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China Food Myths


liuzhou
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Chinese food must be among the most famous in the world. Yet, at the same time, the most misunderstood.


I feel sure (hope) that most people here know that American-Chinese cuisine, British-Chinese cuisine, Indian-Chinese cuisine etc are, in huge ways, very different from Chinese-Chinese cuisine and each other. That's not what I want to discuss.


Yet, every day I still come across utter nonsense on YouTube videos and Facebook about the "real" Chinese cuisine, even from ethnically Chinese people (who have often never been in China). Sorry YouTube "influencers", but sprinkling soy sauce or 5-spice powder on your cornflakes does not make them Chinese!

 

So what is the "authentic" Chinese food? Well, like any question about China, there are several answers. It is not surprising that a country larger than western Europe should have more than one typical culinary style. Then, we must distinguish between what you may be served in a large hotel dining room, a small local restaurant, a street market stall or in a Chinese family's home.


That said, in this topic, I want to attempt to debunk some of the more prevalent myths. Not trying to start World War III.


When I moved to China from the UK 25 years ago, I had my preconceptions. They were all wrong. Sweet and sour pork with egg fried rice was reported to be the second favourite dish in Britain, and had, of course, to be preceded by a plate of prawn/shrimp crackers. All washed down with a lager or three.


Yet, in that quarter of a century, I've seldom seen a prawn cracker. And egg fried rice is usually eaten as a quick dish on its own, not usually as an accompaniment to main courses. Every menu featured a starter of prawn/shrimp toast which I have never seen in mainland China - just once in Hong Kong.


But first, one myth needs to be dispelled. The starving Chinese! When I was a child I was encouraged to eat the particularly nasty bits on the plate by being told that the starving Chinese would lap them up. My suggestion that we could post it to them never went down too well. At that time (the late fifties) there was indeed a terrible famine in China (almost entirely manmade (Maomade)).


When I first arrived in China, it was after having lived in Soviet Russia and I expected to see the same long lines of people queuing up to buy nothing very much in particular. Instead, on my first visit to a market (in Hunan Province), I was confronted with a wider range of vegetables, seafood, meat and assorted unidentified frying objects than I have ever seen anywhere else. And it was so cheap I couldn't convert to UK pounds or any other useful currency.

 

I'm going to start with some of the simpler issues - later it may get ugly!

1. Chinese people eat everything with chopsticks.

 

20201111_170614.thumb.jpg.03ff4f6753f156cf686ae4d0536de4b4.jpg

 

No, they don't! Most things, yes, but spoons are also commonly used in informal situations. I recently had lunch in a university canteen. It has various stations selling different items. I found myself by the fried rice stall and ordered some Yangzhou fried rice. Nearly all the students and faculty sitting near me were having the same.

I was using my chopsticks to shovel the food in, when I noticed that I was the only one doing so. Everyone else was using spoons. On investigating, I was told that the lunch break is so short at only two-and-a-half hours that everyone wants to eat quickly and rush off for their compulsory siesta.

 

I've also seen claims that people eat soup with chopsticks. Nonsense. While people use chopsticks to pick out choice morsels from the broth, they will drink the soup by lifting their bowl to their mouths like cups. They ain't dumb!

Anyway, with that very mild beginning, I'll head off and think which on my long list will be next.

Thanks to @KennethT for advice re American-Chinese food.

 

 

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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3 hours ago, liuzhou said:


I was using my chopsticks to shovel the food in, when I noticed that I was the only one doing so. Everyone else was using spoons. On investigating, I was told that the lunch break is so short at only two-and-a-half hours that everyone wants to eat quickly and rush off for their compulsory siesta.

 

Did I read this right - 2-1/2 hours is considered a short lunch break?!?  Some places here only allow 30 minutes, and some allow nothing and people eat lunch at their desks while working!

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20 minutes ago, KennethT said:

Did I read this right - 2-1/2 hours is considered a short lunch break?!?  Some places here only allow 30 minutes, and some allow nothing and people eat lunch at their desks while working!

 

Yes. The local government, banks etc. have a three hour lunch break. 12 until 3.

...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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This is going to be a fun read.

