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Chinese Lesson

Chinese Lesson

Happy Chinese New Year 2021 – Year of the Ox!

A few weeks ago I learned the difference between Lo Mein, Chow Mein and Chop Suey, the hard way.  I was on a restricted diet, and while I love to cook, I was not feeling well enough to learn to master a new type of cuisine.  Especially since there are at least a half dozen Chinese takeout restaurants within a few square miles, and they do it better and cheaper than I can make at home.

Recently I learned that the reason there are so many small Chinese takeout places is because during the massive immigration to the United States, it was easier for them to gain residency if they provided a service such as the food industry.  All Chinese immigrants, like most immigrants, knew how to cook because they had no extra money to dine out.  Chinese food is simple, cooks fast, and is inexpensive since it is mostly vegetables and rice.

Having grown up Italian, I am very critical about Italian food out.  I know how to cook it better at home at a fraction of the price, unlike Chinese food.  So, when I do order Chinese food out, I expect they know their food and culture better than an Italian Jersey boy.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. In fact, it was not the first time I had an issue with my favorite takeout place, and it was the same problem with the same woman who I know is not the owner.  I ordered the “Buddhist Delight”, which is vegetables with white rice (at least their version).  However, what I got did not resemble the description in their menu.  She actually asked me what I wanted in it. I told her the menu item number, and she still didn’t know what it was.

A few days later, I ordered Chow Mein.  When I got home it was all vegetables in white sauce and a scoop of white rice (the person taking the order knew it was for two, because I originally asked the if a pint would be enough for two people over a quart). He was confident I needed a quart over a pint, so why a single scoop of rice?

While most are aware that images and information on the internet these days are hit or miss, I did some research before I called back and told the lady this is not what I ordered.  She insisted it was, and that is how Chow Mein is always prepared.  I told her when I returned for the corrected order I would show her several examples on my iPhone of the differences.  When I got back, she was not rude, but not pleasant either.  I told her slowly and clearly at least three times that I believe her over the internet because she obviously was born in China due to her very thick, heavy accent.  My wife is an immigrant, so I am especially patient with people who know English only as a second language.

She threw the bag into the trash can in the kitchen.  I know this is not a fancy place, but really does nothing for customer confidence. Maybe she is better suited to play women’s basketball than be in the hospitality business, much less the Chinese takeout business.

This was the second incident in which I had to explain her what was on their printed menu. While I am sure they get their flow of ignorant Americans, I was not one of them. I gave her the benefit of the doubt until I did some research.  I know once people migrate and try to recreate the same dishes from their homeland, some ingredients are not available, others are replaced, and of course it all depends on the region of which that food came from.  Naturally I was not looking for an authentic quality Chinese dish prepared to excellency in a small town takeout place that only has two tables.  At the same time, I have to be a little weary when I know more about a particular type of cuisine than those who are preparing and serving it, and serving it with a grudge.

This is what I found:

  • Chow Mein is served with fried noodles
  • Lo Mein is served with boiled noodles, then tossed with the vegetables
  • Chop Suey is served with rice

Now we know.


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