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Tips for crappy American Chinese

So the owners of the local Chinese restaurant in my adopted town of Backwards, Ohio are from Fujian. I am having trouble convincing them that I am not only willing, but eager to try more traditional foods than the American offerings of gloppy chicken.

Now, I understand fully their reluctance to serve me "off menu" but I wonder whether anyone has general tips for such a problem. Are there items in your typical family-run American-Chinese restaurant that are more likely to be made in-house and with care, eg. dumplings? Is there a way of tweaking an order so you get something closer to the genuine article? Is it just a matter of befreinding the owner? What is a delicate way to say, "Where are you from and will you serve me that food?"

I expect this is a classic problem for the uninitiated so classic solutions are welcome.

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  1. Interesting dilemma. Fujien cuisine is a lot like Taiwanese cuisine (not surprisingly, given that most Taiwanese immigrated at some point from the province) and I'm not sure its dishes are something that an "American-Chinese" restaurant would typically serve.

    My best bet is that learning the names of Fujien dishes and mentioning these to the owners may help them realize your genuine interest in trying more authentic cuisine.

    1. Ernie you are not alone. I too live in a backwater and have wondered how to ask this question for some time. At the restaurant here the only edible thing was the soup and I believe it was a congee. The sad thing is only unsuspecting tourists and newbies like me eat there. I can't wait to see the responses on this thread.

      1. I feel your pain. Just some thoughts:

        You don't go into detail of what you mean by "I am having trouble convincing them". I'm assuming they speak English well enough to get the idea that you really want to try the kind of meals they serve at home. It's not a very difficult concept to get across.

        It may just be that they don't have the right ingredients on hand in their restaurant, don't feel like it's worthwhile to bring them in just for you, and are simply trying to not hurt your feelings. Some of this may also depend on how often you eat there. If you don't eat there often they haven't befriended you and have no way to judge your ultimate sincerity (if that would make a difference). One thing does seem a bit off................ at most Chinese restaurants I've been around, the owners and any staff eat at least one meal 'on the job', usually late in the evening. What are they eating when they serve themselves? "Gloppy Chicken" or Buddha Jumps Over the Wall (fo tiao qiang) sharksfin soup?

        If I were you, I'd simply ask the question with an offer to pay whatever it costs for them to make the meal. That should help prove your desire.

        1. Just because they're from somewhere in China doesn't mean they know how to cook it.

          Way I look at it ...they're putting their best foot forward and asking for anything more is a beyond their capability. Living in Los Angeles where there are hundreds of Chinese restaurants it amazing the majority of them can't get it right.

          1. Ask them to serve you something they cook for themselves.

            3 Replies
            1. re: PeterL

              I don't know what you folks are expecting, but every Chinese restaurant I've been to watching what the staff is eating is basically plain and uninspiring cheap stuff like plain stir fried vegetables, maybe some dishes a customer returned to the kitchen (mistakes) and rice.

              One day at restaurant I frequent I was sharing the large table with the staff because it was crowded and they invited me to eat what they were eating and it wasn't anything to write home about.

              1. re: monku

                i remember seeing a cook at my fave Chinese takeout in Mobile, Alabama, eating a bowl of white rice with a dash of soy sauce and a couple of handfuls of peanuts. Nothing else.

                1. re: John Manzo

                  Poor people from rural China would find this meal more like something they recognize rather then the meat heavy dishes served in Americanized Chinese restaurants.

            2. I often have lunch at a local Fujian run Chinese-American takeout joint (with three eat in tables). I am quite close with the owners and often discuss parenting with the wife, as she has a son in 7th grade and I have a Chinese born daughter in the same grade.
              She has explained to me that they serve 'fast food' cooked to order. It is the equivalent of McDs, not exciting and basic whitebread. The staff is all Fujianese and they eat what they cook, they have lost the cooking and recipes of their home province. At home the owner and her family tend to eat 'American Food' they get enough 'Chinese' at work.

              The son spent the summer touring in China, he told me he was completely lost. He speaks the Fujian dialect but cannot comprehend any Mandarin or Cantonese. If the occasional Chinese speaking customer comes into the restaurant, the staff must communicate in English, no meeting of the minds in different Chinese dialects.

              Outside of steamed rice, there isn't much 'genuine article' to be had in these places.

              1. This shouldn't be a mystery. They may or may not know their regional cuisine. They may or may not be able to cook it in their restaurant. I just don't see why it should be difficult to find the answer.

                When I was a kid my grandfather lived in the small town of Hemet, in Riverside County, CA. In Hemet there was an American/Chinese restaurant that served roast beef and chow mein, among other things. It was long before my exposure to 'authentic' Chinese cuisines, but I would love to be able to go back there with the same question.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Midlife

                  I'm sure the response is going to be "we serve authentic Chinese food". I don't think they'll be insulted just a little surprised.

