A couple of days ago, Imagethief had lunch with four members of his team at a Chinese restaurant downstairs from our office. Choosing dishes was easy –I’ll eat almost anything– but, predictably, there was much debate about exactly how many dishes we should order. And, just as predictably, we ended up with twice as much food as we needed. This is the great conundrum of Chinese dining, and, indeed, most Asian-style dining.
In the US it’s simple. You decide what entree you want and you order it. The only complexity is whether or not you share appetizers with your friends, choosing the wine (it’s fiendishly easy embarrass yourself oenologically; in college I had a buddy who wrecked a date with a rich girl by breathing the white wine) and settling the bill. In the US, settling a split restaurant bill is the most mathematically challenging task you are ever likely to undertake unless you are a high-energy physicist. And if you’re a physicist, you’ll have purpose-written computer software to help you. There is no software for sorting out restaurant checks, and by the time you and your friends are done sorting out who had how many of what beverages, and which appetizers, and I didn’t drink any goddamned wine, someone always gets screwed. Bitter, trans-generational rivalries have started this way. The Hatfields and the McCoys? That started with a restaurant check. And that was just Arby’s; think how much worse it could have been.
Chinese dining trades the ordering simplicity and bill complexity for ordering complexity and bill simplicity. All the food goes into the middle, so you just divide the check by the number of people. Only miserly bastards will argue, “well, I had less of the duck tongue, so I shouldn’t pay so much”. You probably don’t hang out with people that anal, unless you are totally anal yourself. In which case, you probably live to dissect restaurant checks to two decimal places, so you’re wasting your time reading this. With even the beers being cheap in most Chinese restaurants, most of the time it’s not even worth adjusting for alcohol consumption. So the check is easy.
But the ordering, ah, now that’s hard. And it’s not just hard for the obvious linguistic reasons. Yes, you have to learn some food and cooking vocabulary, but that comes quickly if you don’t want to starve. And you do need to get past the Chinese infatuation with cryptic dish names. You’ll never know that “Buddha’s glistening five-taste jewels” is braised camel testicles with sea cucumber unless you ask. But what’s really difficult is figuring out how much you should order. How many dishes should go into the center of the table in order to ensure that your party is sufficiently fed, without causing cataclysmic waste?
Food is cheap in China, you argue, so why worry about cataclysmic waste? Well, guilt, for one reason. As a Jew, this is an inextricable part of my worldview. You can abandon kosher restrictions, but the guilt is bred in, like eye color and curly, brown hair. Remember all those years your mother told you that kids were starving in China, so you should shut up and eat the damned broccoli? That really comes back to haunt you when you’re actually in China, and you wander around some of the piss poor villages that begin on the far side of Beijing’s fifth ring road and stretch, more or less uninterrupted, all the way to Kyrgyzstan. And, really, who wants to see too much nice food thrown into the grime-blackened oil drums of the slop collectors? These are the poor souls who ply Beijing’s streets by tricycle and (illegally) xiao beng beng after dark, collecting restaurant leavings for the pig farms outside of town where they raise the pigs who will be, well, next week’s meals and, eventually, pig slop. It’s the Circle of Life, Beijing style. You won’t see Disney touching this one.
Also, of course, when there is a vast amount of food on the table in front of you, you’ll tend to eat it. Now this isn’t necessarily bad, but Beijing cuisine isn’t of the light and heart-healthy variety. It’s of the Exxon Valdez, billions of gallons of oil and salt mixing together variety. Too much at any one sitting will put you into a coma. Too many sittings will put you into a casket. A really big, reinforced casket. And China is short of wood, so this only compounds the guilt.
So this brings us to one of the truly great questions of our age. It’s right up there with, “is there an elegant, mathematical way to unify classical and quantum physical models?” or “who, in their right mind, thinks Paris Hilton is sexy?” That question is this: what is a truly rational ratio of Chinese dishes to people, assuming average people and an average restaurant? (I’ll assume that you’re smart enough to avoid one of those touristy “imperial” dives where they charge outrageous prices to serve you precious little niblets of bizarre organ meats that you could find being sold on sticks off the charcoal grill around the corner for a kuai a pop.)
Think about it. You and a friend go a Chinese restaurant for lunch. You probably could survive splitting one dish and rice, but you’ll get a meat (or tofu; equivalent for this exercise) and a vegetable. If you’re aggressive, you’ll get two meats and a vegetable because you feel that you need the variety to justify a Chinese restaurant. But this is a trap, and you’ve now over-ordered. With two people, one dish per person is appropriate. Add another person and you’ll definitely add another dish. Your still at one dish per person, following a classic “one-per-head” rule often applied by Chinese people. But with four people, what do you do? Four dishes for four people might be a lot. You could probably stick with three. Five people? You’ll want four dishes. Six? Dicey…four will instinctively seem too little to you, even though it’s probably correct. Six will definitely be too much. This is touch and go. Seven or eight people? Er, uh…
So you can see that lot of voodoo is coming to bear to here. And there is more complexity as well. When I say “dish” here, I am assuming one of the standards: a stir fried vegetable or a meat or tofu in sauce. But how do you account for the cold dishes, or veggies, which tend to be lighter? Or a duck, or even the mighty shuizhu yu, which are undoubtedly heavier? What about dumplings? Some places sell by the liang, some by orders of 10 or 12. Well, at this point you’re just guessing wildly, aren’t you?
