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Off the Menu: Menus for an Indivisible World

by Harley Spiller

Restaurant Reviews

Summer Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(4) page(s): 9 and 12

Just as I was about to sit down and write this review for the Golden Monkey Restaurant, the first to introduce traditional Chinese foods like duck blood and beef tendon to Manhattan's Upper East side, several things happened to give me pause for thought. Most importantly, the June 1997 issue of Flavor and Fortune arrived with the incisive article by Imogene Lim discussing why Chinese restaurants often have two menus. That article offered an interpretation of Western reactions to this dichotomy.

Golden Monkey, at 1367 First Avenue, opened its doors in May with two menus for in-house dining and another for take-out. One of the in-house menus, and the take-out menu, listed standard Chinese-American dishes and a handful of less-common entries. The third menu listed many funkier items, many never before seen outside of this city's Chinatown. Then one day, just a few months after the grand opening, the three different menus were combined into one all-purpose listing. Had they read Imogene's article?

In April, at the Jade Chopsticks Awards, Tim Zagat noted that the only thing keeping Chinese cuisine from the higher status accorded French cooking was a lack of understanding between Chinese restauranteurs and Western patrons. More accurate translations and a willingness to experiment with each other's palates, he proposed, would propel Chinese cuisine to its rightful position as one of the world's finest.

What's happening? Are Chinese people assimilating into Western culture more rapidly than ever before? Is the homogenization of international cultures now being hosted by the World Wide Web making restaurants more willing to serve true native dishes; or is it more likely to "water down" indigenous cuisine to suit foreign tongues? It has been many years since Seattle's "Chinatown" was renamed "International District" to account for the neighborhood's broad diversity of Asian, Central and Latin American populations. In Seattle, the language used in all foreign restaurants is English. From omentum to pizzle, from sea cucumber intestines to water convolus, everything is listed in English, and the system works. People know what's available and what they are eating.

It is surprising to learn that English also makes it easier for Chinese people to communicate among themselves. Taiwanese friends of mine always choose the McDonald's on Canal Street as their meeting point. They've learned that choosing a location with a Chinese name leads to confusion among friends who speak a variety of languages and dialects. Even Golden Monkey's name can be confusing. Golden Monkey refers to a traditional Chinese myth, but the restaurant's name in Chinese characters has nothing to do with that story. The Chinese characters literally mean "the powerful emperor of four rivers," but Chinese people understand the name to mean "the best of Sichuan cuisine."

Imogene is right, we all have a lesson to learn "about assumptions made by both parties about one another." Once we acknowledge cultural differences, "we are better positioned to educate "the wider public to standards and traditions within a certain cuisine." The Golden Monkey Restaurant is a forerunner in making this valiant effort to teach and learn.

Established in Flushing, New York in the borough of Queens, Golden Monkey flourishes in pan-ethnic Queens having received many enthusiastic reviews, including particularly glowing praise from the honorary chair of ISACC, Flavor and Fortune's parent organization, Ken Hom. When they opened their second restaurant, this time on the Upper East side, they learned that breaking Manhattanites' addiction to faux Chinese foods with sweet, thick sauces would be a challenge.

A bright yellow flag boldly announces Golden Monkey's "Original Szechuan Style," but a chat with the manager reveals that the staff is actually Taiwanese, "so we serve the best dishes from all regions of China." They excel when it comes to strongly flavored beef and pork dishes. Thinly Sliced Beef Tendon is a smooth-textured cold appetizer with a glowing flavor that lingers long after the plate is cleared. As a main course, beef tendon is cubed and sauteed in a rich brew of soy, ginger, fresh hot pepper, and scallion.

Sliced Beef with Peppercorns is Golden Monkey's subtle and elegant best-selling entree, but it is outdone by the primordial hunk of Pork Shoulder (stewed) in Brown Sauce, or the Steamed Rib Tips on a spiced bed of sweet potatoes. Da Lu Noodle in Thick Soup is the biggest and best meal north of Canal Street. It consists of fat Shanghai wheat noodles anchoring a hearty broth laden with tomato, strips of pork, mushroom, chunks of bamboo shoot, green vegetables, egg, and more for only $4.50.