                  My grandfather had a Chinese/American restaurant in Columbus, OH in the 50's and they served stuff like prime rib, Maine lobster, steaks, veal parmigiana, spaghetti and the standard Cantonese American fare. All the cooks were directly from China and all I saw them eating on their breaks was American food.

                2. Unfortunately, just because you come from a foreign country doesn't mean you know squat about the cuisine of your former home. And I'll go one further and say that i've had some pretty crappy Mexican food in Mexico.
                  Had some crappy midwestern American food in the USA? Well, there you are.

                  1. Many times food is defined less by where the cook comes from and more from where the food is cooked at.

                    Even if your Fujian restaurateurs could and wanted to make authentic Fujianese dishes for you, I'm not so sure they could easily (and cost-effectively) source the necessary ingredients in "Backwards, OH".

                    Part of the reason major metropolitan cities like NYC, LA, SF have strong ethnic restaurants of all types is because the ingredients that are necessary to make regional ethnic dishes can be easily sourced.

                    You may be more a victim of geographic limitations, and not one of language limitations.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      A VERY good point, ipse. I live 50 miles from Reno and not even there have I been able to find chicken feet, backs, etc. Not at the Asian market. Not at the "real" butcher shops. Just one example.

                    2. First of all, thanks to everyone so far for your insight, observations and advice. To the questions of whether or not they know the cuisine of their region and are capable and interested cooks to begin with; I can't say. I admit that I may be guilty of romanticizing and putting undue pressure on a business that I see as a local lifeline to great Chinese.

                      What I can say is that in our conversation, the owner made a very clear and somewhat dismissive distinction between what is served at the restaurant and what she serves at home. She understood that what she was serving was "American Chinese." Whether I knew that going in or not, it was clear that she knew it as well. She asserted as well that I would not like traditional Chinese. Bear in mind that their customers are largely people who don't even realize that there is such a thing as regional cuisine in China. I am likely the first person who has ever asked for something different.

                      She did mention the difficulty of sourcing certain ingredients, however there are a number of surprisingly good Asian groceries in the region. Perhaps I am making an unfair assumption but I suspect that reasonable ingredients are at hand for a taste of home.

                      This is going to plague me for some time, I can tell. I am already thinking of ways to circumvent the problem. In the meantime, if you have additional suggestions or stories to relate, please keep them coming.

                      **A challenge** For those of you who know the food of Fujian, what are some dishes that you feel are reasonably easy to source ingredients for and make at home? Looking for noodle and veg-based dishes. Not sure that seafood (unless it is dried) makes it into the "easy to find" category on Ohio's rocky coast.

                      37 Replies
                      1. re: Ernie Diamond

                        i worked at a chinese-american restaurant in minneapolis that was a somewhat well-known institution before it closed, my grandparents and parents ate there. while there were many cool things about the place (made their own tofu, made own egg rolls in a huge production line every tuesday, had a passable dim sum service on the weekends), what they served was mostly chinese-american dishes of the familiar goopy sort, to the local population. occasionally a knowledgeable diner would call in and special order some menu items or off-menu items in advance of coming, and the cooks, some of whom were extremely capable, would execute them. all of the cooks were cantonese, and this was a pretty big restaurant in an urban area. i wouldn't expect a little mom & pop shop in a small town to do anything like this--it's a PITA to do 2 types of prep in a little kitchen.

                        the employees didn't eat any of the chinese-american food. they made a special crew lunch (in my experience crew meal in chinese restaurants is some time around 2:00-2:30-3:00 pm). for these cantonese dudes, it was pretty much a plain choi soup, maybe with a smattering of ground pork, and white rice. every day. there was usually a smaller late night meal, maybe just rice and leftover vegetables. if you hung around your local place at the right time of day, you could maybe ask for a little of the "family meal" or staff meal. offer to pay for a small portion. now, what you'll get will likely be authentic home cooking, but i'd bet good money it won't be in any way mind blowing.

                        the owner has it in her head that you would not like or appreciate fujianese home cooking. she does not want to disappoint you, and she does not want to do a lot of extra work if it won't be appreciated. first, order adventurously off of the menu she offers-- don't display hangups about tofu, any sort of cooked vegetable, chicken feet, pork intestines, meat buns, tiny snails, whole fish, etc.--eat these foods if they are on the menu or specials board (btw if there is a non-english specials board aimed at chinese customers, order off of that). this will further convince her that you actually are interested in authentic chinese food. ask if she can do a dish more homestyle for you-- more broth and vegetables, less sweet sauce and meat, etc. at all costs, don't be one of those people who always order the same fried rice, egg roll and chow mein (or insert gloopy dish here) combo. show interest in the food in general. talk with her about the local asian grocery stores and markets and ask advice on buying ingredients there. do a little research and identify a few specific dishes from fujian you'd want to try. ask her if she's familiar with them or if her family ate these dishes when she was a child-- begin a conversation about what she *did* eat as a child, if not. you will have to be patient, but after many conversations with the owner, and many adventurous dinners at her establishment, she may be more willing to cook homestyle food for you if you ask (*always* offering to pay generously).

