The Truth About Chinese Food

BY JOCELYN EIKENBURG
Nov 30, 2010

The term "Chinese food", like many generalised categories, hides a diversity beneath it all.

 

31 The term "Chinese food", like many generalised categories, hides a diversity beneath it all. (Credit: Richard Dudley)

 

Last summer, my Chinese husband and I swept through central China on a whirlwind tour of the highlights, from Shaolin Temple to the Terracotta Warriors to Chengdu’s gardens. Everywhere we went, we sampled local culinary fare – all Chinese – with as much gusto as the tourist draws. But not every meal went smoothly, especially not with my husband.

A dinner in Xi’an, infused with the aromatic flavours of the Silk Road, had him running for the bathroom later that night. Another Xi’an lunch the following day – noodles stewed in an exotic spiced broth – left him desperate to leave the region for our next stop: Sichuan. He described the problem like this: “The spices disagree with me.” This was Chinese food, yet he spoke of it like many of the Western foods he would push away, claiming they were too foreign for his palate.

Thing is, there’s nothing so extraordinary about that. “Chinese food” encompasses such a variety of flavours, cooking styles and signature dishes that, chances are, most Chinese people and Chinese food aficionados would probably dislike at least one, if not more, of the foods available. I sure do. In fact, as a vegan, I probably eat far less Chinese food than almost everyone entranced with this broad style of cooking.

So it’s no wonder that the term “Chinese food” has little meaning for me. I can’t avoid it when I speak of China’s style of cooking, yet it cheapens the richness hidden beneath the sauce.

So it’s no wonder that the term “Chinese food” has little meaning for me. I can’t avoid it when I speak of China’s style of cooking, yet it cheapens the richness hidden beneath the sauce. Even the more specific schools of cooking – Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western – and some of their sub-styles – from Sichuanese to Cantonese – only scratch the surface.

I’ve often surprised people – even Chinese – when I speak of the cuisine of Tonglu County, my husband’s home region. Tonglu belongs to the Hangzhou area – a city renowned for light, delicately flavoured dishes such as water-shield soup or West Lake vinegar fish. Yet, Tonglu people love a little spice in their dishes. Granted, it’s not the tongue-busting Sichuanese pepper, yet I’ve left my mother-in-law’s table more than once in search of something to extinguish the burning sensation in my mouth.

My father, who used to begrudgingly wolf down a hamburger at Chinese restaurants while we ordered “real dishes”, became a fan of “Chinese food” after attending my wedding in Tonglu, declaring that the banquet food was the finest he’d ever dined on. But he realised the limitations of his palate when, after savouring a breakfast of beef noodles in the suburbs of Hangzhou, couldn’t find anything exactly like it in Suzhou or Shanghai. You could never just promote “Chinese food” to my father – but you could bring him in if you promised the same food he enjoyed at our wedding, or at that little restaurant in Hangzhou.

We’ll never divorce ourselves from the linguistic generality of something like “Chinese food” because so many things – restaurants, chefs, cookbooks, marketers – depend on this word. I’m grateful a few styles broke through to general understanding in the world, such as Sichuanese, Hunanese and Cantonese. But just think if people realised the diversity beyond that. Just think if they remembered that even a Chinese man would leave a restaurant with an upset stomach, because he didn’t like the spices.

 

This post was originally published on Speaking of China in August 2010.