The economics of the secret Chinese menu

by on August 13, 2009 at 2:16 pm in Food and Drink | Permalink

Jason Kuznicki asks why do they do it?  Why don't they make the "secret menu" common knowledge?  He gives some answers, including:

Americans have some very set though inaccurate ideas about what
“Chinese food” really is. They will generally balk at anything else.
More people will break this way, and avoid the restaurants, than will
break my way, and go to them more often, if they are offered something
new and different.

I would add that perhaps many Chinese restaurants do not want too many non-Chinese customers.  Especially for immigrants, restaurant life is often about ambience, social contacts, and feeling you have a space to call your own.  A restaurant cannot be all things to all people and the #1 best way of judging a restaurant is to look at its customers.  The "beef with broccoli" menu will attract a certain kind of American customer, but without breaking down the sense of segregation and the basic Chineseness of the place.

That said, there is also the fear that the American customers will order from the secret menu and then not like the chicken feet, etc. and give a bad report to their friends.

Thai restaurants don't have secret menus per se, but often you can talk a so-so restaurant into, for your sake, becoming a very good restaurant with real Thai food.

1 Scott Sumner August 13, 2009 at 2:26 pm

There is also price discrimination. Prices are often cheaper on the Chinese menu, as Chinese patrons are often more price conscious. This is partly reflected in the Chinese language options for tables of 4, 6, or 8. In Chinatown one will often see Western couples dining at small tables, while the Chinese often occupy large tables with family or friends. The Chinese pay a lower price per meal. I don’t recall seeing any English prices for multiple entree options.

2 C August 13, 2009 at 2:48 pm

Indian food in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, etc is usually not the same as Indian food in India. But it seems more likely that Indian food is being adapted to local tastes and ingredients than that Malaysians, Singaporeans, and Thais have “some very set though inaccurate ideas about what Indian food really is” (especially since M’sia and S’pore have large Indian populations).

This point generalizes to a lot of cuisines I’ve tried in various countries, but Indian food made for a good example.

3 peterg August 13, 2009 at 3:03 pm

We once went to a Chinese restaurant with some Chinese friends, and they ordered. They got into a big discussion with the waiter in Chinese, which we don’t speak. There would be some talk, then they’d all turn and look at us, then more talk, then further examination.
Of course, the waiter was telling them that the gringos didn’t like what they were ordering, and they were saying it would be ok, bring it anyway.
I think the restaurant had a very clear idea of what they thought would make the market happy and didn’t want to deviate from it.

4 Brian August 13, 2009 at 3:19 pm

We’ve got a pretty heavy Asian population around here and I’ve found if you frequent the restaurants often enough to be recognized as a regular, you can become familiar enough to the owners that you don’t even need to ask for a menu. In most of the Asian restaurants I know, I’ll just tell them about how much I’m looking to spend and they’ll whip up more traditional dishes that are generally not found on the English menus.

I don’t know if this is the same as ordering off the secret menu or not, but it goes along with the thoughts from Kuznicki that if chefs have a better idea of where your tastes lie, they’ll work to accommodate those tastes.

5 Lawrence M August 13, 2009 at 3:37 pm

I think it’s b/c there are so many variations of beef and broccoli that they don’t know how to explain it on the menu. Plus restaurants shouldn’t make a menu that is too long. That’s what I hate about Mexican restaurant menus. But at the Chinese restaurant you can always just order whatever you want without looking at a menu.

Furthermore, I also agree with the “Stuff White People Like† argument that a white person likes to be the only white person at an ethnic restaurant and since Chinese restaurants are no longer exclusive, the Chinese menu is his way of signalling to other white people in the restaurant that he is indeed more exclusive so Chinese restaurants cater to this (this explains In N Out as well).

6 Anonymous August 13, 2009 at 4:04 pm

I have a friend, a white woman who speaks Mandarin like a native. On more than one occasion when she ordered from the Chinese menu, in Mandarin, we were met with outright hostility. If we persisted in our desire to eat at the place, we received the most rude service and inferior food. The explanation, I think, likes in the Chinese national self-concept. They think of China as the Middle Kingdom, still, and of non-Chinese people as distinctly inferior and not deserving.

7 Pani August 13, 2009 at 4:38 pm

They are avoiding the tax man and hiding the evidence! You need to signal your willingness to pay in cash.