                        1. re: soupkitten

                          Believe me, if there were menu offerings of pig intestine, fish maws and chicken feet, I would be glowing. This is the sort of menu where the unifying element in all the dishes is cornstarch.

                          Still some very good advice, thank you.

                          1. re: Ernie Diamond

                            Still not sure why it should involve any more than simply telling her you understand her reluctance but would appreciate anything she can do to share her home cooking style with you. The old "You would not like traditional Chinese" sounds like a very superficial level of conversation from her side, so maybe you need to get more real from yours. Try "I'm really serious and would appreciate anything you could do to help me explore your native food!"

                            I live in an area where there is a very large Asian population, so I can find 'authentic food', but at the "Americanized" Chinese places here (as someone just said) pushing the envelope from what they DO serve can help, even if it's just asking if they have gai lan (Chinese Broccoli) or tofu dishes, or whole fish, even if they're not on the menu, may help too.

                            Ultimately you can't force her to do this, and you may never know the real reasons why she won't try. One thing: and this just popped into my head, so maybe it's just dumb................. but I hope you're not eating with a fork when you're there. :o)

                            1. re: Ernie Diamond

                              The very first thing I do at any new chinese place I go to, is tell them that I'm allergic to cornstarch. (I'm not.) I don't care about "velveting" chicken, or any other meats for that matter. The second thing I do is tell them I don't want any vegetable from a can. If it seems like the place is kinda slow, and the server gets the drift, I'll ask them to ask the chef if they'd like to prepare anything special, if that seems like a stretch, then I'll just order something off the menu with a few modifications, and see how it goes. I will never, ever, pay my hard earned money for gloopy Ameri-Chinese food. It is disgusting to me.

                              1. re: gordeaux

                                Hate to rain on your parade, gordeaux, but lots of fabulous and authentic dishes are made with cornstarch -- indeed, cornstarch is a vital ingredient in many dishes, and not just as a meat tenderizer.

                                As far as canned vegetables goes, using them is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of "crappy American Chinese".

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  There's no rain, and I have no parade going. I really have no interest in the gloopy cornstarch laden gravy synonomous with Ameri-Chinese glop. IMO, it's vitality in other real dishes is moot. It does not add flavor. It does change textures, but it does not add flavor. I might be wrong, but I haven't come across any dish where cornstarch is vital..yet. BTW, I'm generally the person who doesn't care for gravy unless I make it myself. And when I make it, it's more of a jus/sauce than a gravy per se. Anyway, ipsedixit, you are probably right for most people, but I've never been a fan of adding cornstarch to anything to thicken it. I can see using it to dry out the surfaces of meats before frying, but I'm not a huge fan of thickening sauces with it.

                                  You are definitely correct about the canned veggies,but it's a personal preference of mine. Canned mushrooms, baby corn, and chestnuts do not deserve my precious tummy real estate.

                                  1. re: gordeaux

                                    Lots of times when you are talking about authentic Chinese dishes (whatever that term may mean), the addition of a cornstarch slurry to sauces should not produce a "gloopy" or a gloppy mess. There are certain dishes, esp. stir-fry dishes, that just wouldn't be practical to make without the addition of cornstarch to help bind the sauce (e.g. soy sauce, rice wine, chicken broth, etc.) to the veggies and other ingredients.

                                    But I do know where you are coming from re: the "gloopy cornstarch laden gravy" mess that lots of American-Chinese dishes resemble.

                                    Nonetheless to categorically deny yourself the option of cornstarch in Chinese cuisines would leave you a gaping hole in your dining options, which would be too bad.

                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                      It seems to me there's a big difference between a proper stir-fry with enough sauce to flavorfully glaze the ingredients, and the gloppy gravy many low-end Chinese restaurants use. That stuff is so generic I swear they get it in 55-gallon drums.

                                      I'm no expert on Chinese cooking, but I do have a powerful wok setup here, and have tried stir-frying with and without a cornstarch-laced sauce. With only the garlic, wine, soy sauce and other flavorings, it comes out tasty but rather dry, and with little sense of a coherent dish. A *judicious* amount of sauce (which includes a little cornstarch plus some other ingredients) provides a beautiful, flavorful glaze.

