What is Real Chinese Food?

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by Daniel Philbin

Having spent a year and a half in China, I’m often asked by people back home if I like Chinese food, or if certain Chinese restaurants in the United States are authentic. I’m never really sure how to respond, because honestly, there is no such thing, really, as Chinese food. Asking if you like Chinese food is like asking if you like Latin American food, or Eastern European food. Which kind? What part of Latin America? What part of China? And “authentic” too, is a highly subjective and relative term. If you go abroad and eat a Burger King hamburger that tastes exactly like the one back home, is the hamburger authentic American food?

In the northern parts of China, including Beijing, most people don’t even eat rice, preferring instead, to make or sometimes buy noodles. In far western parts of China, the culture is so different that the food is anything but “Chinese” and is more similar to what you might find in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan.

Most of my friends in China had never heard of spring rolls before, and throughout my entire stay in the country, I never found “Kung Pao chicken” or “sweet and sour pork.”And, of course, fortune cookies are a Californian invention. My mother teaches at a school that hosts exchange students from China. This summer, when these students were visiting, we decided to order Chinese food at one point during their stay. They all mentioned (albeit politely and without any complaints) that the food was too sweet, and none of them had ever even seen a spring roll before.

Soon it became apparent to me that what we eat and call “Chinese food” in the United States is really an American modification of various Chinese dishes. To me, this is an American trend. In a country made up of a patchwork of immigrants and immigrants’ descendants, most of our foods are Americanized renditions from other cultures. New York and Chicago like to claim pizza almost as a native food, but it originated in Italy. Bagels, another New York specialty, come from Poland. Apple pie and meat roasts come from Britain. I grew up in the American southwest eating abundant amounts of “Tex-Mex” which is Americanized Mexican food, complete with dollops of sour cream and cheese.

We may like to think of Chinese food as ethnic cuisine, but in America, the food stands far apart from the food you find in Beijing, Shanghai or Xian and can’t even be compared to food in autonomous regions of China that have large populations of ethnic minorities. In a sense, it can’t be compared even to the Han food I ate in China, and Han is the majority ethnic and cultural group to which we group all Chinese. For breakfast in China, I usually ate baozi, (steamed buns filled with pork or vegetables) or some type of fried street food. Outside of Chinatowns in the states, you can’t find these in restaurants. I often ate cheap bowls of dumplings in a salty broth for 7 yuan, the equivalent of about a dollar. This is yet another dish I’ve never seen in the states. On the other hand, before I left for China, I would sometimes eat sweet and sour chicken, (a dish I didn’t see even once during my year and a half long stay in Shanghai), after an appetizer of egg drop soup (again, I never found this) and a spring roll or two.

The food in American Chinese restaurants, and the restaurants in China are so different, actually, that some have even started opening up American-Chinese restaurants in China, complete with fortune cookies, MSG and an overabundance of sugar. I never ate there, myself, preferring authentic Chinese food, but knewsome Americans who missed the inauthentic American interpretations.

As for me, I still crave certain dishes and snacks I ate in my time in China: Rou Jia Mo, a delicious flat bread stuffed with diced, fatty pork and peppers; fried Shanghai dumplings called Sheng Jian Bao; and a bowl filled with handmade noodles, topped with an egg, thin slices of beef and a small bucket of cilantro. I miss these foods as much as I missed Western cuisine during my stay overseas. I’m definitely going to explore Chinatown more in depth within the next week in search of authentic Chinese food. Whatever that means.