soup by lifting their bowl to their mouths like cups. They ain't dumb!

      Anyway, with that very mild beginning, I'll head off and think which on my long list will be next.

      Thanks to @KennethT for advice re American-Chinese food.
       
       
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