I feel so much better now.
Now, of course, that is a wild and indefensible generalization, given the huge variety of regional cuisines within China. We all enjoy eating Chinese food once in a while. We all have certain dishes that have become particular favourites. And whenever I'm overseas - outside of China - a Chinese restaurant remains one of my top choices for an evening out.
Why isn't that the case within China? Well, there are many reasons. Probably enough for a whole series of posts on the topic.
Partly my contempt for the majority of Chinese dishes stems from a reaction against the ubiquitous Chinese chauvinism about their cuisine. You just get so damned sick of hearing all the time that they have the best cuisine in the world, and having to smile and nod in dumb 'agreement' for fear of making a scene, that there comes a time when you just have to set the record straight. You do not have the best cuisine in the world. In fact, most of it kind of sucks!
I am far from being alone in this lack of enthusiasm for the local cuisine.
There are two conspicuous phenomena I have noted during my time in China. One of these is how quickly and wholeheartedly the Chinese embrace Western cooking (especially fast-food: KFC, McDonald's, Pizza Hut et al are hugely successful over here). That doesn't do much to support the theory of the innate superiority of Chinese cooking, does it? (And by far the most popular variety of 'Chinese' food - at least here in Beijing - is Muslim cuisine from the western 'provinces' like Xinjiang; and that's really Central Asian, a completely separate culinary tradition.) The other is how nearly all expats virtually give up eating Chinese food - except on special occasions - after they've been here a year or two.
Now, I was always rather disdainful of this latter attitude: I felt that it betrayed an inappropriate dependence on 'home comforts', a failure to 'engage' with the native culture. And I still feel there is some truth in that judgement. There are hordes of North Americans here who seem to be unable to survive without regular fixes of burgers, fries, and pizza, and a breakfast at 'Steak & Eggs' every weekend. Heck, I can quite happily go for a year at a time without indulging in any of that junk food (I like it, I like it a lot; but I'm not addicted).
But when it comes to going out for a meal - at any rate for a fancy meal, a fun evening out - these days 'Chinese' is just about never something I consider. There are so many other options available. And they're all better. Korean, Japanese, Thai, Malay, Indian, Middle Eastern, Russian, Brazilian. There's even a kosher restaurant just opened up here.
Even the best Chinese restaurants here, for me, just don't bear comparison with these foreign places. The reasons, as I said, are many. Quality control in this country, especially in the food industry, is shaky at best, most of the time non-existent. Standards of service, as I recently tut-tutted over on the Barstool, are generally abysmal. The quality of the food itself (even in the better restaurants) is mostly pretty atrocious: vegetables just don't taste like they ought to (the local garlic, in particular, seems to have no garlickiness about it, only a savage, battery-acid hotness); chicken is rubbery, beef stringy (often, I suspect, from dairy rather than beef stock.... or from water buffalo that have expired of natural causes after long lives of toil), pork tasteless; when you order Beijing Duck, you need a whole duck each (at least) because the birds are so goddamned scrawny.
But a lot of my dissatisfaction does come down to the cuisine itself. As a French chef witheringly put it in conversation with me a few months back: "They have the most amazing variety of ingredients in the world here - and only one way of cooking them."
Alas, it does appear to be true. Almost everything is stir-fried in a wok; and that does tend to mean that everything is appallingly greasy. Apart from Cantonese 'sweet & sour' dishes, spring rolls, and a few types of battered vegetable emulating Japanese tempura, nothing is deep-fried. Apart from dumplings, almost nothing is boiled or steamed. Apart from Beijing Duck, just about nothing is roasted. Apart from yangrouchuan (mutton kebabs), just about nothing is grilled (and that's part of the Central Asian cuisine imported via Xinjiang anyway). There are very few stews or casseroles (soups are almost invariably just water-with-bits-in). They seem not to have any thickening agents. They don't have any dairy in their cooking. They don't have any flavourful alcoholic drinks to add to their cooking (they use rice wine once in a while, but it doesn't impart a lot of flavour - mercifully!). They don't have much in the way of sauces at all. They don't really seem to have any herbs or spices, for the most part - apart from garlic, chilli, and ginger, and, occasionally, star anise (hence the wild enthusiasm with which they adopted MSG, I daresay).
Yep, despite the staggering variety of available ingredients, the majority of Chinese cooking is greasy, bland, and depressingly homogenous.
Even the rice is BORING. Really quite gobsmackingly, unbelievably boring. Every other country and region I've ever encountered that relies on rice as its staple has recognised that it is TASTELESS and taken steps to deal with that shortcoming - by adding garlic, cumin, saffron, curry, pineapple, etc., etc. The Chinese don't even add salt or soy. I never order rice in Chinese restaurants any more. I'd rather eat cardboard.
Now that I have become a regular 'business traveller', I am being forced to eat out much more often. And I'm really not keen to eat Chinese. When I was down in Hangzhou last week, I sought out their branch of the 'Indian Kitchen' chain. It's not the best Indian restaurant in the world, and the service is predictably wayward, but.... at least you know you're going to get some variety in the menu: wet dishes, dry dishes; rich, meaty gravies or smooth creamy sauces; meat-only dishes and vegetable-only dishes; fried dishes from a wok and baked dishes from the tandoor; delicate blends of spices; marvellous breads and several different types of flavoured rice.
Yes, sorry - a deferential bow to all of my Chinese friends, and to any casual Chinese readers who may wander in here - but, compared to food like that, Chinese cooking sucks.