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Chopsticks or Fork. Why Two Menus In Chinese Restaurants?

Rebecca Mae Lam finds an identity crisis in Mcr Chinese restaurants

Published on November 18th 2013.

Chopsticks or Fork. Why Two Menus In Chinese Restaurants?

Being from a mixed Chinese and English background, I have found that food has always been my anchor to an otherwise distant and often abstract heritage. Admittedly, I’ve had the best of both worlds and have only ever been exposed to ‘proper’ Chinese food. However, like many others out there, I have on occasion been the unfortunate victim of the dreaded ‘Two Menus’.

The future of Chinese restaurants depends on their ability to move forward and respond to the demand of modern diners, this includes committing to providing the same experience for everybody

For those who are unaware of this phenomenon, allow me to explain, the majority of Chinese restaurants in Manchester have two separate menus, one for the Chinese and one for everybody else.

The latter features all of the Anglicised dishes that have come to form the impression of what many people constitute as Chinese food, when in actual fact these dishes were developed to gently introduce Western taste buds to Eastern cooking.

China town - dark clouds of change

China town - dark clouds of change

But surely, in the year 2013, when everybody is more food and drink savvy than ever, can we not expect more from Chinese restaurants? Why are they not rising to the occasion to provide ever more adventurous customers with something worth talking about?

Good, authentic cooking should be exciting, not comfortably uninspiring. Chinese cuisine is one of the most diverse and intriguing cooking styles in the world and yet many diners are, through no fault of their own, so limited in their experience.

Let me conceptualise this a little by depicting the contrast between the experiences of a non-Chinese family and a Chinese family in a restaurant.

A couple of years ago, I went into my second favourite Chinese in town (no kiss-and-tell) with my non-Chinese mother and grandmother, all of us well informed in the cuisine and etiquette. Everything was going so well until the forks and the menus arrived. Presumably due to my non-Chinese company, I was given the Anglicised menu which lists only a small fraction of the dishes that I have come to know and love.

What, no forks?

What, no forks?

This means that I have to go through the motions of confusing the waiter as I parrot the names of my favourite dishes in Chinese. He then proceeds to speak back in lightning fast Cantonese, forcing me to reply that “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese” and a very awkward silence follows. The evening continued to plummet when I asked for the bill and I saw that we had been charged for the tea.

These occurrences may sound like minor, trivial flaws to the overall evening but in reality they represent a much wider injustice and inequality that exists in the industry.

To demonstrate, let me continue by giving a brief description of the standard experience when dining with the Chinese side of my family instead.

Firstly, no forks. If in 2013 somebody can’t or is unwilling to try and use chopsticks properly, let them ask for their own forks; I consider it rather patronising when forks are immediately dropped on the table. Then the authentic menus arrive, featuring a myriad of options including various Chinese cooking styles. All of the following are complimentary: pots of jasmine or black tea (or both, and as many as you like), soup for the table as an appetiser, followed by sweet soups, jellies and fruits at the end of the meal.

So why the distinction? Why can’t the experience be the same for everybody? The editor of this site found out how frustrating things can be with this article.

Chow Mein - strictly for non-Chinese

Chow Mein - strictly for non-Chinese

It appears that the Two Menu system prevails mainly due to an underlying fear that the public will not like what they order, or moreover will be put off by the unconventional phrasing. In other words: they don’t think we can handle it. But isn’t that part of the fun? Ordering Three Treasures Harbour Style without knowing what it actually consists of? And surely, that’s why menu annotations exist...

Many members of the community, including restaurant managers, will agree that there has been little innovation since the first boom of Chinese restaurants and takeaways. Both the industry and Chinatown itself seem to be in a rut. Modernisation is desperately needed in both cases.

Some restaurants are doing this and setting a standard for everybody else, but the proliferation of buffet restaurants means that the majority of footfall tends to go for the garish temptations of all you can eat deals. But for those looking for quality, there are few restaurants that you can trust.

These are the ones responding to the evolving sensibility of Mancunian punters. Restaurants now face the complex task of catering for an ever demanding, ever curious public. Not only that, but the massive increase of Mandarin Chinese into a community that was predominantly Cantonese.

It seems that the Chinese restaurants of Manchester are perhaps undergoing some kind of existential crisis. Their identity no longer swings between the rigid and dated ideas of ‘English’ and ‘Cantonese’, because what does it really mean to be either of those things anymore?