                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        ipsedixit, gordeaux & comestible,

                                        This may belong on Home Cooking, but your dialogue makes me ask what alternatives there are to cornstarch in thickening sauces that are just too loose for the dish. This most often happens to me in stir-fries, but sometimes in other cooking, where too much liquid has developed. I often use a turkey baster to remove some of the liquid, but am concerned that I'm removing flavor as well. We don't use butter in our cooking and Country Crock doesn't seem to do the job very well. What would be another method? Personally, I don't mind cornstarch, but it CAN get 'gloopy'.

                                        1. re: Midlife

                                          I have been meaning to try the Japanese kuzu (arrowroot), which is also used as a thickener. But I haven't gotten around to it yet.

                                          By the way, your excess moisture in cooking might be the result of your wok or pan not getting hot enough, so the moisture gets drawn out of the ingredients rather than being sealed in. That happened to me a lot before I got my wok burner.

                                          1. re: comestible

                                            Yes. I think I tend to stir fry at too low a temp to avoid burning, but sometimes I just put in too much liquid too. Need to experiment more.

                                          2. re: Midlife

                                            If it "most often" happens in stir fries, then either you have too much in your pan, or your pan is not hot enough. I'm pretty sure that the whole reason to stir fry is for this not to happen.

                                            Otherwise, I wouldn't know what I'd defer to unless I knew what type of sauce you were "going for." In quick stir frying or chowing, I normally use chili garlic sauce, some form of soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, chili oil, and a dab of a good, premium oyster sauce, and I have never found a need to add any extra thickening agents, but then again, I'm not a big fan of oversaucing. I'll switch things up, and sometimes add a touch of tomato sauce, sometimes a dollop of that banana ketchup stuff (a trick from an asian friend's grandmother) will add a little extra body.

                                            For non asian foods, I'm a big fan of butter and olive oil.
                                            I don't think I'd use Coutry Crock unless I was under strict supervision by a doctor. Please ask your doctor if you should be using Country crock, or any other man made "food substance" margarine spread concoctions like it.

                                            1. re: gordeaux

                                              Could be as simple as the amount of rice wine I add, combined with lower heat. I DO find that, when I use less 'sauce ingredients' I don't have as much liquid, but I also don't have a s much flavor.

                                              1. re: gordeaux

                                                i just became a fan of ur stir frying sauce =chili garlic sauce, some form of soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, chili oil, and a dab of a good, premium oyster sauce

                                                can i sub. something for the oyster sauce as i am allergic to shellfood. (no oyster sauce)
                                                btw (great tip on adding banana ketchup/tomato paste- i use it to thicken thai/indian curries)

                                                1. re: divya

                                                  I'd suggest going to your local asian market, and scouring the "sauce/condiment" aisle. Some would say hoisin would do the trick, but I think that's WAAAYY too sweet. There are plenty of other sauces to try - maybe even a fish free "oyster sauce" (pretty sure I've seen vegetarian versions?) One thing that comes to mind is fermented black bean paste - which would alter the flavor, but still add body. I'm not sure if the black bean paste has any shelfish ingredients tho. Check out the market, and read labels. Sorry, I don't really know of anything right off the bat for you.

                                              2. re: Midlife

                                                You need to determine where the liquid comes from. Does it come from overcooked veggies? Too much liquid is bad for stir-frying because you will be boiling the food. The temperature of the wok/pan cannot increase.

                                                With stir frying, if you have a final sauce for the dish, it should be created near the end of cooking in order to prevent boiling the food.

                                                1. re: raytamsgv

                                                  Got it! And my latest attempt was much better. Used less liquid and waited to add sauces till nearer the end.

                                                  But.............. I'm not sure I understand "The temperature of the wok/pan cannot increase". Boiling is boiling, but certainly things cook faster on Hi than on Medium??????

                                                  1. re: Midlife

                                                    Water boils at 212F/100C. As long as liquid water remains, the water will not get any hotter. The rest of the pan might, but the water-covered portion will not. If you have food in that water, it will not get any hotter than 212F/100C. Once the water is gone, then the pan and the food can get hotter.

                                                    Stir-fry requires the temperature of the pan surface to be hotter than 212F/100C. That's why you want to limit the amount of water you have in the pan.

                                                    1. re: raytamsgv

                                                      Agreed. What you said was "the temperature of the wok pan cannot increase". But I think you're referring only to that portion of the wok that has liquid in it. No?

                                                      When I see REAL woks in action, in restaurant kitchens, the flame is so high that the temperature must be 500F+. With any surviving liquid forced by gravity to the bottom-most part, the rest is able to cook at higher temps. I can't imagine so much liquid that the entire wok contents can't exceed 212F. But maybe????

                                                      1. re: Midlife

                                                        "Agreed. What you said was "the temperature of the wok pan cannot increase". But I think you're referring only to that portion of the wok that has liquid in it. No?"

