Sunday, August 16, 2009

Chinese Economy

Last year around this time Kansas City Lunch Spots informed white people across the metro about the existence of a Chinese menu at Chinese restaurants. I've known about this phenomenon for many years thanks to accompanying a Korean girl to restaurants for a couple of years in the late '90's. Virtually any Chinese, Thai or Korean has a menu specifically for those of the ethnicity. But white folks can have this menu too, technically it's against the law for them to deny it to you.

I've only found it worth my while to get the menu for Koreans on rare occasions and I don't know what I'd even want off an authentic Chinese menu. But sometimes it's fun to peruse the ethnic menu.

Anyway, a couple of economics bloggers I read tried to sum up the economics of keeping the Chinese-only menu secret.
1. Path dependence (a): 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.

2. Path dependence (b): Setting up a restaurant is a ton of work. Someone or some entity tells Chinese restaurants what they must to sell to appeal to Americans, and all the restaurants are following the same bad advice. The agent(s) to blame aren’t as subject to market forces because Chinese immigrants have fewer contacts than most others in America. If this seems speculative, consider how few different brands of chopsticks you’ve seen at Chinese restaurants, from the fabulous ones to the truly wretched. There aren’t that many.

3. I hate to bring up the obvious, but… chauvinism. Chinese people have certain ideas about Americans, including that our culinary tastes are incredibly narrow. Obviously, this may be partially true, given (1) above.

4. The high costs of offering so many different dishes. I’m skeptical of this one, because Chinese people are usually offered the Chinese menu, if there is one, while Americans get the American menu. The costs of being able to prepare the dishes are in place either way.

Tyler Cowen offers this.
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.

I think they're both overthinking it. I would submit that the Chinese proprietor knows that Mary Homemaker has no interest in an authentic Chinese meal, they just want their beef and broccoli takeout.


m.v. said...

the other issue is that the fake American-oriented Chinese menu actually tastes good,at least to me,so while fully realizing that it has nothing to do with real Chinese meal I will order it anyway.It takes somewhat of a courage to try some of the things they eat.

logtar said...

I know how to order from the "other" menu. The problem is that here in KC they will not serve me, or tell me that the dish is not theirs (I've had Korean people tell me that they don't eat X or Y). It has been annoying because I have not had some of my favorite dishes in a while because they just simply refuse to acknowledge that since I am not with a native speaker, that I actually know what I am talking about.

Anonymous said...

It's like Mexican food. I think "authentic" Mexican food is shit. Runny, flavorless soupy crap. But Tex Mex is actually really good. We as a culture took the best parts of Mexican food and made it better.

If you're Mexican and want a taste of home, don't let me get in the way. But I don't eat that crap. Nor would I anticipate you'd like mine. But that's what the free market is for.

I just get a little irritated when people talk about the "authentic" this and that. Authentically crappy is how I think of it.

Brian Rules the World said...

I couldn't agree less with the Anon poster. Tex-Mex is all variations of the same thing. Seriously, explain to me the fundamental difference between tostados and hard shell tacos. Real Mexican is 1000 times better than that bastardized version of it that most places serve.

Got to agree with Meesha though, most Americans don't realize that egg rolls and fortune cookies aren't chinese. once you've had the real deal, the American style is never quite the same.