Chinese Food: China vs America

I skype-chatted with Clarissa Wei, a Chinese-American journalist in Los Angeles whose post about stinky tofu in Los Angeles impressed me.

SR What do you think of Chinese restaurants in America compared to Chinese restaurants in China?

CW It depends on where you’re talking about. In broad America, the Chinese food is pretty different from that of China. In places like Los Angeles and pockets of New York… it’s much more alike

SR I’m thinking of the best ones in Los Angeles.

CW It’s definitely cleaner here that’s for sure. In Los Angeles, the food quality is pretty similar. The major difference would be the price and variety. The selections are also pretty similar. The set-up in American Chinese restaurants is obviously different than the ones in China so that influences things a lot

SR I have never been to a Chinese restaurant in America that resembles a high-end Chinese restaurant in Beijing

CW In Los Angeles — there are a couple high-end Canto restaurants. They typically are your seafood + dim sum banquet types. Lunasia is a great example.

SR What do you mean by the set up?

CW Well in China, a lot of the restaurants are literally hole-in-the-walls. There isn’t that much of a standard in terms of being neat and sanitary.

SR There is vastly more range in China, both better and worse

CW In the rural countrysides, it’s out of people’s homes. But in America, everyone has to have at least some degree of sanitation.

SR Chinese restaurants in China are more playful. Like a toilet restaurant, for example.

CW Very true. Yeah they’re opening one of those in LA.

SR Or a restaurant where everyone says hello when you enter and goodbye when you leave

CW There’s also a Taiwanese “Hooters” in L.A. A lot of the Taiwanese breakfast eateries in L.A. have that “cutesy” vibe.

SR When you were in China were you in any way disappointed by the Chinese restaurants?

CW I was in China in 2011 for 4 months as part of a study abroad program. I was disappointed mostly because I always got sick.

SR  What city?

CW Shanghai. But I travelled to Guilin, Dunhuang, Beijing. I got sick from just the regular restaurants on my street. Some were marketed as higher-end. I lost 10 pounds from throwing up. Mind you, I go to Taiwan yearly and that never happens.

SR The first time I went to China I was sick every 2 days, but after that I was fine.

CW I think my toleration for bacteria is pretty low.

SR I get sick no more often in Beijing than in Berkeley. [But in Beijing I eat Korean and Japanese food mostly.]

CW  That’s surprising. I was at Donghuamen [a night market selling strange food] in Beijing. Did an article on that place. But I just felt like throwing up because the streets reeked of trash.

SR The cheap restaurants scare me. They use recycled cooking oil.

CW I think that’s changing now with the media coverage on the Chinese food scandals. But in places like Los Angeles..the food is pretty up to par in terms of “authenticity”.

SR How was the food in the various Chinese cities besides Shanghai?

CW It was alright. I get turned off when a restaurant is dirty to be honest. But that may just be because of my American upbringing. It really influences how I consume the food and how much I eat of it. When I was in Dunhuang, there was a vendor making daoxiaomian but he kept on coughing over and over. And we watched him make the dish and serve it to us. I felt disgusted but we were starving.

SR What did you think of the food expertise of the Chinese people you met in China?

CW I learned a lot about Chinese food in China from my Chinese teacher. That’s when I started to gain in interest in the regional differences. The oyster omelette for example in Xiamen is similar to the one in Taiwan, but crispier and thinner

SR It was very hard to buy a kitchen timer in Beijing because I was told no one uses them when they cook.

CW No one uses fancy gadgets or exact measurements there. It’s all passed down and family recipes which is the beauty of it.

SR My students at Tsinghua are more connoisseurs of food than my Berkeley students. A lot more.

CW Food is such a central theme of the Chinese culture. There’s a fascination with Western food too. In Shanghai, my first article for CNN was “Top Western Restaurants in Shanghai”. I brought my Shanghainese friends along to one of the places — a bagel places — and they were fascinated.

SR I went to the best Korean restaurant I’ve been to outside Korea in Shanghai.

CW Shanghai has a tradition of really embracing foreign cooking traditions. One of the best fine dining restaurants I’ve been to was in Shanghai, Mr. and Mrs. Bund.

SR Do people in Shanghai understand how good the food is in Japan?

CW I think so. But a lot of Chinese people really don’t have the opportunity to travel abroad. They don’t have a feel or the exposure to foreign tastes as much as Americans do. In Taiwan, there’s a fascination with the Japanese. Obviously because of the occupation of the Japanese but a lot of the high-end Taiwanese restos are Japanese influenced.

SR Controlling for age who did you think are the more adventurous eaters, Americans or Chinese — I mean the ones you know.

CW Chinese hands down.

SR That’s interesting, I always worry that my students won’t like this or that. [At least, they draw the line at eating insects.]

CW Just because Chinese cuisine has a variety of meats and offal and “bizarre” parts you know. So they’re much more open to try …. snails from France than your average American. Because snails are a Chinese dish too.
Also in Chinese culture, you’re taught to eat anything and everything that’s presented to you. It’s rude to refuse.

SR A friend of mine said that Chinese (in practice) is a language of verbs, English is a language of nouns. One of the verbs is “eat”. Parents tell children: “eat”.

CW Yes. Americans have the luxury of being more picky — look at the whole gluten free, vegan movement in these metropolitan places. If you go into a Chinese restaurant in China and say you’re vegetarian — they don’t really know how to work with you. Some places will just roll their eyes.

SR After you came back from Shanghai to Los Angeles, how did you view American Chinese restaurants differently? The authentic ones.

CW I appreciated it a lot more. The food here is good and it won’t give me food poisoning. Sanitation was like the biggest worry in China. An article recently came out that said the ice from the KFC in China had more bacteria than toilet water.

SR  I never go to KFC in China. Now I have been vindicated in that decision

CW The egg tarts there are fantastic. Modeled after the original Macau egg tart recipe apparently. 

SR There should be a category: best food in worst restaurant. Also worst food in best restaurant.

CW Chinese restaurants have such extensive menus, it’s always easy to find a bad item.

SR I was impressed that Chinese restaurants managed to make mashed potatoes slightly interesting. That’s baby food! They added raspberry sauce.

CW Again — fascination with Western food.

2 Responses to “Chinese Food: China vs America”

  1. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    That’s interesting that Chinese restaurants in China have trouble with the concept of vegan food. In the United States, Asian eateries are probably more vegan-friendly than any other category of restaurant. You can usually order any dish with tofu in it instead of meat. (Sometimes you have to be careful that the dish doesn’t include fish sauce, though.)

  2. dearieme Says:

    I had a delicious Chinese meal in San Francisco in 1966. I was rather surprised, though, that I was the only white face in the restaurant.