                                                        That is correct. If you have enough liquid, it also can become a heat sink depending on the amount of heat generated by your stove. For the usual one-ring home stoves, the hottest part of the wok are typically a few inches above the lowest point of the wok. The lowest part (with the liquid) is cooler, so it will draw heat away from the hottest part.

                                                        Home burners often max out somewhere around 15,000 BTU if you're lucky. A Chinese restaurant wok burner are multi-ring and will typically generate up to 100,000 BTU, if memory serves me correctly. Even so, if you fill a restaurant with water, it will still take time for it to boil away. At our restaurant, we filled a huge wok (between 3 to 4 feet across) with water, and we used it to steam things for probably at least 15 minutes. It's been a while, so I don't recall the exact numbers.

                                          3. re: ipsedixit

                                            I have to say, I am scratching my head trying to come up with a dish for which cornstarch is a "vital ingredient."

                                            Maybe I am hung up on the wording but a vital ingredient as I understand it is one for which there is no substitution and the omission thereof would change the entire identity of a dish. Saffron is "vital" for risotto alla milanese. Olives? Vital for tapenade. I don't know that cornstarch carries that same distinction. But then, I have been wrong before.

                                            Am I overlooking some obvious example?

                                            1. re: Ernie Diamond


                                              comestible above gives a good example of cornstarch being a vital ingredient -- there are certain stir-fry dishes that need to have a cornstarch slurry added to the sauce. Certainly, the cornstarch should be used with a judicious hand, but it is required nonetheless.

                                              Also, for certain soups (e.g. chicken corn chowder, egg drop soup, etc.) cornstarch is a necessary ingredient. Take out a cornstarch slurry from egg drop soup and you basically have boiled scrambled eggs in flavored water. Not a good thing -- to think about, much less eat.

                                              Or for when you are braising certain types of seafood (abalone and sea cucmber come to mind) or tofu and beancurd, cornstarch is a necessary ingredient in the braising liquid, or sauce.

                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                Oh, how I'd love to treat everyone to a Chinese (influenced) meal in my home with NO added cornstarch in any of the dishes.

                                                Ipsedixit, I must concede to your statement, that it has to be used with a judicious hand. But also, I think in the Ameri-Chinese gloop sense, it is never used judiciously, and I find it revolting. I'll never understand the demand for gloop. The reason that I ask for no cornstarch in new restaurants is to remove "gloop" from the equation, since it does not add flavor. I can create sauces with other agents to create different mouthfeels or consistencies. I will admit that when cornstarch is used correctly, it's fine. It just seems as though "correctly" is a totally different term imo, than what these chefs in these Chinese restaurants deem it to be. I'm sure they just cater to the masses, but, I will never understand the masses who enjoy gloopy gloppy gravy over perfectly good food. I find it totally revolting.

                                                But yes, I'm sure there are instances you've encountered where cornstarch usage is just fine, and I have as well, but it's become so rare, that when I go to a new place, I just tell them I don't want ANY. If they do a decent job of preparing that food, then I'll keep returning, and next thing you know, I can walk into the joint, and have a repoire. I have three places I go to right now where I can walk in, sit down, and just ask for the chef, and ask him or at one place - it's a "her" for "some good food." And I get it. They ask if I want seafood, or chicken, or beef, or pork, or if I want to try some special food they made for the staff. It's a RIOT. If the place is busy, I'll ask them not to take too much time in the prep if they are swamped, but usually they insist on making something pretty cool. It's a break in their monotonous slinging of glop. Some of them really appreciate it. You can tell.

                                                1. re: gordeaux

                                                  As an aside (and I don't know how widespread this practice is) there are Chinese places around here that offer "diet" sections in their menus. These dishes are completely without gloppy sauces, and consist mainly of steamed veggies or items prepared in a light broth. OTOH, there is little of typical Chinese flavoring about them either.

                                                2. re: ipsedixit

                                                  I understand the point about it being used as a thickening agent but that doesn't constitute a vital ingredient. If arrowroot, potato starch, or a similar thickening agent were substituted for cornstarch in a recipe, the dish would be unchanged.

                                                  You might say that a thickening agent is important in certain Chinese dishes but to call cornstarch a vital ingredient is something of an exaggeration.

                                                  In any case, I understand the point you are trying to make.

                                                  Gordeaux, your experience is just the one that I am trying desperately to cultivate here. I envy you.

                                                  1. re: Ernie Diamond

                                                    I'm telling you - tell them to skip the cornstarch.
                                                    It's the first step to seeing if the chef knows how to make anything. They'l have to create a sauce instead of dipping the ladle into the bucket of brown, red, or white "gloop."

                                      2. re: Ernie Diamond

                                        Try something with sea cucumbers, which you can get dried. And, if you're willing to eat that, then the restaurant owner would know how serious you were.

