Chinese Buffets: A Tragicomedy in Three Acts

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time living in the Chinese American community knows exactly what I am talking about when I speak of Chinese buffets.

Typically, Chinese buffets look something like this:

Now, it would in fact be a slight misnomer to call such a place a “Chinese” buffet. The more technically correct term would be pan-Asian, since these buffets usually include things like sushi. It would even be wrong to call it pan-“Asian”, since they also include stuff like french fries and chicken nuggets.

You might say that the existence, and more importantly, the proliferation, of these kind of buffets reflect the Asian American experience: of the developments and evolutions of traditional Asian cuisine that was modified by Asian immigrants in America. You might even say that these places represent the successful fusion of East meets West, and that their success is something that the Asian American community should be proud of.

I call bullshit on that.

First, let us describe the scene at hand. Imagine this: it is Friday night at dinner time, after people have gotten off from work. You see families going into these buffets–the wife, kids, mini-van, everything. Now, picture the food: a mix mash of poorly cooked food, dumped into pans, arranged in a trough-like fashion in aisles, saturated with grease and oil, permeated with too much salt. In other words, mediocrity on a platter. Of course no such buffet can miss out on such “authentic” Chinese dishes as such as orange chicken, spring rolls that are cooked with too much frying oil, brocoli beef, and most importantly, chicken nuggets. Sushi that has been left there for too long, and hot-n-sour soup that is either too hot or too sour.

Second, let us describe the actors of this theatre: middle-class families who are too lazy to cook on a Friday night. Hungry, all of them, of course. Their eyes, ravenous; their feet, quick and nimble, ready to go on the prowl at the slightest hint. They are only too ready to line up around the aisles, like so many pigs waiting for food to come down the trough. Just look at the architectural arrangement of these buffets: the food is arranged in a trough-like manner, with people gathering on both sides, plates in hand, ready to devour whatever comes.

Third, let us describe the action with which we are concerned: feeding behavior. Imagine one of those time-lapsed videos on the Discovery Channel showing a colony of small animals, usually ants, or sea creatures, that devour the carcass of a much larger animal. That is how people at these buffets, except you don’t need time-lapse photography because it happens quickly enough on its own in real time.

And as a biologist/anthropologist, let me point out which food items would most likely excite this behavior, and describe the process. First, a hapless waiter, probably someone who has lost a bet, comes out of the kitchen holding a pan filled with one of the following things: steamed whole fish, crab legs, or lobsters. Now, the waiter is shifting his/her eyes, trying to ward off the throng of ravenous predators gathering around the trough, eyes all looking at the pan with the food. Once the pan is put in place, feeding commences, with great speed, speed which seems almost inconceivable. Within minutes, two at most, the steamed fish/crab legs/lobster is gone, and the predators wander off.

In other words, it looks something a lot like the following video:

That concludes the ceremony.

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