But one thing is for sure; the future of Chinese restaurants depends on their ability to move forward and respond to the demand of modern diners, this includes committing to providing the same experience for everybody...

Or if in doubt take a Chinese friend along.

Sui Mai

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19 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Swiss JamesNovember 18th 2013.

Waiters in some restaurants signal to the chefs whether the customers are Chinese or not, so they can tailor the dishes. So two people ordering the same dish can end up with different tastes.

pollolocoNovember 18th 2013.

Commented on this site about this over 5 years ago

1 Response: Reply To This...
LongmemoryNovember 18th 2013.

Well done - you must feel very clever

pollolocoNovember 19th 2013.

not really, just think its a subject that's long overdue if restaurants in Chinatown are going to progress from their current predictable existence. Some do, however the majority still cater to the sweet and sour brigade.

Darren KellNovember 19th 2013.

So where can I find an authentic meal Saturday lunchtime - recommendations?

1 Response: Reply To This...
Pretty Brown GirlNovember 19th 2013.

Pacific Restaurant : Rice & Noodle Menu OR thier Dim Sum menu which has % off (cant remember how much off sorry) Fu's : Cafe style place but they WILL give you the leatherbound menu initially if you are not Chinese -so ask for the Chinese menu instead.

Pretty Brown GirlNovember 19th 2013.

I have to agree with the crazy chicken person-How has this person ONLY JUST discovered this? I am very aware of the Secret-Chinese-menu habit that most (-though not all) Manchester Chinese Restaurants have and often ask for the Chinese menu (If only just to see the waiting staff's faces when they have to take back the leather bound folders with extortionate prices and hand over the laminted card ones with the better prices and authentic food-hee hee!!) Sorry to generalise but I feel that Chinese staff at restaurants just feel that British people are not worthy of thier culinary delights-and they are delights!!! I used to get annoyed about it, but nowadays its just something I get ready for when requiring authentic Cantonese food. Ever since Half-Price Dim Sum at Tai Wu has gone its just a bit of a battle when dining out.

Paul CarterNovember 19th 2013.

Hunan, Red Chilli, Red and Hot for authentic dishes without having to ask for the Chinese menu.

Chris GreenNovember 19th 2013.

Great article, and had the same experience on many occasions, myself being English and my wife Chinese. But things can fall the other way. A few years ago we got a Hi-Life 241 card after seeing it advertised in a big Chinese restaurant in Manchester. When we went to the same restaurant with the card, showed it on arrival, had a meal from the usual Chinese menu, but when we came to pay, it was sorry, it's not allowed, it only applied to the English menu. Was pretty annoying at the time!!!

Jenny CollinsNovember 19th 2013.

Can Confidential try to get a response from one of their Chinatown friends, someone in the business, I would love to hear the other side to this?

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousNovember 20th 2013.

Good idea Jenny.

AnonymousJanuary 14th 2014.

Having worked in Chinese restaurants at my time in University, you people who say you can deal with the ''authentic'' cuisine is only 4% of the general ''everybody else'' population. Many times have I serviced tables of non-Chinese background who wanted to order something authentic and then complained it was not nice or it had things in it that they didn't eat or did not like. Then demanding a change or a refund and bad review this happens more times than people think. It is a restaurants way of protecting themselves. 90% of the people out there are not adventurous when it comes to dining.

AnonymousNovember 20th 2013.

Does anybody eat out in the China Quarter these days? It's not the eighties. The area would be great for apartments now.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AVONovember 20th 2013.

Does anyone even call it the China Quarter?

AnonymousNovember 21st 2013.

Yes they do. There's lots of Quarters in Manchester now. There is no town between Portland and Moseley streets, but there are several businesses owned and run by Chinese people or people of Chinese decent.

AnonymousNovember 20th 2013.

I am a white English male and own a restaurant. I offer a cheaper more varied menu with various complimentary offerings to other white English people. I offer a more expensive limited menu to non white non English people. Not sure how long my restaurant would last?

2 Responses: Reply To This...
GimboidNovember 21st 2013.

A faultless comparison, I'm sure.

AnonymousNovember 21st 2013.

To add to that, they are legally entitled to refuse employing people of non Chinese descent on the grounds of authenticity.

DrakeNovember 21st 2013.

I always love to see westerners using chopsticks, it's an excellent example of cultural cringe. Despite the fact that the fork is simply a much-better designed implement for eating with than two pieces of bamboo. It's like bicycling when you could drive a car: deliberately luddite and simply designed to make the participant feel smug,

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