                                        1. re: hobbess

                                          Why, hobbess? If I served you sea cucumber and you ate it, I wouldn't think anything of it. Sea cucumbers are just a normal (albeit pricey) food item to us.

                                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                            And they're not even an acquired taste, since they don't taste like much at all (I love them).

                                            1. re: ipsedixit

                                              It seems like I replied to the wrong post, but I was trying to respond to the OP's post asking about Fujianese dish that would be easy to source in Ohio. SInce Fujian is on the coast, seafood plays a large part in that cuisine. However, finding fresh seafood that you'd see in Fujian dishes would be a problem in Ohio.

                                              Sea Cucumbers would be both a seafood dish that you'd see in Fujianese dishes, and also be something you could get in Ohio in its dried form.

                                              Also, the OP in his first post was talking about his difficulty in convincing that he wanted to try more traditional Chinese food instead of the Chinese-American food served to Americans in this country. The restaurant owner kept telling him that he wouldn't like the real Chinese dishes.

                                              In my mind, if the OP tried sea cucumbers, then the owner would know how serious the OP was in wanting to try more authentic Chinese cuisine. One of the more unique things about Chinese food vs. Western food is the emphasis the Chinese cuisine has on slipperry and rubbery texture which, let's be honest, freaks out a lot of Americans.

                                              Sea cucumber would have that unique texture, look a little weird to the casual American diner which could seaprate him from others who might have asked for traditional dishes but freaked out when they actually tasted it, be seafood related, and should still be something you could source even in Ohio.

                                              1. re: hobbess

                                                You raise an interesting point. But there are hard core Chinese people who don't really like sea cucumbers. Much like not everyone likes durian, but they would gladly swallow stinky tofu (or the other way around, like me I don't care for durian, but give me Taiwanese stinky tofu anyday). Same goes for Japanese people, not everyone likes natto or uni.

                                                But I think bottom line is that if the OP were down with something relating to animal innards, like pig's intestines (also a key ingredient in Fujian Taiwanese style oyster noodles, or oysterless versions), that should already be enough to move on to the hardcore stuff.

                                                1. re: hobbess

                                                  Wow! I think the sea cucumber barometer of authenticity is a keeper!

                                                  I think before I invite people to our Chinese New Year celebration, I'll "qualify" them by asking them to eat sea cucumber in some kind of casserole or stir-fry. Only the brave will get invited this year!

                                                  1. re: shaogo

                                                    Wait til you try sea cucumbers raw....now that's funky.

                                                    1. re: joonjoon

                                                      No, funky would be EATING raw sea cucumbers.

                                              2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                I'm with hobbess on this one. I think basically every Chinese restaurant owner, certainly outside of the bigger cities, believes the vast majority of his American customers have no interest in "real" Chinese food but only in C-A glop, which is all they know and all they are willing to try, and definitely is put off by any ingredients thought of by Americans as "icky" which would include sea cucumber. If an American customer asked for such an ingredient, this would surely trigger the thought that this guy at least in interested in going further into the real thing. He may not want to take you there for many reasons, as discussed in this thread, but he will at least not categorize you with all the others.

                                                I say this as someone who is at the moment visiting his elderly Mother in a small midwestern town, and had to endure a Chinese buffet dinner recently.

                                            2. re: Ernie Diamond

                                              It sounds like the owner isn't particularly interested in cooking you authentic Chinese food - it might be because they just don't want to, or they aren't set up for it, or they can't get good ingredients at a reasonable price, or even that they don't know how to cook the food from their home province. But you may be stuck.

                                              If you want to cook the stuff at home yourself, and you have some good Chinese groceries nearby, you may have more luck that way. Fujian cuisine uses a lot of seafood, so a source of good quality seafood would be essential.

                                              I'm in Taiwan, so I'm not too sure which items here are Fujian influence, and which come from other regions, but if you want suggestions of easy to source/cook local food from here, I can give you some.

                                              1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                                Thanks Tastes. I have actually found a new place where the owners are very friendly and have introduced me to traditional Lao cuisine. It's less about the food itself and more about the experience of finding something new.

                                                Have fun in Taiwan.

                                            3. Ernie Diamond,

                                              If you are positive that these owners actually cook traditional authentic Fujianese dishes (either off-menu or for themselves), then might I suggest the following.

                                              Offer to buy the owners dinner. They pick the dishes, they cook it, and you pay for it ... but you get to "join" them at dinner. Heck, even offer to sit at a different table if it makes them feel more comfortable about the whole thing.

                                              1. The other solution?

                                                Find out when the owners have a more senior (and still mobile is the key) member of the family visiting, or a relative, and the type you want to look for is a grandma who still cooks in the kitchen. Find a way to get invited to their house on their day off and experience home cooking (unless that is, they're just going to have Ling Ling frozen Costco pot stickers and rice for dinner or head out to your local steakhouse chain...).

