The Secret Chinese Menu, Now in Full View

many hands using chopsticks to grab food from a plate
Ringing in the Year of the Horse at Lucky Bamboo in Nashville

I recently wrote a piece for my local daily, The Tennessean, about a new trend I’ve noticed—even in Nashville—of Chinese restaurants making the “secret menu” available to us all. No more withholding the real Chinese food from us non-Asians!

Here’s an excerpt:

I read one of those perennial Chinese food stories recently. The one where the guy discovers that his favorite Chinese restaurant has one menu for him, a white guy, and another, secret menu for Asians that has all the good stuff on it. I don’t doubt that’s still true in a lot of American-Chinese restaurants. But a more timely and revelatory story might have been how that’s changing, how America has a lot more Chinese-Chinese restaurants nowadays where everyone gets the same menu. Granted, the menu sometimes has two sections, the American-Chinese section and the Chinese-Chinese section, but we all get the same menu with the same choices, written in both Chinese and English.

That’s a miracle, really, considering the history of Chinese food in America, but one we should embrace. Now that the whole menu is in full view, it’s just up to non-Asian Americans to choose the right things if they want to eat Chinese food like it’s eaten in China.

I’ve actually had the system beat for a while. I always ask for the Chinese menu because I have a secret weapon in my daughter, FongChong, adopted straight out of China fully fluent in Mandarin (and Cantonese). She knows the language but not all the dishes, and I know the dishes but can’t read Chinese, so we’re a great team. We conquer the secret menu even though people assume she can’t read Chinese because she has a white mom. We’re also good when we travel to larger cities with regional Chinese restaurants doing their thing for their own people and writing all the specials in Chinese only. Now I’m not saying that’s why I adopted a Chinese tween, but it sure is a nice perk of older-child adoption.

Read more in The Tennessean

About Taylor Holliday

The Mala Market all began when Taylor, a former journalist, created this blog as a place to document her adventures learning to cook Sichuan food for Fongchong, her recently adopted 11-year-old daughter. They discovered through the years that the secret to making food that tastes like it would in China is using the same ingredients that are used in China. The mother-daughter team eventually began visiting Sichuan’s factories and farms together and, in 2016, opened The Mala Market, America’s source for Sichuan heritage brands and Chinese pantry essentials.

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  1. As an expat in China, I think this is fascinating. After living here for more than three years, I honestly find it hard to remember what Chinese-American food is like. I’ll check out the rest of the article. Has it generally been difficult finding food that suits your daughter’s tastes?

    1. Hi Gus!

      I really should have followed up on this post and set the record straight years ago. Within about three months of opening the restaurant with real Sichuan food, the owner had gotten so many complaints about the mala, from both white and Taiwanese customers, that he had to revert to mostly American Chinese. Huge loss for Nashville, which just wasn’t ready. Regardless, I would still have been my daughter’s personal Sichuan chef. 🙂

      I enjoyed and learned from your blog post about the reaction to the election in China. Keep it up!