Photo by umami
This weekend, I ate dinner at Nam Viet in Cleveland Park. Nam Viet is not the best Vietnamese restaurant in the area (Eden Center is where it’s at), but it’s pretty good and close to my house. It does brisk business, but I think the authenticity of the food suffers from its clientèle: Cleveland Park is bursting at the seams with white people.
As a general rule, I have found that I get better ethnic food at the restaurants that cater to diners of that ethnic group. However, not all ethnic restaurants have that luxery and the food can get watered down to suit American tastes. Growing up in the Midwest, this was a huge problem. Things are a lot better in DC, to the point where I sometimes forget just how clueless many people still are when it comes to eating Asian food. And so, I give you, the Cleveland Park Rice Incident:
I am waiting to order and can’t help but overhear the woman at the next table. She is a middle-aged white woman dining by herself. She keeps asking the waitress the same question over and over again.
“Can they grill it?”
The waitress shakes her head and explains the preparation of the dish, which does not involve grilling.
The woman is unmoved. “But, can’t they just grill it?”
The waitress shakes her head again. “No, that’s the only way they make it.”
“Okay… well… I don’t eat flour. Can you tell them to go light on the flour?”
The waitress complies, writes down the order, and leaves. I figure this lady is one of those annoying Difficult Diner types that are always trying to change the menu or ask for something special. For some reason, women of a certain age are especially prone to this behavior. If you have a legitimate food allergy, that’s one thing. But if you want your food fixed special just because you refuse to eat it any other way, then you’re just being rude. The restaurant chef is not your personal chef.
A short time later, the woman’s food arrives. It is softshell crab with vegetables and a bowl of rice. The woman flags the waitress down and asks if she can get some butter for her rice.
BUTTERED RICE!!! This woman has gone from Difficult Diner to Culturally Insensitive Diner. Vietnamese people, along with the Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Thai, etc., do not eat butter on their rice. They don’t traditionally cook with butter. You know what else they don’t eat on their rice? SOY SAUCE. Here’s what they put on their rice: the REST of the food at the table. Or, sometimes, NOTHING. I know, it’s shocking.
Later, when the waitress returned, this woman asked if she could get “Chinese seafood sauce.” I don’t even know what that is, and I’m Chinese. I don’t think the waitress knew what she was talking about either.
Sadly, this is not the first rice faux pas I have encountered in recent memory. Two weeks ago, I ate dinner at Saravana Palace in Fairfax. A party of ten 30-something suburban white women were sitting next to us. One woman ordered the coconut rice for dinner (no entree, just rice). The South Indian version involves chilies, mustard seeds, nuts, various spices, and cilantro. She explained very emphatically to the waiter that she wanted, “Just coconut rice. None of that other stuff.” When they brought out a plate of coconut rice (which, of course, included all the” other stuff” because that’s what South Indian coconut rice is), she pitched a fit and sent it back. What is the restaurant supposed to do, hand pick each nut and cilantro leaf out of her rice? Create an entirely new dish to suit her demands/ignorance? If I were the waiter, I would have seriously considered spitting in her food.
It’s one thing if you don’t know any better. But it’s an entirely different story to ask the restaurant to change how they cook their traditional dishes because you think you know better. Maybe, just maybe, Nam Viet doesn’t serve butter and “Chinese seafood sauce” with their crab because that’s not how you’re supposed to eat it. While that may be how you like it best, be willing to try eating it the way the chef made it. He/she just might know more about Vietnamese food than you do.
In short, if you don’t want to look like a culturally insensitive ignoramus at an Asian restaurant, don’t ask for butter, soy sauce, or any other weird preparation for your rice. They eat rice at virtually every meal; they might know a thing or two about cooking it. Do not try to make up your own dish that is not on the menu. If you don’t know what to order or the proper dining etiquette, ask the waiter or look at the other diners. I know that subtlety and sensitively isn’t exactly the American way, but sometimes the customer is not always right.