                                                WIKI has a good overview with a few examples of Fujianese cuisine


                                                If the owners actually know how to make a proper good authentic Fujianese style fried spring roll (not the Americanized kind), that is arguably the origin of Filipino Chinese style lumpia, then adopt them immediately.

                                                1. A few points for the OP and those who have replied:

                                                  1. You might not like the family/staff meal. Not becuause it is too exotic but because it is too plain (as some replies have highlighted). Our home Japanese fare is simple to outsiders but tastes like home to us.

                                                  2. The restaurant might not be able to make more elaborate food for you because it is too expensive. Customers like Chinese and Japanese holiday and banquet foods. But such foods are expensive; and "glop" restaurants will have a minimum of expensive ingredients on hand.

                                                  3. But if you still want to eat good food with the hired hands and become a family member, learn enough of the appropriate language. You need only some polite greetings, some funny statements, mabe a few swearwords carefully applied, and a willingness to - if you then do get your way - to eat with gusto everything you receive.

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                    Thanks Sam et al.

                                                    At the end of the day, this probably boils down the restaurant and what they have on hand. As I said above, I may be guilty of the romantic notion of a secret world of beef tendon and mustard greens lurking behind the counter of every "Panda Express."

                                                  2. My area is blessed with an increasing number of truly authentic Chinese restaurants, and a large Asian population. Yet all of them hand out a default "American menu" most of the time - it often takes some arguing to get the Chinese menu. But there's been some accommodation, recently - some places have become widely known for their regional Chinese cuisine, and are a bit more comfortable handing Anglo diners the "good menu". It's kind of "on and off" whether they actually believe you when you say you want it served as spicy as they eat it at home. Also, a very few have combined the menus ("good stuff" in the back, or on a separate page) though the takeout menu is still always "egg drop / moo goo gai pan" exclusively. It helps if they know you, of course.

                                                    Perhaps it would help if you knew the Chinese names of some regional dishes you'd like to explore, and asked for them (I've even found a printed-out picture from the internet helpful a few times).

                                                    PS - a generous tip, a sincere smile and a hearfelt thank-you will definitely get you remembered.

                                                    1. I have many, many years of experience in the Chinese restaurant business.

                                                      The owners of some take-out only restaurants are just not very passionate about food. Their restaurant is a family business -- it's how they enrich themselves (well, hopefully enrich themselves, if business is okay). The food thing is not even secondary... it's way down the list. They provide a certain kind of American-Chinese food that the public expects. That's it.

                                                      Perhaps the OP will be able to get his shy restaurant-owner to open up. But there's also the possibility that she won't.

                                                      I *loved* the idea of sourcing some sea cucumber (the Fujian people love all manner of dessicated seafood) to demonstrate one's seriousness about authenticity. The Fujianese also use lots of dried shrimp.

                                                      One thing nobody's yet suggested is the idea of just showing up with a fish. A whole fish (I'd give sea bass, striper or similar) is a very traditional old-school kind of gift to give to a Chinese family. Maybe the OP would like to show up with two fish; one for them to cook for the OP's family, and one for their own. That'll go a long way toward establishing a less-than-arms-length relationship with these folks.

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: shaogo

                                                        I was a regular at a place in LA Chinatown and sometimes would show up with fresh fish (cleaned) I'd caught and have them cook it for me and give them the rest. It was a seafood restaurant so the preparation wasn't anything off menu that wasn't available to anyone else.

                                                        1. re: shaogo

                                                          I LOVE this suggestion! My thanks!

                                                        2. For anyone still interested, I went into a Thai place recently and asked about the ethnicity of the owners. I learned they were, in fact Lao and worked in the kitchen every day. Not only were they able to make me Lao meals off the menu, they were ecstatic to do it.

                                                          It is a favorite among favorites and I feel lucky to have found it. In three short weeks, I am now at the point of being able to call in, specify number of diners and come in to a prepared table of dishes, none of which I recognize and all of which are stellar.

                                                          The take away from this; it truly is about the owners. Some are into it, some aren't. It's worth finding the ones that are because when you hit it, you really hit it.

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: Ernie Diamond

                                                            This is so important in finding good food. I went often to an American chinese place often, not for the food but because the owner is really nice and it's convenient. The more I talk to her, the more I found out about the restaurant, eg. cook is from China but spent 20+ years cooking in Thailand and knows Thai food better. When I talked to the owner one day, I said I wanted something w/ a lot of vegetables. She asked a few questions, disappeared and came back w/ chap chae that she made (she's Korean). It was great and never something I would have gotten if I hadn't gotten to know her. Since then, we've ventured out more (when the restaurant isn't busy) and she's always ready w/ something that suits me, whether the chef made it or she did. It pays to develop a relationship.

