Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Chinese restaurant post

Last night my husband and I got Chinese food. As usual, we asked for soy sauce to go with. Also as usual, the request was met with a look of disgust. And finally - again, as usual - when the server returned with the soy sauce, she'd also brought along two forks, which we, as usual, declined.

As far as I can tell, the soy sauce-fork connection is that no one familiar with proper Chinese food (or these particular dishes) would ever ask for such a thing. If you're that cuisine-ignorant, you're probably unfamiliar with chopsticks. (Perhaps you'd like a shovel?) Alas, the combination of the sauce on one of these dishes and a bit of soy sauce is the most delicious taste to ever exist, ever, so the routine keeps on repeating itself.

It's apparently somewhere between weird and insulting to order soy sauce on the side at a Chinese restaurant. Where on the weird-to-insulting spectrum it falls, I couldn't say, although a quick Google suggests it's closer to the latter. I mean, it's obviously not a really odd request, as in, it's not like going in and asking for an ingredient that isn't part of the cuisine in question. They do have a spouted, customer-ready bottle of soy sauce, if not several. That is, it's not like going in and asking for, I don't know, ketchup or wasabi. And I doubt it's the cost - if that were the case, there'd be the annoyance but not the forks. And it's not all Chinese restaurants - at hot-pot places, you're encouraged to take a bowl and fill it with as much soy and other sauces as you'd like. (One reason among many that I'm always lobbying for hot-pot...) It seems like part of the problem, in our case, is that the dish with the sauce isn't from the Chinese-American part of the menu, so we seem for this one brief moment to be on a quest for authenticity, and then we ruin it.

Maybe it's something like ordering a cappuccino with dinner at an Italian restaurant? Cappuccinos being, of course, Italian, but apparently not to be consumed in that situation. Or maybe - probably - it's like when (high-end; I've only actually ever heard about this) chefs refuse to provide salt, because you're insulting their technique if you think the seasoning wasn't perfect already. There had been this delicate balance of flavors. Ruined! Ruined, perhaps, but so very, very delicious.


Nicholas said...

I'll admit to having a similar base intuition as the restaurant. If soy sauce is part of the sauce, then it can throw off the balance of flavors; if it isn't, then that's introducing something that's not usually there. Perhaps it's like snooty restaurants that serve burgers but not ketchup (or hot dog places in Chicago that don't even have ketchup): a fine taste on its own, but not necessarily appropriate. As a matter of customer service, of course, the restaurant should either not offer soy sauce on the side or get over itself.

(I'm slightly more sympathetic to the restaurant since I've been spending time with the in-laws, who are nice people but grew up in the Rest Belt in the 50s, for whom Chinese food begins and ends with teriyaki or an ungodly amount of soy sauce.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Hmm. I have no connection to the 1950s, and had what I'd imagine was somewhat authentic Chinese food growing up (along with plenty of the not-at-all-authentic variety; but really, what do I know, having never been to China), and to me, soy sauce is like salt, but at places that offer soy sauce and not salt shakers. I don't take pride in being, apparently, a peasant, but I'm also not too worried about it. If you're polite in restaurants and tip appropriately, it's fine, I think, to make certain requests that would be crossing a line at a dinner party. At a dinner party, I wouldn't ask for salt, although I probably would hope some was out on the table.

I guess an alternative would be to get the food as takeout and bring it home, where I could create the optimal their sauce to soy sauce ratio, from my cupboard stash of jumbo bottles of soy sauce.