8 Mike August 13, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Maybe they simply don’t want to have to answer everyone’s questions about the more exotic traditional foods. Even more so if their employees are not very fluent in English.

9 Abraxas August 13, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Maybe they want to give the average customer the feeling like they are eating something exotic and unique.

10 forager August 13, 2009 at 5:40 pm

When I was in China, I would occasionally go into restaurants, and they would bring out the English menu (more like Engrish, but that’s another story). I would always tell them to bring out the Chinese menu as the prices were almost always much lower. Occasionally, they would resist bringing me the Chinese menu because I suspect they were embarrassed I would realize they were trying to rip me off, but they would always give in. I’ve only rarely spoken Chinese to waiters in the US (usually when someone is really struggling with English, and I am certain they speak Mandarin and not Cantonese), but they have all been extremely receptive. I suspect if anyone encounters actual resistance, it’s probably because they don’t want you asking questions about every item on the menu, ordering some rank fish, and then complaining about it.

Another very important thing, especially in America, is I bet a lot of the Chinese menus have illegal dishes on them. Chinese people truly enjoy dishes like shark-fin soup and aphrodisiac genitalia dishes that will get you massive fines in the US. It’s probably just not worth risk to have some random person looking at their true menu.

11 Taeyoung August 13, 2009 at 6:01 pm

Indian food in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, etc is usually not the same as Indian food in India. But it seems more likely that Indian food is being adapted to local tastes and ingredients than that Malaysians, Singaporeans, and Thais have “some very set though inaccurate ideas about what Indian food really is” (especially since M’sia and S’pore have large Indian populations).

This point generalizes to a lot of cuisines I’ve tried in various countries, but Indian food made for a good example.

This is definitely true of Chinese food in Korea, to the point that Chinese-Korean food is almost a distinct cuisine. Chajangmyun — noodles in brown sauce — is sort of the archetypal Chinese-Korean dish (you can get it delivered, and it’s cheap), but it’s not very much like the original Chinese version. Dae Sung Kwan, in Wheaton MD (near the metro station, actually) is a local place that, I think, specialises in Chinese-Korean food. But honestly, the only thing I’d ever get there is Chajangmyun, so I don’t really know.

12 Nathan August 13, 2009 at 6:07 pm

When I was in Goa, I had a couple of waiters tell me that they had beef dishes available, even though they weren’t on the menu. Possible explanations:

1) While Goa is much less Hindu than the rest of India, there are still enough Hindus that they might be offended and boycott any restaurant serving beef. So the restaurant only offers the beef dishes to those whom they can reliably distinguish as being non-Hindu.

2) Even among non-Hindus, beef consumption is rare in India due to cultural reasons and lack of availability. The restaurant may not always have it available, and thus it’s easier to simply mention it when it is rather than list on a menu.

1 seems a bit suspect, because I doubt you could keep the beef a good enough secret to avoid trouble. Any other explanations for the “hidden beef” menu in Goa?

13 Mitch Berkson August 13, 2009 at 8:24 pm

It would be valuable if someone knowledgeable in the various cuisines and languages would post lists of dishes likely to be found on the secret menus in both english, native characters and phonetics. That way one could go to the restaurant with a list of secret dishes to order and choose some subset based on what is available at that restaurant.

14 JW August 13, 2009 at 10:22 pm

At Hong Kong House in Knoxville, TN — an outstanding Chinese restaurant, yes, in Knoxville — you will find a rather long menu. One (and only one) of the pages is titled “American Chinese Food.” See the thread at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/546672

15 C August 14, 2009 at 12:20 am

Agree with the Doc. I’m actually a little surprised that the author of “In Defense of Commercial Culture” doesn’t talk more about how much he enjoys Americanized Chinese dishes. He should: they are as delicious as the Ecuadorian take on Mexican or the Malaysian take on Indian!

16 Alan Little August 14, 2009 at 7:32 am

I’ve had experences similar to Tyler’s “real Thai Food” episode a number of times in Indian restaurants in Germany. Go in with a predominantly European-looking party and the food is bland, creamy, Germanised crap. Go back to the same place with Indians and suddenly it’s good.

17 David August 14, 2009 at 8:57 am

On a somewhat related note, why did the woman who worked at the cleaners in the old Calgon commercial give away the “ancient Chinese secret”?

18 Geoff August 14, 2009 at 9:39 am

“Another very important thing, especially in America, is I bet a lot of the Chinese menus have illegal dishes on them. Chinese people truly enjoy dishes like shark-fin soup and aphrodisiac genitalia dishes that will get you massive fines in the US.”