I understand your distaste of misinformed content, sadly, much of it exists for every cuisine, and frankly almost any subject. The raise of web content, and particularly this of small content creators has obviously brought a surge of it. But on the other hand, it also brought much more valuable, articulated and authentic content. For those able to discern between the two, this is a great thing; and for those who don't, cereal with five spice doesn't sound half bad (at leas without the soy sauce).

I'll also point out that I see no wrong in taking ideas and flavors from a cuisine and applying them outside of it, as long as one is aware of the difference between "Chinese" and "Chinese inspired".

Also, I'm not sure that it falls within the scope of this thread, but I'd love to learn more about the building blocks of regional Chinese cousins (e.g. what makes Guangxi's cuisine distinct in terms of flavors, food pairings, cooking style etc.). If people here are familiar with good structured sources or are willing to share of your knowledge, I'd be thankful. Same for other countries by the way.

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4 hours ago, liuzhou said:

I was using my chopsticks to shovel the food in, when I noticed that I was the only one doing so. Everyone else was using spoons.

Well, how sensible and freeing is that?
Now when will it be OK to eat my peas with a spoon? 

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Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

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On 11/12/2020 at 9:13 PM, shain said:

I'll also point out that I see no wrong in taking ideas and flavors from a cuisine and applying them outside of it, as long as one is aware of the difference between "Chinese" and "Chinese inspired".

 

I agree. I have no problem with mixing things up. I do it all the time. But I don't pretend my food is German because it has a sausage in it, for example.

 

Guangxi doesn't really have its own cuisine, but is split in two. Southern Guangxi food is more Cantonese, while the north is more akin to Hunan and Guizhou. Liuzhou is on the cusp of the two, but leans more to the north.

 

I can recommend Carolyn Phillip's book, All Under Heaven for more on the different regions of Chinese food. She kindly included me in her list of acknowledgements after I made small suggestions regarding the local food in Guangxi.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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3 hours ago, Anna N said:

Well, how sensible and freeing is that?
Now when will it be OK to eat my peas with a spoon? 

 

Today should be just fine.

 

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What startled my Aussie sister and BIL on first Hong Kong trip was textural - small chopped bones left in and skin left on (not crispy; flabby). Augments flavor but was unexpected though the tastes overall were familiar. 

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@liuzhoucould you indulge me and address the question of deep-fried egg/spring rolls? I understand they are not Chinese in origin but is there anything approximating them in the Chinese food world?  (They are one of. my favourite “Chinese” foods.)

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Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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21 minutes ago, Anna N said:

@liuzhoucould you indulge me and address the question of deep-fried egg/spring rolls? I understand they are not Chinese in origin but is there anything approximating them in the Chinese food world?  (They are one of. my favourite “Chinese” foods.)

Great question. Filipino lumpia and Vietnamese cha gio are what I think of as also eaten in home country. The Americn egg rolls - curious if there is in fact a Chinese ancestor.  https://forums.egullet.org/topic/14486-egg-rolls-in-america/

 

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On 11/13/2020 at 6:37 AM, Anna N said:

@liuzhoucould you indulge me and address the question of deep-fried egg/spring rolls? I understand they are not Chinese in origin but is there anything approximating them in the Chinese food world?  (They are one of. my favourite “Chinese” foods.)

 

Egg rolls are American-Chinese, but spring rolls (春卷 - chūn juǎn) do exist in China and are often served as a dim sum in Cantonese restaurants and are popular at Chinese New Year. They are different from what I understand to be the typical American egg roll. They have a much thinner skin and are smaller.

I prefer the Vietnamese ones.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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2. Chinese people regularly steam their vegetables because it's healthier.

 

No. They don't. Most vegetable dishes and sides are stir fried, preferably in lard (rendered pig fat). They do so because it saves waste and because they say they taste better that way. They are right!

 

1772146299_FriedSpinach.thumb.jpg.cf9d6bf667231f4ad7565a5289fbb3a9.jpg

Lard fried spinach

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Which brings me to this.

