When it comes to eating Chinese food, there are quite a few stereotypical myths and perceptions surrounding this dining experience.
Living in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia, I’ve had my fair share of Chinese cuisine. At least once a week I eat Chinese food, be it in a restaurant or having it as takeaway or cooking it at home. What I’ve noticed is that Chinese dishes aren’t the same everywhere.
But this is no surprise. Food is tied to culture, and culture is different in every given space. Evidently how food is served around the world is different.
Some of us might be familiar with Chinese food. Chances are we might have tried a wide range of Chinese dishes, and know that Chinese cuisine is more than just a select few popular dishes – that the misconceptions about the cuisine don’t ring true:
1. All Chinese dishes are the same
With more than 1.35 billion people in China, there’s the misconception all Chinese food originates from this one place. However the way Chinese food is prepared varies by region – different location, different availability of ingredients, different styles of cooking. Cantonese cuisine tends to be non-greasy, light and sweet. Sichuan dishes and Hunan cuisine are on the savoury and spicy side. Shanghai cuisine is often pickled with wine and tastes sweet and sour. Shanxi cuisine borders on the sour side and produces aged vinegar. Among the 23 provinces in China, the northern ones are cooler and have an affinity with noodles, and the southern provinces closer to the ocean produce more rice and seafood dishes.
Plenty of Chinese food originates outside of China. For instance, Hong Kong is arguably the home of dim sum. Vegetarian wrap popiah has countless variations all around Malaysia. Though originally hailing from Hainan in China, Hainanese chicken rice has been adapted and regarded as one of Singapore’s national dishes.
In Australia, Chinese food with origins in Asia are arguably westernised to suit local tastebuds. A few times in Melbourne I ordered dark stir-fried Hokkien noodles and they came with carrots, the dish bordering on the sweet side – which never is the case when I ordered it in Malaysia. Also many dumplings I’ve eaten in Australia taste good – but the dumpling wrappers are usually thicker and coarser than that in South-East Asia.
2. Chinese food is all about sweet and sour
The more popular Chinese dishes around the world are those that are often nothing short of laden with sauces and bold flavours. They are the dishes that hit our sweet spot so to speak. Dr Laura Pawlak argues our brains are wired to focus on ‘pleasure-seeking’ and its dopamine neurons get activated by the sight and consumption of food. Research on controlling food intake shows certain foods such as salt and fat are potent in making the brain feel rewarded.
Popular Chinese dishes include: sweet and sour pork (fried battered pork dish often served with artificial bright red ‘ketchup’ sauce), lemon chicken (battered lemon chicken) and black pepper chicken (chunks of chicken doused in black pepper sauce).
In reality not all Chinese dishes are battered, crispy and saucy. In reality many Chinese dishes are light and prepared with the minimalist ingredients. Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, garlic stir-fried Chinese broccoli, soy sauce steamed garoupa and steamed Hainan ginger chicken were dishes that my mum prepared at home each week. These dishes might sound plain, but they are perfect when none of us were in the mood to cook up a storm or when we wanted a meal that didn’t make us feel oversatiated.
3. Most Chinese food is spicy
All spice and everything hot and nice is not what Chinese food is all about. At times we might be in the mood for tongue-numbing spicy Sichuan dishes such as classic kung pao chicken (stir fried chicken with peanuts and peppercorns) or ma po tofu (beancurd tofu with broad bean sauce, peppercorns and minced pork). The dishes that I ate growing up weren’t usually spicy – dishes where one actually tastes a cacophony of flavours are opposed to just hot, hot and more hot.
There’s also the notion that many Chinese handle spicy very well. There is currently no conclusive study proving this or showing which racial groups are less sensitive to capsaicin (TRPV1) receptors. Handling spicy is not up my alley and I always avoid eating anything with chilli in it. When I do eat something like a bowl of spicy noodles, a mouthful of water is needed to calm my tongue down after every bite. Many spicy dishes in Australia are nowhere as spicy in Asia and even these dishes I find hard eating.
4. Chinese food is all about rice, noodles and dumplings
It’s true that many Chinese eat rice or noodles with every meal, and dumplings quite often. Some of my Chinese friends say they ‘just don’t feel right’ if they don’t eat rice or noodles for a few days and madly crave it. According to various studies, rice originated thousands of years ago in Chinese history, in particular along various locations including the Yangtze River and Pearl River and has been eaten by many Chinese ever since.
However, rice and noodles take a backseat as hybrid Chinese and Asian cuisine are becoming more and more popular today. These fusion dishes often are created as standalone dishes and it isn’t mandatory for rice or noodles to be served alongside them. I ate rice practically every night up until my university days. These days it’s so easy for me to not eat rice. I’ve gone a few weeks without eating rice and I felt normal.
5. Chinese people eat anything and everything
In China it’s not uncommon to hear of dog, cat and monkey brains being consumed. However in recent times not every living organism is seen as source of sustenance here. There are more and more vocal campaigns against the annual Yulin Meat Festival, a festival where thousands of dogs are consumed. Also, China has an increasing number of families that own pets and keen on pet services.