Shark fin soup is not illegal in the US (although I wish that it were). You can find it in many Cantonese restaurants without a problem. The other dishes you refer to are rarely found in the US, partially because they’re just extremely difficult to procure. The most illegal dish you’re likely to find in many places is probably turtle, which are often sold too small, contra salmonella preventation regulations.

Here is another theory: it’s too much work for something few people will appreciate. The names of many Chinese dishes bear little relationship to the ingredients used in them – Beef with Broccoli is a handy shortcut for the majority of their audience, and it saves them from having to translate their menu and add the defining ingredients that would be required if someone was interested in, but not familiar with, 3 Treasure Beef.

19 Tom A August 14, 2009 at 9:43 am

Tony Bourdain broached this topic on No Reservations last season in the hidden secrets of New york City episode. Good episode too.

20 Bernard Yomtov August 14, 2009 at 11:32 am

I think sweth is right. There’s a danger that the customer will really hate the dish, and then you have a problem. Refund? Bad word-of-mouth? Loss of repeat business?

Better to be sure before selling someone something too exotic.

By the way, Calvin Trillin has some hilarious pieces on this in a couple of his early food books. He repeatedly tries to order items on wall signs, and is always refused.

21 tavish August 14, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Do you know how to translate “geoduck” into Chinese or from Chinese back into English? does anyone know how to even pronounce it in English? if the menu is throwing you for a loop, then i’d stick with places that have pictures. I laud you for being so progressive though eating in ethic restaurants. Thanks for supporting the restaurants that most embody the culinary spirit of East Manchuria.

22 Foobarista August 15, 2009 at 2:46 am

Even “unified” menus can have “stealth” Chinese versus non-Chinese preparation options. Chinese restaurants often put a note on the bill indicating whether the table is Chinese (the note is usually “Ren” or “People”) while non-Chinese tables will have “Guai” (Guai-Lo) or “White Ghost” in Cantonese. This directs the cooks to use the “American” or “Chinese” preparation for the food.

If you want the “Chinese” style, ask for the “Ren” version.

23 Sweth August 15, 2009 at 8:14 am

@George McCandless: do you know where to find this book, or whether that is the specific title? I can’t find it by Googling or by searching on the UChicago Press website.

24 Mitch Berkson August 16, 2009 at 8:31 am

Thanks for the pointer to McCawley’s book.

Perhaps another effective way to handle this would be to have a Chinese friend write out a note to the chef saying something like “I will be arriving shortly. Please prepare the following dishes for my party…” Especially since simply saying, in Chinese, that you want a dish with beef, vegetables and broth apparently is all that’s required to enter the magic kingdom.

25 mtlyorel August 17, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Let me offer some illuminating examples: I was at a Chinese restaurant popular with Chinese natives and the table next to me sat a woman and her two kids. She ordered a typical ‘white’ Chinese dish – fried chicken in heavy batter covered in globs of sweet and sour sauce. The dish came, she complained bitterly to the waiter saying that this is ‘not Chinese food’ that she know of and demanded a refund. What was served was a more traditional, non-Americanized version of the dish. But she was so sure that she knew how ‘Chinese food’ should look like that she was adamant in accusing the restaurant of ‘not knowing how to serve Chinese food’ and refused to pay for her meal. She made a big fuss and walked out.

I have another non Chinese friend who has absolutely no problem with ordering from the menu in Chinese restaurants. It is a myth that there is a ‘secret menu” for Chinese patrons. The ‘secret menu’ is more often than not seasonal delicacies.

I once ordered Chinese dessert for a ‘white’ friend of mine and when the dessert came, he took one taste, and puckered his lips like a spoiled brat saying how disgusting it tastes. I learned not to order anything ‘Chinese’ for my ‘white’ friends. I don’t make a face and a fuss when I go to a steak house or an Italian restaurant when I don’t like the food. Think about your ethnocentric reaction first before accusing people of discriminating white patrons of ‘Chinese’ food.

26 Wesley Tanaka August 17, 2009 at 3:26 pm

I’ve been in China 5 years, and I still don’t like chicken feet.

27 A. Lee August 20, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Here’s another theory:

It’s an important signaling mechanism for the Chinese customer.

