It’s a funny thing, but there’s really no such thing as Chinese food. Oh there’s Cantonese, Sichuan, Shandong, Fujian, Hunan and Anhui cuisine, but you can’t point to one plate of food and say, ‘Yep, that’s Chinese food that is.’
Partly this is down to size. China is just far too big and too regionally diverse to have one unified style of cookery.
So why does every clichéd ‘Chinese’ restaurant from Seattle to Sydney serve the same old fare – lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork, fried rice with peas and carrots – you’d never see on a plate in Shanghai or Xi’an? It’s basically down to the first and second generation migrants in the 19th and early 20th century, who left China behind and brought their traditional cuisine to the West. Most of these original emigrants were Cantonese, which is why ‘western Chinese food’ features a lot of stir-fries and noodle based dishes. We just replaced the wok with a pan, daikon and chou sum with broccoli and carrot.
So it may be a surprise to some that one of the real joys of travelling through China is discovering a variety of authentic regional dishes that are to ‘chop suey’ what real Mexican is to Taco Bell. They can be a little unfamiliar, so to help with this transition we’ve compared the real deal to its western equivalent.
Love lemon chicken? Try Sichuan bon bon chicken
A classic in the Sichuan province, bon bon (or bang bang) chicken hasn’t really made the jump to western menus. It’s basically thin strips of cooked chicken often served as a salad with Sichuan pepper and sesame oil. The ‘bang bang’ bit comes from the preparation, where the meat is flattened by banging it (go figure) before being shredded into strips with a sharp knife. Legend has it that an entrepreneurial chef in Ya’an decided to flatten his chicken because it allowed him to sell more. That’s bang for your buck.
Craving Mongolian beef? Try Cantonese beef brisket
Beef brisket isn’t probably the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Chinese food, but in the province of Guangdong stewed brisket is a popular staple. It’s often cooked slowly with ginger, star anise, daikon, rock sugar and oyster sauce. Cantonese food (apart from its focus on offal) is usually the most familiar to a western crowd, probably due to the large numbers of early immigrants from Guangdong who brought their local flavours to the West.
Want fried rice? Try Fujian fried rice
Despite the name, this authentic fried rice originated in Hong Kong, not Fujian. Those used to the traditional western-style dish (cubed carrot, broccoli and bacon included) probably wouldn’t recognise the local Chinese version. Fujian fried rice uses Chinese mushroom, Chou sum stems and dried scallops instead of basic veg, but the real difference is the sauce. One the frying is complete, the dish is finished with a thick sauce poured on top, usually made from chicken broth, shrimp, mushrooms and soy sauce. Delish.
Addicted to fried wantons? Try guotie
Western-style wontons are usually deep fried wanton skins stuffed with pork. But while wantons are a popular dish in China, the execution is a little different. Head to the northern provinces and try guotie, basically the original potsticker dumpling. The filling is usually pork, but spiked with ginger, Chinese cabbage, scallions and rice wine. The wantons are shallow fried in a wok, but the trick is to add a little water and cover with a lid. The bottom of the guotie fry crispy, but the top steams soft (a bit like Japanese gyoza). Serve with some hot chilli paste.
Fancy chop suey? Try chow mai fun
Chop suey is almost a byword for westernised Chinese food. That’s how clichéd it’s become. Head to Gaungdong or Hong Kong though and you’re in for something much more legit (and a whole lot tastier): chow mai fun. Take flat rice ho fun noodles, fried beef strips, been sprouts, onions and soy sauce and flash fry quickly over a high flame. The amount of oil is crucial: too much and it becomes a greasy mess, too little and the noodles will catch on the wok and break apart.
Hungry for a fortune cookie? Try a mooncake
These famous cookies are said to have been ‘invented by the Japanese, popularised by the Chinese and eaten by Americans.’ You won’t find them or their weirdly cryptic prophecies anywhere in China, but there is a local equivalent if you’re looking for something sweet to finish your meal. Mooncakes are usually eaten during the mid-autumn lunar festival of Zhongqiujie. Suzhou and Taiwan mooncakes have a flaky crust and a tasty filling, often lotus bean paste or sweet bean paste, and are deceptively moreish. You have been warned.
Hungry for more? Snack your way through the Middle Kingdom on our Real Food Adventure – China