                                                            As other restaurants go, the ones who don't care, my husband's cousin was just hired at a chinese american place. He can't cook but no one who goes to the restaurant knows what it's supposed to be like anyway--he just stir fries a bunch of things (keeping in mind basic seasonings in dishes) and there you go. Someone like that could never help w/ getting good food.

                                                            1. re: chowser

                                                              Well, if nothing else, I have learned that the good stuff is out there. It somehow makes the world of takeout food much more exciting.

                                                            2. A couple of things that come to mind as a person with Chinese ancestry and former line cook...

                                                              Are you sure that there are even Chinese people from China doing the cooking? Just because the owners are from Fujian doesn't mean the cooks are Fujianese as well. Here in Seattle, some Asian restaurants employ cooks from Mexico/South America, or the American-born children of the immigrant owners do the cooking. The folks doing the cooking are probably not trained Chinese chefs and their repertoires might be limited to menu items.

                                                              There may also be some cultural issues at play if the owners are very traditional-- my Asian-born parents were very cautious about befriending Americans because the rules of reciprocity and hospitality are different between cultures, and it made my parents very uncomfortable. Hey, I'm not saying it's right, but that's the way it was. So by all means, make an effort to befriend the owners, but understand that your efforts might be not be reciprocated and please don't force it. If you ride them hard enough, they will probably make you something special-- that doesn't mean that they'll be happy about it.

                                                              Some home-style or traditional dishes involve ingredients that are rather expensive or difficult to obtain, and can be extremely time and labor intensive (ie. dumplings). Having worked in (non-Chinese) restaurants, it can sometimes be a hassle to prepare "special" things off-menu-- first because the back of the house is often too busy to take special requests, and second, because it can throw off your prep counts for the night. And there's the "I'll have what they're having" issue, and all of a sudden, everyone wants to try the "special" dish and the kitchen is swamped. So please make your special request during a non-peak time when things are on the slow side.

                                                              And in a worst case scenario, you can always try to find some recipes on the web and try to prepare "traditional" Chinese dishes yourself. Chinese food is not magical alchemy and does not require Chinese ancestry to prepare, so check out your closest Asian grocery and give it a try!

                                                              2 Replies
                                                              1. re: chococat

                                                                Trying to cook it yourself is a great idea. And then maybe you can go into the restaurant and talk to the woman there about the successes you have had and any problems you have encountered. It would be interesting, at the least, to see how familiar she is with the dishes you have attempted.

                                                                1. re: huiray

                                                                  No secret...everyone and their mother has their own take on what it is.

                                                                  1. re: monku

                                                                    But not me! - Thanks for posting huiray.

                                                                  2. re: huiray

                                                                    Uhh...so what's the secret? He never actually says what the recipe is.

                                                                    1. re: joonjoon

                                                                      "The answer was given by one of the owner's sons: stock, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and a bit of cornstarch. "

                                                                      This is at the end of the fourth paragraph. And monku is right: every Chinese family has their own version. It's a generic sauce you use when you don't want to spend the time and effort to make something special.

                                                                      1. re: raytamsgv

                                                                        So true. It's sort of like gravy. There is no "secret" to making gravy. Everyone and their adopted red-freckled daughter has their own version.

                                                                  3. Here are some possible challenges that you may, but not necessarily, have to overcome, depending on your particular situation, and here are my suggestions:
                                                                    1) Don't bother with "tweaking" - probably won't work. Americanized and authentic are different animals;
                                                                    2) Tell them in no uncertain terms (politely, of course) that you wish to eat "Fujian food". Try to steer clear of using the terms such as "real" or "authentic" since by doing so, you're implying that they are selling fake Chinese food. People in-the-know know that it's not authentic, but you still can't say that outright since you are not close to them.
                                                                    3) Swear up and down that you will not complain if you do not like it (they're business people, after all; they're averse to any kind of hassle; last thing they need is to go out of their way to cook you what they already suspect you may dislike only for you to prove them correct);
                                                                    4) They may not know how to charge you for the food - offer a fair price;
                                                                    5) Obtain (in whatever way you can: internet, translation service, etc.) in writing the names of some classic Fujian dishes (with translations for yourself of course) - try to stick to family-style dishes, stuff that's not too overly fancy or elaborate;
                                                                    6) Find a job in the place. Maybe as a delivery person. You will likely end up sharing whatever they cook for themselves for lunch or dinner.
                                                                    7) Are you a regular? You did not state so in your original post. If not, make sure you become a regular, try a lot of various things (thereby making an investment in their business), which will cause them to more likely invest time and effort in your request.
                                                                    Good luck!