Consider the plight of the Chinese overseas student. For you, most Chinese restaurants serve fairly Americanized Chinese food, and even the “authentic† ones could be a little more authentic. It’s not binary distribution of Americanized/Authentic, but rather a continuum, with two peaks.

The question is, how do you find the authentic restaurant? No restaurant is going to advertise how Westernized they are, they will only advertise their authenticity. The names don’t help, as Panda Garden is terrible, but Lucky Garden is wonderful. The single best indicator of authentic Chinese food is a Chinese-only menu, placed on the wall.

The menu is usually hand-drawn, either in calligraphy or cute, stylized “P-O-P† fonts favored by the young. For native speakers of Chinese, the menu itself is wonderfully expressive, and tells you something about the geographical origins of the restaurant owner. Consider the implications. Most importantly, it’s impossible to fake. A Chinese menu written by a non-native Chinese speaker would be laughably wrong. Secondly, you can even tease out the degree of authenticity. What you are looking for is casual competence – a seasonal menu dashed out on cheap paper by whichever kitchen staff has the best calligraphy. A professionally-printed wall-menu suggests too much money spent on things that are not food, and, even worse, none of the kitchen staff have decent Chinese handwriting.

So why keep it a secret? Why not add an English menu? Because if an English equivalent exists, there is no guarantee of authenticity. An English menu item suggests that a non-Chinese speaker could order that item, which brings the possibility that the chef will alter the dish to suit Western tastes. By restricting some menu items to a Chinese-only menu, the Chinese customer can be reasonably assured that the dish has not be altered in any way, as it is served exclusively to Chinese.

Since most non-Chinese speakers want the Americanized Chinese food, this does not unduly hurt their non-Chinese business. The benefit of strong signaling to their Chinese customer base outweighs the lost business of the rare, non-Chinese speaking, authentic Chinese food fan. Thus, the secret menu.

28 China Man August 21, 2009 at 10:51 am

A 100% Chinese person whose family owns a Chinese restaurant letting you know the “secrets” for the “secret menu:”

1) we keep our wait staffing lean – for an average-sized restaurant, you might have 3-4 waiters for 20 tables or so. So, waiters don’t have the luxury of explaining each dish to one table for 10 minutes when Table A4 is waiting for their food and Table C2 wants to get their change back. So, the easiest thing is to provide a menu full of dishes that are “popular” for people who don’t know the more traditional dishes.

2) we are a low-margins, high-volume business. This isn’t Le Bernardin, folks. I can’t charge you $250 tasting menus and let you linger around savoring each morsel. Would love too, but then folks here would complain about the prices. So, prices are low. Hence, I need you to eat for a reasonable time and then leave so other folks can start eating and, more importantly, paying. So, it doesn’t help this business model when Mr. Novice Chinese Diner starts asking what’s in the “Ants Climbing a Tree” dish (it’s not ants, btw; it’s ground beef). Mo people, mo money business model = don’t give out the secret menus. with scary-sounding dishes. This isn’t just in Chinese restaurants. Try going into your local McDonalds and start asking the counter guy what the difference is between the Big Mac and Quarter Pounder and how long the French Fries were fried. Not fun.

3) I can’t deny it: many of my Chinese comrades don’t speak English very good. It’s not their fault; they emigrated to this fine country at an adult age and it’s hard to learn the language while also working 12-hour days. Put another way: let’s see how well we can all learn Russian at our adult age while working full time. I wouldn’t get beyond “Da.” So, they can’t explain the “Buddha Jumps Over Wall” dish easily or quickly to Mr. I Need to Know the Origins of the Food Diner. So, don’t give out the secret menu.

There’s some pretty weirdo explanations posted here. But there’s no conspiracy or reverse racism going here. Trust me – we love to take your money. But giving out the secret menus to everyone coming in would actually mean less money in my pocket. And then I need to answer to the scariest of all: Mrs. Wife.

29 Tim October 18, 2009 at 6:44 pm

I can speak at least for the Sichuan Pavilion of Rockville, mentioned above, which opened in mid July, as I am an in-law to the owners (and not Chinese). The publication of their “secret” menu, was actually just the translation of their original draft menu, which was intended to consist mainly authentic Sichuan food. The menu, which my wife and I helped translate (and not perfectly in many instances for various reasons), was meant simply to give English speakers a rough idea of the ingredients, sometimes with traditional flowery names, as I recall, but more often without. It may be possible for a customer to order something prepared a little specially, but I think that customers recognize that they are all getting the same things.

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