Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why I Don't Use Chopsticks

Having garnered some attention as the person who has eaten at over 6,000 Chinese restaurants, a great deal of focus has been paid to the fact that I can't use chopsticks.  This has generated some negative response in the form of "Well if you like Chinese food so much, why don't you learn to use chopsticks?"  Well the answer lies not in not wanting to use chopsticks, but not being able to use them.

They say the proper way to hold a pair of chopsticks is to hold them the same way you hold a pencil.  That's fine, but I never learned how to hold a pencil the right way.  My mom told me that when I was in the first grade, the teacher spotted the fact that I held the pencil incorrectly.  But alas, it was too late.  She could not undo what I had started and was unable to correct my pencil holding style.  Consequently, my fingers do not have the muscles needed to operate chopsticks. Indeed, I can't even use the spring operated chopsticks mentioned in the L.A. Times article for the same reason.  And believe me it's no fun travelling to Asia and having to remember to bring a fork to every meal, just in case the local restaurant didn't have any.  Interestingly, that has not been an actual problem except for once, in of all places, Los Angeles.

Note that the inability to hold a pencil properly is more than an annoyance.  In holding a pencil the way I do, writing becomes very painful after a short period of time.  Indeed, when I sat for the bar examination in the pre-computer days, I had to do hand exercises for weeks before the bar exam to prepare for the three day writing marathon.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Is. P.F. Chang Really A Chinese Restaurant?

One topic which commonly starts a food fight on internet message boards is whether P.F. Chang can really be classified as a Chinese restaurant.  You see it on Chowhound where somebody makes a comment about P.F. Chang which is followed by indignant responses that P.F. Chang does not serve Chinese food.  Likewise you also see comments on Yelp to the same effect.  Now P.F. Chang certainly doesn't serve authentic Chinese food, but neither do Americanized Chinese restaurants.  Can we say that P.F. Chang is so far afield that even if classifying Americanized Chinese food as still being Chinese, it still doesn't qualify?

Based on my personal experience I would agree that P.F. Chang fails the minimum requirement for being classified as a Chinese restaurant.  I remember walking into a P.F. Chang in San Diego, ordering the lemon chicken, and thinking that while the dish it was good, it certainly wasn't Chinese.  In the case of the lemon chicken, it wasn't breaded like the "authentic" Americanized version of that dish, the sauce wasn't sugary sweet, nor was it gloppy as the dish is typically made.  It was as if they took the name of a real Chinese dish and did their own take on it.  There's nothing wrong with that, except that continuing to call it Chinese is definitely a misnomer.

Confirming that P.F. Chang really doesn't serve Chinese food is one of my friends who hates Chinese food.  A couple of times a year I hold a gathering for a sizable group of people who worked together in the 1980s.  Typically I hold the event at a Chinese buffet because people straggle in and out at different times and this lets people choose the food items they prefer.  But this friend never shows up at these events even though she knows most of the attendees, because that's how much she dislikes Chinese food.  Oh, but there is one "Chinese restaurant" she will eat at--P.F. Chang.

There are any number of other factors which further reinforce the feeling that you're not eating Chinese food.  First of all, there is no P.F. Chang.  Rather the chain was started by Paul Fleming (the P.F.), who did bring in a Chinese consultant, Philip Chiang, that they could name the restaurant after.  Likewise, unless it's by happenstance, the person in the kitchen cooking your food isn't Asian.  While it is debatable whether one has to be Asian to be able to cook Asian style food, it does add credibility knowing somebody Chinese is in the kitchen. 

Then, look at the menu.  First of all, an extensive wine list is something almost never seen at a real Chinese restaurant.  Some Chinese restaurants do have a well stocked bar with hard liquor, and many offer beer, but few serve wine, particularly since wine really doesn't pair with Chinese food.  (Hmm.  Tofu with white wine, sea cucumbers with red?)  Then there's the dessert section full of chocolate goodies, cheesecake, and other Western desserts, never ever seen at a Chinese restaurant.  Not to mention that the main menu is peppered with Southeast Asian and other Pan Asian, non-Chinese items.  And when have you ever seen tuna served at a Chinese restaurant?

So while different people may have different definitions of what exactly constitutes a Chinese restaurant, I have to agree with those who conclude P.F. Chang really isn't Chinese.