Chinese Food in America vs Chinese Food in China
By Xiaoyu Yan, Public Relations Specialist at Attract China’s Boston Office
Americans love to eat Chinese food, whether in a fancy Chinese restaurant with extravagant décor or at those often crowded, noisy little local spots. That being said Chinese food found in the U.S. is very different from the authentic cuisine consumed daily by people in China. How different? Read below to find out:
The Dining experience
The experience of dining in China is far different than eating at restaurants in America. Manners and menus are almost entirely opposite.
Menus in China are usually illustrated hardback books, in which almost every single dish has a picture. That means a menu typically has around 20 pages, lined with beautiful photos. Chinese people order food according to the picture, not necessarily the written description in menus.
Furthermore, each table is typically only given one menu, and when the menu is placed before them, the waiter stands next to the table ready to write down the order. You do not sit at the table and talk for several minutes before ordering; you order when you sit almost immediately
In China, people are used to dining in noisy environments, which is considered welcoming and joyful. So, if you need to call a waiter in China, call loudly. Very loudly. Shout “Waiter” and wave your hand. Since there is no tipping in China, every person is your table’s waiter, and it’s appropriate to stop anyone in the restaurant and ask them for something. This is not rude, it is expected!
And cold water? It doesn’t exist at the dinner table in China. Hot water is almost always served, even in the middle of summer and even while eating the spiciest food imaginable. And if you order a beer or a bottle of water, better ask for it cold, as their inclination is to serve it room temperature.
Of course, alcohol is a totally different culture in China. Without going into detail, you simply won’t find a cocktail menu or really any mixed drinks at a Chinese restaurant. You’ll be lucky to find wine that isn’t made from rice. Alternatively, many Chinese drink “Baijiu,” a common Chinese liquor that is also known as “the whisky of China.” Many Westerners can’t stand the taste.
Once I ate at an expensive Chinese restaurant in the U.S. that offered “famous roast duck.” As a native Chinese, I expected it to be a crowded, noisy place filled with laughter where family members gather around a big round table sharing roast duck. However, the restaurant turned out to be very quiet. People there were dressed up in fancy clothing eating roast duck with a candle on each small table, a scene you would never see in China. It’s interesting for me to see a roast duck restaurant with such fancy clientele because in China, ironically people really only dress-up in upscale Western-style restaurants.
Chinese restaurants in the U.S. also Americanized themselves by offering receipts and accepting tips from customers. But In China, people don’t bother with tips or receipts. Generally no one tips anyone in China. It’s also your job to request a receipt if you want one. You have to ask for an official “fapiao” which comes with a government approved serial number.
If there’s one thing I wish American restaurants embraced, it’s photos on their menu. Do you think American restaurants will ever do this?
Generally speaking, authentic Chinese food puts more attention on vegetables, bean products, and cooked wheaten food. Most Chinese dishes in the U.S. focus on a kind of meat, beef, pork or chicken, with vegetables just as sides or fillers. In China, however, vegetables and bean products (like Tofu and soybean) are as important as, or even more important than, meat for a dish. Sometimes, meat is just one of the ten or more different ingredients used in a dish. Many authentic Chinese dishes contain several ingredients, which often take a long time to prepare before cooking.
In addition, Americanized Chinese food leaves out many ingredients that Americans find unacceptable, including pig ears, chicken feet, duck blood, jellyfish, etc. For example, bean vermicelli soup with duck blood cubes is a traditional delicacy in Nanjing (a major city in south China), which is loved by all ages in China. But you can hardly find it in the U.S. because duck blood sounds a bit crazy for Americans. Many other local Chinese foods are in the same situation.
Similarly, ingredients that are commonly used in Americanized Chinese dishes may rarely be seen in authentic Chinese food. Such examples include broccoli, onion, and diary products. You can find beef with broccoli in almost every Chinese restaurant in the U.S., but many real Chinese have never seen it before. Instead, Chinese prefer to cook beef with tomato, potato, or carrot.
Most popular Chinese food in the U.S. is loaded with salt and sugar, so it tastes sweeter, saltier, and can often be greasier than authentic Chinese food. Actually, Chinese people like to use several different spices, a little of each kind, in one single dish. Besides salt and sugar, there are many other common spices in China, including dried chili, wild pepper, star anise, Chinese cinnamon, soybean source, water chestnut powder, etc. MSG is also widely used in China – you can find it in almost every dish.
However, it’s impossible to generalize the taste of authentic Chinese food because people’s tastes in different regions can vary tremendously in China. For example, many provinces in south China, such as Szechuan, Yunnan, and Hunan, are famous for their spicy foods, but their spicy spices are different from each other. People in northeast China are more likely to add a soybean source when cooking, so their food is relatively saltier and darker in color. Shanghai people are well known for having a ‘sweet tooth’.
If there is any dish that is popular in all regions in China, “Tomato Egg” must be the one. It’s a humble dish that is often served at home or small restaurants. And as popular as it is in China, it simply is not found at Chinese food restaurants in America.
Americanized Chinese cuisine simplifies cooking steps. In fact, it usually takes quite a long time for Chinese people to prepare and cook a traditional Chinese dish because they emphasize the harmony of three features, “color,” ”aroma,” and ”taste.” Chinese chefs also pay much attention to how they cut their ingredients. Take Tofu Noodle Potage, a Chinese vegetarian soup, for example. To prepare this dish, a Chinese chef will skillfully slice a fist-sized piece of tofu into hundreds of hair-thin shreds so that it can contribute a silky texture to the soup.
More notably, Americanized Chinese food is mainly cooked through frying, while Chinese people only fry food occasionally. Methods such as stewing, braising, baking, steaming, boiling, and even fermenting are commonly used in authentic Chinese cuisine, either cold dish or hot dish. Chinese people believe that fried food is very unhealthy, and may increase the risk of cancer. Instead, they spend much time boiling nutrient soup and porridge to balance the body’s Yin and Yang. So, popular Chinese dishes in the U.S., such as Sweet ‘n’ Sour Chicken and Crab Wontons, are actually rarely seen in China.
Fortune cookies? No, that’s also an American invention.