Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Comedy of Dishes

From the News Observer, Greg Cox talks about dining in a Chinese restaurant when your Chinese is not as good as the food served:

""Dan dan noodle," the waitress said, naming the dish that she was setting before us on the table. It's one of my go-to dishes in a Szechwan restaurant, and Super Wok's version -- a skein of vermicelli topped with minced pork, chopped scallions and a pungent chile sauce, served piping hot in a deep bowl -- was as good as any I've ever had.

But here's the catch: I hadn't ordered dan dan noodles. Doubtless I would have, if I had seen the dish listed on the authentic Chinese menu (which you'll have to ask for; otherwise, you'll be handed a menu of mostly generic Chinese and pan-Asian fare aimed at the mainstream American palate). What I had ordered instead -- at least, what I think I ordered -- is a dish listed under the Cold Appetizers heading as Szechwan-style spicy noodles. After tasting the dan dan noodles, though, I wasn't about to send the dish back.

The confusion is understandable. The command of English among the wait staff at this small, family-run eatery is -- to put it mildly -- variable. But they're uniformly eager to please and remarkably patient with those of us whose Chinese vocabulary doesn't go much beyond "kung pao" and "moo shu."

In its defense, the staff hadn't yet had a chance to become familiar with the bilingual version of the menu, which was still in draft form when I dined there. My attempt to order a dish that had been highly recommended to me and variously described as "squirrel fish" and "squirrel tail fish" was a comedy of language-barrier errors (including my attempt to pantomime the furry-tailed creature, which I'm sure proved entertaining to fellow diners).

The matter was finally resolved when I spotted the words "fried fish cut like a squirrel tail in sweet & sour sauce" penned in the margins of the menu.

Am I ever glad I saw those words. Turns out the name of the dish is a fanciful description of the appearance of its star ingredients: filets of a sweet white fish, their flesh cut in a cross-hatch pattern before being deep-fried in a light, tempura-like batter.

The point-at-what-you-want method proved efficient at ordering other dishes"

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