Of course you could turn to the waitress for help because she, of course, has a totally disinterested perspective on what represents enough food for your party. This is a variation of the deadly trap in which you ask the waitress to recommend a dish. Yes, sometimes they’ll send you to a legitimate, hidden gem, but nine times out of ten the finger goes straight to the abalone and sharks fin XO supreme in tiger-penis broth at RMB888 a bowl. And, at a restaurant where a plate of yuxiang rousi costs 12 kuai, that can be a quite a shock to the system. In truth, I’ve never felt that Chinese waiters or waitresses were really aggressively pushing more food than was appropriate, but they’ll definitely err high. I can recall dozens of times where waiters and waitresses suggested we order just one more dish, and only one instance where we were told that we might want to take one thing off the list.
So, can this process be made easier? Can it be somehow defined in a way that will enable you to prove, mathematically, that you have ordered a correct amount of food? Who knows. But it’s Saturday morning, and I have nothing better to do, so I am going to try.
For simplicity, let’s assume that we want a system that sticks to the Chinese rule of one dish per head. So if you have five people, you want an aggregate score of five. But we also want a system that weights dishes correctly based on their gustatory impact. For instance, there is no way that your pai huang gua or bowl of white rice has the same impact as an oil-and-chili drenched mapo doufu. Now I don’t have time to sit here and individually weight every Beijing and provincial standard that you can order in this town, for Chrissake. But I can roughly categorize dishes in a way that, I hope, makes sense. So here is my proposed weighting system for types of Chinese dishes:
- White rice: .25 in aggregate (assuming everyone orders a bowl – if less than half the party orders white rice, ignore)
- Dumplings (shuijiao): .25 per liang of five or .5 for an order of 10 to 12
- Dumplings (guotie): .5 per liang of five or 1 for an order of 10 to 12
- Cold dishes (pickles, cold meats, appetizers, hua sheng, etc.): .5
- Plain breads (no meat): .5
- Desserts: .5 (this is counterintuitive as Chinese desserts are unparalleled calorie bombs, but I’ve always subscribed to the “separate tank” theory of dessert consumption
- Cooked green vegetables: .75 (that’s stir-fried or steamed green vegetables; di san xian,yuxiang qiezi, or anything in sauce counts as a full dish)
Standard weighted dishes:
- Soups and noodles: 1 (soup is a trap; don’t assume that it’s lighter than other dishes)
- Breads with meat (roubing, etc.): 1
- Standards: 1 (most meats, poultry and fish; vegetables in sauce or gan bian style; and any cooked or sauced tofu; the vast majority of dishes)
- Shuizhu yu or niu rou: 1.5 (I’m inclined to double weight it, but I’ll be generous)
- Beijing roast duck: 2 per duck and, yes, a half-duck is 1 point (the duck is greasy and there are pancakes, plum sauce, etc.)
- “Set piece” dishes: 2 (roast suckling pig, roast mutton leg, anything that serves as a centerpiece dish or that would be served at a wedding)
- Hot pot: .75 per person (so if you have four people, it counts as a total of 3 points)
- Intimidation dishes: 2 (bizarre organ meats; exotic animals; anything you are served by people trying to get a rise out of the laowai or that you serve to your “just arrived in China” friends to give them a taste of “the real thing”
So if you and five of your friends (six people total) are going out for dinner, you have an available score of six. Everyone has white rice, leaving you 4.5 available dishes. Two cold dishes leave you 3.5 remaining slots. Order two green vegetables and two standards, and it’s perfection. Or one standard, a duck and one more cold dish. Or, if this is a duck feast, six people qualifies for two ducks, a standard and two cold dishes. See how easy this is? For the sake of argument, I’ll even allow rounding.
Global modifiers affect the overall score of a meal. Positive modifiers are added to your available score to allow the addition of extra dishes, negative modifiers subtract from the total allowed dishes. For example, if you have four people, and, thus, a total available score of four, a global modifier of +2 allows you order dishes totaling a score of 6. Conversely, a global modifier of -2 would allow you to order only two dishes. Some global modifiers apply to specific numbers of people, and so must be modified for party size. Simple, isn’t it?
- Auspicious occasion (wedding, deal closure): +2 for every five people
- All just arrived in China: +2 (gotta experiment)
- All female party: -1 for each four people
- All teenage girls: -3 for each four people
- Lunch: -1
- Rugby team: x2 available score
- In Guangdong: -2
- In Sichuan or Hunan: +1
- Any restaurant with a floor show: -2
- Any restaurant with a government tourism or China Famous Brand plaque: -2
- Any restaurant at a provincial 办事区: +1
- Beer and other liquors: no impact
There. Drop that all into Microsoft Excel or a handy, slide-rule style device and you’re good to go. I’ve tested it not at all and I have very little confidence that it will hold up under rigorous examination. But, in the end, it’s as good as anything else you’ve got to work with. Suggestions for other weightings or modifications can be submitted via the usual methods. The Nobel committee can contact me care of this website.