The Woes of Ordering Chinese Food (and how to overcome them)

Illustration by Hwans Lim

Let’s get it out there. Ordering Chinese food can be a scary, frustrating, and sometimes tricky ordeal. If you’ve ever had an ‘ordering Chinese food’ horror story, I feel your pain.

You see, it’s not that I can’t order in Chinese to save my life — I most certainly can. But most of the time, what stands in the way of me and my plate of chicken rice is the grumpy chicken rice uncle who is unperturbed by the ‘customer is always right’ concept. If I want my chicken rice without coriander, I’d better damn well make sure it doesn’t sound like it’s because I have a problem with his coriander (or I won’t get my chicken rice). These uncles and aunties are dignified, experienced cooks who make fantastic Chinese food, and the last thing you want to do is piss them off. After all, we have been culturally raised to respect those who put food on our tables.

Getting your Chinese food fix without landing on the bad side of these uncles and aunties can be tough and so is making sure you’ve ordered correctly. But know that you are not alone. Here are some of the troubles I sometimes face, and some ways you can avoid them.

Ordering Without a Menu at Tai Chow Restaurants

Classic tai chow dishes from OK Restaurant in TTDI

Nearly all tai chow-style restaurants seem to not believe in having formal menus. How else are they supposed to engage their customers in friendly food conversations? But as bossman walks over to take your order, fear creeps in — what if they charge you a bomb for a dish you’ve never even heard of? The key here is confidence. Don’t let them in on your lack of experience and take this systematic approach.

Step 1: Tackle one dish category at a time, like this: “Lou sai, yao meh choy?” (Boss, what vegetable dishes do you serve?)
Step 2: Hold your nerves, and nod knowingly as bossman spits dish names at the speed of light at you.
Step 3: Echo one of the dishes he mentioned that sounded vaguely familiar. If he nods in approval and proceeds to scrawl illegibly on his notepad, you have succeeded in ordering.
Step 4: Repeat Step 1 to 3 four more times (meat, fish, tofu, egg) for a full meal!

The fast-talking uncle in his white Pagoda t-shirt may seem intimidating. Just remember that he is accustomed to customers asking for recommendations and who need time to think. Have no fear, the tai chow uncle is a friend.

Being Ignored at Chinese Hawker Stalls

Once, I tried to order at one of these old school metal carts and was duly ignored as the aunty racketed her way through her cooking. It wasn’t until her helper came to my rescue that I managed to successfully place my order for a precious bowl of curry mee. I was sweating even before I started on the hot soup. The humongous perspex signboard ought to include a caution warning hostility. But all is not lost. With a little manners’ magic, your delicious curry mee with extra cockles will be within reach.

Step 1: Look out for the presence of a helper. These angels are usually tasked to take orders and alleviate aunty’s stress levels. If you don’t see one, proceed to Step 2.
Step 2: Tell her your order in the most concise words known to man, like this, “One curry mee. More cockles.” She has no time to waste.
Step 3: Smile and back away before the aunty rinsing noodles in boiling water gets flustered by your presence. Take caution of scalding water being flicked your way.

If you can coerce so much as a nod from her, voila! Your order will be served by one dependable albeit terrifying curry mee aunty.

Second-guessing your Roast Meat Order

Glistening roasts at Toast & Roast in SS2

My rookie mistake was stammering ‘char siew fan (pause)..uhh..and siew nga — ’. Before I could finish, the impetuous uncle shooed me off to make way for the next order. I did not get my roasted duck and pork belly that day. I blame the spellbinding, beautiful glisten of freshly roasted pork bellies, ducks and chickens hanging obscenely behind the glass, creating waves of self-doubt. Will I regret this? Will I feel the need to hit myself later for not ordering more? Am I better off with pork, duck or chicken? Will I suffer judgmental stares for ordering all three? Don’t doubt yourself, stay strong.

Step 1: If you’re trying to decide which meats to get, think hard about what you really want before you get in the queue to order. Holding up the line because you can’t decide is just not cool.
Step 2: Don’t second guess the inner voice telling you to order all three meats. List them out in rapid and confident succession. Speak loudly so that uncle hears you over the cacophony instrumented by his cleaver and wooden chopping board duet.
Step 3: The uncle will strip you down with his eyes. He doesn’t think a skinny girl like you can finish that much protein. Ignore him.
Step 4: Nod with confidence that your order is, in fact, correct while pointing in the vague direction of your seat.

When you’re desperately deciding which meats to order, remember that everyone here is a fellow meat lover. You’re amongst family, just as the plates of char siew you are going to eat most likely came from the same porcine. Order in peace, knowing that you can always look to neighbouring tables for meaty guidance.

If any of these situations sounded familiar, hopefully you’re now a little wiser because no matter how traumatising ordering Chinese food may be, we get through it for the love of char siew’s finer cuts and lustrous egg noodles.

Check out Burpple’s Guide to the Best Chinese Food in SS2, Petaling Jaya.

p.s. A Not-So-Definitive Glossary of Chinese Food:

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