Chinese takeaways and restaurants have become an indispensable part of Western culinary culture. Sticky sweet sauces, exotic spices and salty umami flavours have all endeared their food to white people in a way that few other cuisines have managed.
However, as many chefs and cooking experts are quick to point out, most Westerners have absolutely no idea what real Chinese food is all about. While we might like to think we understand authenticity and tradition, one look at our long list of common misconceptions and mistakes is all you need to tell you that we have no idea. Here are just a few of the things that we always get wrong about Chinese cooking.
1. There’s one type of “Chinese” food.
By and large, most Chinese menus in the Western world will feature broadly the same collection of dishes. Staples like sweet and sour pork and prawn toast are a dime and dozen and an ever present, wherever you’re eating. However, China itself is far more complex and diverse. As writer Matthew Lubin explains, “"There's a lot more meat in the food in the northern regions, and much greater spiciness in the central/southwestern provinces. And then in places like Xinjiang, the cuisine shares a lot of flavor with Turkish food." Turns out there’s more to life than egg rolls.
2. It’s all about taste.
Undoubtedly the thing that draws most white people to Chinese restaurants is the collection of strong, bold flavours. It might be surprising to learn, therefore, that taste is just one consideration for the majority of Chinese cooks. Traditionally, just as much of a premium is placed on texture as well as flavour, leading to the creation of delicacies such as chicken feet and sea cucumber that you’re unlikely to find on most Western menus.
3. The food is based on Chinese traditions.
While many of the staples we take for granted owe a lot to ancient techniques and recipes, most of what we enjoy in contemporary restaurants is a complete invention to cater for conservative Western taste buds. Classics such as chop suey or General Tso’s Chicken were either created by early Chinese immigrants or as a result of experimentation with American ingredients. They might be tasty, but there’s no way they’re traditional.
4. Always add soy sauce.
Though soy sauce forms a key component of many classic Chinese dishes, the way that we go about slathering it on anything and everything is not what it was made for. According to Felix Tai, Chief Executive of Pounders Restaurant, the biggest mistake is to drizzle it over plain white rice - which is traditionally designed to act as a foil to the other big bold flavours that feature in the food. To make it extra salty is completely missing the point.
5. Time to finish with a cookie.
Though there is some debate over the origin of the fortune cookie, one thing that’s clear is that it definitely doesn’t come from China. One account alleges that the sweet treats were a gimmick invented in 50s America, to cater for diners who came to restaurants expecting dessert. Another claims that modern fortune cookies actually date to 19th century Kyoto in Japan. Whatever the case may be, you certainly won’t find them at the end of a traditional Chinese meal.
Whatever form it comes in, Chinese food is undeniably delicious. However, anyone who feels that authenticity is more important than flavour (which it isn’t) should bear in mind that when it comes to Chinese, and many other cuisines, our imitations don’t come close to the real thing. Western Chinese food tastes amazing. Just don’t believe that it’s the real deal.