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The Secret of Eating in a Chinese Restaurant

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After a day out in London with the family, we will usually wander up Shaftesbury Avenue to find a small unassuming Chinese restaurant we know. This place is consistently busy with Chinese customers – a good sign of quality.

On arrival, irrespective of the ground floor seating status, we’re ushered downstairs. The basement of this restaurant is a virtue of necessity: an impossibly small space which has been miraculously transformed into a functioning dining room. This feat has been achieved by scaling-down every aspect of its design and structure. For taller, larger people, such as myself, it can feel like a Gulliver’s Travels film set. To everyone’s amusement, I stoop to the table and then attempt to squeeze into the miniature booths. This well-worn routine always gets the meal off to a good start.

We’re given an over-sized ‘English’ menu; the type which goes on for several pages listing hundreds of numbered dishes. From this menu can be ordered any one of the ubiquitous takeaway-style mixtures of miscellaneous vegetables, noodles and meats in various thickened sauces (all very good). But in the past I noticed that the locals were given a smaller ‘Chinese’ menu and ordered food that appeared less complicated. The dishes featured more singular ingredients; platters of whole deep fried fish or crispy noodles; individual plates of green vegetables; or simply cooked (and un-sauced) dishes of prawns, roast pork or duck. It looked like normal meat-and-two-veg family eating.

Keen to learn about these different protocols, I respond by trying to negotiate a similar ‘Chinese’ offering with the waitress. The ensuing arm-waving, gestures and charades are extremely protracted, very awkward and painfully embarrassing. I’ve finally learned that there is a limit to the range of food that can be ordered using hand signals and have now lowered my expectations. Nevertheless, I continue to order ‘off-menu’ whenever we’re in a Chinese restaurant.

The aim is always the same – it doesn’t have a number – just a bowl of plain rice; either a dish of roast duck, or roast pork; or a plate of pak choy or choy sum. If my communication skills are going well I might try to order the crispy noodles.

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