Eating dog or cat never appealed to me. But eating kangaroo has and I’ve eaten it a few times. The first time I ate it was in Singapore at a Chinese restaurant in an upmarket shopping mall. The kangaroo meat was served in a hot clay pot along with some vegetables, and I remember it tasting very similar to beef.
6. Fortune cookies and takeout boxes were invented in China
Fortune cookies aren’t common in Asia. When I lived in Malaysia and Singapore, rarely were they served after a Chinese meal – wet towelettes were usually given out, and they are meant for freshening up.
Legend has it the fortune cookie was founded in Los Angeles by Chinese immigrant David Jung in 1918; he passed out the cookies that contained Biblical strips to the homeless. Another legend has it that a Japanese immigrant founded the fortune cookie in San Francisco, passing out cookies with thank you notes inside to friends as a mark of appreciation.
Similarly, the cardboard Chinese-takeout container is a uniquely American invention. Also known as an oyster pail, it was patented by Chicago inventor Frederick Weeks Wilcox. Initially designed to hold oysters, these durable, inexpensive and convenient origami-like boxes were later adopted by America’s Chinese food industry. Ordering Chinese take-away in Singapore and Malaysia, my food would either be ready-to-go wrapped in brown grease paper or packed in clear plastic white Styrofoam containers, with sauces and soups bagged in plastic bags.
7. Chinese restaurants are dirty
Now there might be quite a bit of truth to the idea that eating Chinese isn’t the most hygienic experience. In South-East Asia, hawker stalls are commonly set up right beside congested roads. Food is cooked beside the road and patrons dine on the curb.
When I lived in Malaysia, countless times I had dim sum in cramped, dim and dinghy shop houses where oxidised grease was visibly evident in between the floor tiles. Dining in these places, often a bowl of boiling hot water is served along with the cutlery; it is common practice to rinse the cutlery that was sitting on the shelves and might have had cockroaches crawling over it. This is loosely termed the ‘plate washing tradition’ – a tradition to make sure utensils are as clean as possible. Despite the unsanitary conditions in these dim sum places, the food always tasted good and I never got sick.
The ambience of dining Chinese varies around Australia. While there are Chinese restaurants fined for breaching food and hygiene standards, there still exists vintage suburban Chinese eateries opened since the 80s and still trading today in Australia. Also, more and more Chinese/Asian franchises are setting up in Australia such as Papparich and Old Town White Coffee – franchises that are often marketed as modern dining experiences with bright, spacious and airy interiors.
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As cuisines evolve, tastebuds change. Each of us usually has a preference for certain kinds of dishes or prefer a certain cuisine cooked a certain way, be they more traditional dishes because we grew up eating them and love them til this day, or more modern, hybrid dishes to whet our adventurous palates.
Aside from westernised traditional Chinese food in Australia, there’s also something called Chinese-Australian cuisine (along the lines of Chinese-American cuisine). Over the years food brought to Australia by Chinese immigrants has been adapted into Chinese-Australian cuisine by the locals, adapted around climate and availability of local ingredients available.
As I’ve written The ‘Dimmy’ Dim Sim: A Chinese Or Australian Culinary Item?, the dim sim is an Australian culinary creation and is not to be confused with dim sum. Created by a Chinese chef, the dim sim exemplifies Chinese and Western cuisine characteristics: minced meat (tasting similar to meat in an Aussie sausage roll) wrapped in a crispy or steamed skin just like a dumpling. I’ve never heard of the dim sim until I moved back to Melbourne. It’s not something served elsewhere around the world. Then there is something called ‘Singapore noodles’ in Australia (and also in the UK), a dish consisting of stir-fried rice noodles and vegetables. In Singapore, there is no dish called Singapore noodles and I was so surprised to discover it in Australia.
Too much of anything can be bad for you, and that includes Chinese food. In general, many of Asian descent are slimmer than their Western counterparts – which leads to the belief that Chinese cuisine is one of the healthier cuisines. This isn’t always the case. For instance, there’s greasy fried rice and chilli-oil dumplings (greasy carbohydrates) and fatty sweet and sour pork (cooked with artificial flavours and MSG).
Moreover, in the Western corners of the world, serving sizes of Chinese dishes tend to be much bigger compared to that in Asia. While I can easily finish a serving of fried rice in Singapore, I’ve never finished a serving here in Australia. One serving and plate of food in Australia is double the amount one gets in Asia, probably double the amount of calories consumed especially if one has the entire dish to themselves.
Identity is what we eat, and identity is more than just a stereotype. It’s not hard to see why some vehemently question why dishes such as Asian Oriental Salad and racially-cliched titled dishes are still on menus; food media perpetuates casual racism. There’s more to food than how it tastes: a certain dish might be symbolic of a certain way of life or a certain outlook on life. We are what we eat. What we eat is who we are, our identity and who we choose to be. There’s a story behind each dish in regards to where it comes from, how it’s eaten and why it’s eaten. As Nigerian chef Tunde Wey said:
‘To talk about race and food, we have to change the terms of engagement. We should reward not just the finished product of transformation but also the process.’
There’s no right or wrong way to cook a dish, or to enjoy a dish or eat what we choose to eat. But the more we learn to understand the stories behind gastronomic delights, the more we come to know that food is more than stereotype.
What do you know about Chinese food?