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Misconceptions about food in China
How I got to like American Chinese food
When I went to the University, I had my first encounter with Chinese food. There was this Chinese buffet which was only a five minute walk from the lab that I did my research in. Lunch cost something like $5 and they had 10 or so different dishes, a couple of soups and ice cream. I love ice cream! The dishes were mainly chicken with orange sauce, chicken with pineapple sauce, chicken with mushrooms, chicken with this and chicken with that and, of course General Tso's chicken and sweet and sour chicken. My favorite soups were wonton soup and hot and sour soup and for dessert, they had - you guessed it: ice cream.
The restaurant was not fancy and the food was not high class, but my poor student self found it tasty and inexpensive. Needless to say, I ended up going there 2-3 times per week. My favorite dish was General Tso's chicken...besides the ice cream, of course.
Over time I became quite proficient in using chop sticks and I even learned to pick up individual rice corns from a plate or bowl.
Other Chinese restaurants in the area had the same dishes, so for me, General Tso's chicken became symonymus with Chinese food.
My first encounter with authentic Chinese food
So, one day my Chinese lab mate invited me to his home for the mid-autumn festival and said that his wife was going to cook typical Northern Chinese food. Authentic Chinese meal - here I come. So, I get there and I get a bowl and chop sticks and they had many different meat and vegetablke dishes which were are arranged on the table. The meat was cut into small pieces and in some dishes the bones are still on the meat and I swear the whole steamed fish blinked at me. There is also a ton of rice in the rice cooker. The rice is gluey and sticky, and people use the chop sticks that they ate from to take food from the shared meat and veggies dishes and to skilfully disseminate the fish. And ice cream was nowhere to be seen.
So, what did I learn: Chinese rice has to be sticky. The Western way to prepare rice does not only lead to a completely non-sticky rice but it also degrades all the nutrients in the rice. And, sadly, ice cream is not part of an authentic Chinese meal.
So, now what exactly is authentic Chinese food?
Fast forward a few years. I now work at a large multinational company and got romantrically involved with a sweet Chinese girl who works in the Hong Kong office. Of course, I brag about how skilled I am using chop stricks and that my favorite Chinese food is General Tso's chicken and that I also like Chinese sliced breaded duck breast.
Me: I love General Tso's chicken and Chinese sliced breaded duck breast.
Her: what is General Tso's chicken?
I refrain from quoting the rest of our conversation and give you the gist of it and I have confirmed the truth during many of our travels in China:
- in Chinese cuisine, General Tso's chicken is unknown - it is an American invention
- authentic Chinese food is rarely ever fried chicken with some sauce over it
- seafood is typically either steamed or stir fried
- Chinese food is typically served hot, for food safety reasons
- Chinese typically drink tea or beer with their food. If you are suspicious about the cleanliness of the dishes in a restaurant in China, do the same that other Chinese do: rinse the plates, bowls, glasses and chop sticks with hot tea. This is perfectly acceptable..unless you are in an expensive high class restaurant
- sweet and sour chicken does exist in China, but the sauce is at best light orange
- roast duck (and this includes Peking/Beijing duck) is delicious and actually my favorite dish. In the US, roast duck is sometimes fried. Real roast duck is roasted and never fried and it is juicy
- rice is always sticky as it still has all essential nutrients
- ingredients for Chinese meals are typically bought fresh every day and prepared the same day. Yes, you can see Chinese buy life fish, crabs or rabbits and chickens just to eat them a few hours later and yes, many Chinese restaurants have large aquariums where you can choose your meal while it is still swimming
- Chinese believe that the meat that is closest to the bones has the best taste. If you have ever eaten a tasteless chicken breast and then a bone-in chicken prepared the Chinese way, then you know that this is true
- Chinese cuisine is exceptionally diverse; we Amricans typically eat chicken, turkey, beef and fish and maybe some pulled pork. Chinese cuisine adds duck, swan, lamb, goat, snake, many more parts of the animal's body (think of chicken feet, intestines, brain, duck tongue, pig tail, etc.), many more types of critters that swim in water or live on land or in the air, and some beloved animals like rabbits and dogs to the menu. On the veggie side, there is the ever present tofu and tons of different plants that we have never heard of. One of my favorites is the taro root. In the US, I typically eat 2 different types of mushrooms; Chinese mushroom dishes will have many more.
- A Southern China tradition is dim sum. This is where, typically on a weekend morning, the whole family goes to a Chinese restaurant for a relaxing get together and servers come with metal carts stacked with small portions of many (!) delicious food items. You take what you want. Each item is priced low, medium or high and you will pay after you are done. If you have not done this, please find a Chinese restaurant and try it. It is a wonderful experience.
- oh by the way, just like General Tso's chicken, fortune cookies are not to be found in restaurants in China. They were actually invented by Chinese restaurants in the US to keep their customers occupied until the food is served
- sharing food has a long tradition in China. When I first traveled in China, people dug their chop sticks into all dishes, whereas people in Hong Kong and Macao used community chop sticks or spoons to transfer food from the shared dishes to their own plates. I have observed this custom more frequently in mainland China over the last few years, but this is not common procedure. Anyway, I have shared dishes with people I barely know many times and I am still alive and China has still the world's largest population. So, how bad can it be?
- one of my favorite things to do is to go to small restaurants which foreigners typically don't get into. These restaurants may have a bench or a couple (<10) chairs and a couple of tables. These restaurants are dirt cheap, the food is hot (and sanitary) and often very tasty and you can be guaranteed that nobody there will speak any English. Hey, I don't speak Chinese and I survived these restaurants. Few of these restaurants even have menus with pictures. In these cases you will even know what you order. I think this is part of the fun. Order something and see if you like it. Later on, ask somebody who speaks English what you ate :)
- Last thing: In Hong Kong, I really enjoyed buying inexpensive filled buns for breakfast. Those are buns with flavored chicken, pork, beef or whatever inside. They are a tiny bit like hotpockets that you can buy in the US. There is a large variety available and they taste very good
So, long story short:
I love authentic Chinese food and honestly think this is probably the best food on the planet. Don't worry about the language barrier if you don't mind experimenting a bit. Just order something that looks good and try it. I have never had something I did not like.
If you have dietary restrictions or even food allergies, then you may need to be very careful. I have heard that e.g. peanut allergy is almost unknown in China and therefore people may not take you seriously or simply don't know which dishes are safe for you to eat. This is what I heard, but I have no experience with this as I luckily have no food allergies.
Last but not least, here are two things that you should never do:
- do not stick your chop sticks into rice and take your hands off the chop sticks. Rest your chop sticks somewhere else. Chinese people stick their chop sticks in rice when someone has died, so this symbolizes death and is therefore a big NO.
- if you are in a restaurant, it is OK to eat all the food that you are being served. If you are invited to friends and somebody cooks for you, don't eat all the food! Always leave some leftovers. While eating all food may be seen as a compliment to the chef in the Western world, in China, it means that your host did not prepare enough food to properly host you and that they are therefore bad hosts.
Please let me know what your experience is with authentic Chinese food.
Do you like it? What is the best authentic Chinese restaurant that you know?
Do you prefer General Tso's chicken or something authentic that tastes great, but where you'd rather not ask what you have eaten?
Do you feel like experimenting and just order something off the menu without knowing what you get?
Are you interested in more Memorable Moments in China?
Check out our destinations in China.