 

3. Chinese people steam stuff in bamboo baskets.

 

1384006300_steamerbasket.thumb.jpg.c5ff87a6466404d9b67bfe6862c8a7ff.jpg

 

Er? In 25 years in China, I have never seen anyone use bamboo baskets in a domestic kitchen. None of my friends have them and I've only seen them on sale once - in a culinary curio shop.

 

They were used in the past by shops and stalls selling steamed buns, but even that is now a thing of the past. Nearly all those places have switched to metal baskets as they are longer-lasting, easier to clean, more hygienic etc.

 

They are sometimes still used to serve dim sum, but the food is probably still steamed in metal baskets, the bamboo ones being just for presentation.

 

steamers.thumb.jpg.a6c103a66d6d5034516940ba35b8a82f.jpg

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Previously I reported I had two native informants for Indian cuisine.  Likewise in my youth I had two informants for Chinese culinary customs (one from Hong Kong, one from Taiwan).  One assured me Chinese always used a spoon for soup, one assured me Chinese never used a spoon for anything.

 

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14 minutes ago, JoNorvelleWalker said:

Previously I reported I had two native informants for Indian cuisine.  Likewise in my youth I had two informants for Chinese culinary customs (one from Hong Kong, one from Taiwan).  One assured me Chinese always used a spoon for soup, one assured me Chinese never used a spoon for anything.

 

 

I'd believe the first one. I see people using spoons every day!

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4. Black Bean Sauce

 

I searched the supermarkets to find a bottle/jar of Lee Kum Kee Black Bean Sauce to take a picture to decorate this comment. Not in the least to my surprise, I failed to find any, or any other brand.

 

Although some LKK products are available, not that one, for the simple reason that no one wants it. Black bean sauce is very popular, but not from a bottle.

 

The sauce is made fresh in the wok each time, using the ingredients individually. Fermented black beans or 豆豉 (dòu chǐ ) are easily found, cheap and keep for months.

 

835164615_Fermentedblackbeans2.thumb.jpg.b8a1a9426ff5a352f345cea44b6eb1b2.jpg

 

They are fried along with the main protein or vegetable. Garlc, ginger, soy sauce, etc are also incorporated - i.e all the things in LKK's bottle except the "caramel color, modified corn starch, xanthan gum."

 

1169111908_porkinblackbeansauce.thumb.jpg.b415c6283ffffb2c6bdce8099c417aa7.jpg

Pork in Black Bean  Sauce

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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5. Soy Sauce Usage

 

I'm not sure how widespread this is, but in the UK, many if not most Chinese restaurants have a bottle of soy sauce on each table, alongside salt and pepper, allowing the dinner to adjust the taste to their satisfaction. In China, soy sauce is only used in the kitchen (with one exception which I'll get to). I've often eaten in Chinese homes, and never seen soy sauce near a table. Or salt and pepper.

 

This very amusing clip from The Joy Luck Club is flawed in that there would never have been that bottle of soy sauce on the table, which is the climax of the joke.

 

 

The exception I mentioned is in places selling jiaozi or other items requiring a dip. There will usually be a separate table or counter with soy sauce, vinegar, chilli, garlic coriander/cilantro, chopped Chinese chives etc for the customers to construct their preferred dip.

1866440701_blackbeansoydip.thumb.jpg.caaac38b9a5539467467bd5572fdb9fc.jpg

 

Alternatively the dips may be pre-prepared by the kitchen.

dips.thumb.jpg.1511d0b3e7fd50ae0c2544e2ab8b3982.jpg

 

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@liuzhou 

 

thank you for this thread.  very interesting  Enjoyed the SS Clip.

 

re : pork fat strifes for veg :

 

is the pork fat rendered in Industrial Quantities , then hydrogenated and sold

 

in ' bricks ' as it is in USA , or locally made and not hydrogenated , or rendered in indivitdual homes

 

and again not hydrogenated ?

 

thank you again for the time your putting into this thread.

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4 minutes ago, rotuts said:

is the pork fat rendered in Industrial Quantities , then hydrogenated and sold in ' bricks ' as it is in USA , or locally made and not hydrogenated , or rendered in indivitdual homes

 

It is almost always home made - usually daily. I've only ever seen it once in a supermarket.

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