Ken Hom is right about the Vegetable Roll with Hot Sesame Sauce; it is juicy, pungent, and properly salted as he says, but does he really think that each bite is a "psychedelic experience?" Well-prepared casseroles are hard to find outside of Chinatown but I'm waiting for further explanation before attempting Golden Monkey's $29 Hot, Hot Pot; or trying the $33 1/2 and 1/2 Hot Pot.

Golden Monkey's staff tries their "doggonest" to help Westerners through the maze of authentic dishes including Sea Cucumber with Shrimp Caviar Sauce, Duck Tongues with Basil, or a vegetarian dish that should delight PETA activists, Bean Curd as Bear's Hand. Nonetheless, miscommunications abound, such as the time a waiter circled and recircled the dining room, vainly searching for the party that had ordered beer. It was finally determined that they had said "brown rice," not Budweiser.

Although Golden Monkey draws a lot of all-Chinese parties, most customers are part of America's "Shrimps in Lobster Sauce" set. They love old standbys such as Sizzling Salmon Filet, Beef with Broccoli, and Sesame Chicken, but shrink back at the thought of trying something new.

If only more Western customers could trust the staff once in a while and venture into uncharted waters when a dish called Oyster with Crispy Bean Fluff is recommended. Unlisted on either of the original menus, the crispy bean fluff known as tosu in Taiwan, is a soy product with a texture and flavor not unlike wheat germ or texturized vegetable protein. Originally created as an inexpensive way to flavor rice during wartime in Taiwan, the crisps combine with oysters and fresh bean curd to make a triply-textured and inordinately succulent platter.

How Special Steamed Egg with Dried Scallop is another starter of merit, and Golden Monkey is one of the few uptown spots that serves chewy dense and filling Chinese rice cakes sauteed with salted vegetables; a real steal at $4.95.

A final event occurred in mid-1997 to help focus this review and response to Imogene's article. I had the extra good fortune to be invited to a home-cooked birthday banquet for my Sichuan-ese cousin by marriage. Among the dazzling array of slow-sneaking Sichuan flavors was a disarmingly simple dish that I could not stop eating. I though it was pork with ginger and scallions, but it turned out to be a hometown favorite, a platter that every self-respecting Sichuan housewife serves at least three times a week, Twice Cooked Pork. There were no squares of green and red bell peppers, there was no thick brown sauce, and the pork was still on the bone. Redolent of the freshest ingredients, this was the real deal, an honest-to-goodness Chinese dish all about texture and flavor. It was very different than that which I had previously accepted as authentic Twice-Cooked Pork. There is another dish called Thrice-cooked Pork, but I didn't dare ask.

I'm Jewish but love many non-kosher items like pork and shellfish. Then again, I love Gefilte Fish while other Jews abhor its glutinous gel. Imogene's right again. Being of a certain race "does not give one a genetic predisposition to enjoying the cuisine of one's ancestry." Japan is evenly divided between lovers and haters of natto, a fermented soybean breakfast food that makes the scent of blue cheese seen positively rosy. Guessing that a Shanghainese guest at my cousin's birthday banquet would be unable to enjoy the spicy Sichuan fare, our hostess prepared a mild dish of Shrimp and Green Peas. It was the only dish out of the fourteen choices which this Chinese man truly enjoyed.

Golden Monkey is intrepid in efforts to break new ground, and they are to be commended as much for their fine cuisine as for their courageous attempts to reach out to Americans. Granted, they don't serve home-cooked meals, but that's not their job. Nonetheless, Westerners need to sample a bit of every style if we are to form true and balanced opinions about Chinese culture and cuisine. As Imogene says, it's all about "survival, adaptation, and community." That's the key. There is great promise in our increasingly pluralistic society, so come on everybody, go for it, take the plunge, be a challenger. We can all profit by trying something new from another culture and sharing something old from our own.

Hasten to Golden Monkey at 1367 First Avenue, in Manhattan; call for directions; their phone number is (219) 535-7530. They are open seven days a week from 11:30 am to 11 pm.

Harley Spiller maintains the world's largest collection of Chinese menus. His oldest dates from a March 15; it is a 1898 banquet. Check the next issue of Flavor and Fortune to learn about the recreation of this banquet on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. That's for later, now Harley would like to thank Hong Liu, Kin Tsui, Tzu Chi, Shiao Ping, and Zhong Hong for their invaluable guidance with the above article.

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