Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Chinese food is SHITE

There - I've said it!

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.

20 comments:

omg said...

An enlightening and brave post! People always say that the Chinese food in the restaurants in the U.S. isn't real Chinese food, but I've never heard what real Chinese food is. Now I know.

My mother-in-law is Thai. I love her cooking, but she too is mighty attached to her wok. Last time she was here she made pancakes in it.

Normally I wouldn't be so rude as to point out a typo, but this time, well, I only mention it because it made me giggle seeing as how it was in the sentence about quality control. ;-)

Froog said...

Thanks a lot, OMG. Typo corrected. You are hereby appointed to be my regular copy editor ("Your mission, should you choose to accept it..."). God knows, I need the help.

I am hoping this wilfully provocative little post might spark off something of an online debate - something to keep the blog 'alive' while I'm away on holiday for the next three weeks. Perhaps it may even bring in some new readers. At present, I am the No 1 result (of 2!) on Google for "Chinese cooking sucks".

JohnA said...

... or are you just bored (familiarity breeds contempt) of Beijing cuisine? Most places (even now) in the UK are Cantonese and there's only one (genuine) Szechuan in London (so I'm told).

So is your real issue with Beijing recipies and ingredients? After all, southern European food is FAR more "interesting" than northern.

And I'd prefer tacos to muktuk.

Still: give me some salt beef, a wally and some latkes ANY day.

Now, Vietnamese - THERE's a boring cuisine.

Froog said...

Mr A, I never realised you were so well travelled! Or is this just a case of there being a lot of different ethnic cuisines available in West London??

I don't have much experience of Vietnamese, but what I've had, I've liked a lot. The 'best of' any given country is probably going to be quite interesting, I suppose. Only when you've lived there and sampled a broad range of the everyday cooking can you reach a judgement on whether it is in general 'boring' or not.

I'm afraid even the best of Chinese food isn't usually all that good. And there is a terrible samey-ness about most of it.

But no, it probably doesn't help that I am in Beijing. It's not really a foodie town. That is one point where Shanghai beats it hands down. In fact, the whole of the North-East is a bit of a culinary black hole - 'New Ways With Offal' seems to be the summit of their ingenuity in the kitchen in DongBei.

JohnA said...

Now there's an interesting question: for how many countries does the statement "the whole of the North-East is a bit of a culinary black hole - 'New Ways With Offal'" hold true?

I can think of three...

Froog said...

A curious point. But don't be so coy, Mr A - which other countries would you say suffer from this "Curse of the North-East"?

England, perhaps? And France?? Or Vietnam???

snopes said...

I think it is hard to really love any cuisine that you haven't experienced in childhood.

Foreign food excites us for a while with its novelty; but then the novelty wears off; it doesn't have any sentimental hold over us.

Froog said...

I agree with you on the sentimental associations, Mr Snopes. But I think it is possible to acquire those later in life - many of my favourite 'comfort foods' (doner kebabs, curry, chilli con carne) I had never tasted until I went to University.

Froog said...

I just added another post on Froogville about the inadequacies of Chinese cooking, specifically about the rubbish they serve up in Szechuan
, which I recently visited.

Keir said...

My biggest gripe is the overapplication of peppers in everything which I'm convinced is to conceal the taste. Everything has to be spicy; like so much here, nothing is allowed to be nuanced or subtle.

Froog said...

Welcome, Keir. Where did you wander in from?

I agree with you about the overuse of chilli. I like hot food, but here it seems to be done with a total lack of finesse or imagination. That's particularly true of Szechuan cuisine, as I complained in the post referenced in my comment just above.

Glad to have you aboard. I hope we'll hear from you again. It sounds like you're China-based..... so you've obviously worked out how to read Blogspot despite The Great Firewall. Well done!

Tony said...

Whole-heartedly agree with most of what you say but would add a note about their gourmet fish, which, judging by the price, they appear to esteem, and which are basically bones in mud.

But worst in the world? Not if you've been to Mexico or Portugal.

Froog said...

I have been to Mexico once, briefly; I rather enjoyed it. I like what I know of Mexican cooking (and that does go rather beyond the Texas interpretation thereof).

Portugal I couldn't comment on at all. Perhaps we should consult my friend, Mr Snopes, who I believe has a holiday home there. Or The Art Entrepreneur, an old teaching colleague of mine who is another long-time Lisbophile.

Tony said...

OK, we agree to differ about Mexico; I did mean TexMex anyway.
But for the Portuguese cuisine, some people did agree with my comments.

Glou-Mio said...

I would simply say 'cze char'.

But then perhaps you Daidu types wouldn't slum it with us lowly Fujian types. Your loss.

Froog said...

Is that you, "Grumio"? I don't believe you're really one of those snakehead boys!

There's a rather good Hakka restaurant near where I live; but that's the beginning and the end of my knowledge of Fujian cuisine.

Zui Gao De Guo said...

Dude, Yunnan cooking. Steamed, broiled, tasty rice, with sour and herby flavors...It is the omega cuisine. We will eat nothing but yunnanese food in the utopian future.

...

That said, I see where you're coming from with dongbei and sichuan cuisine. I'd love it a hell of a lot more if they used just a little less oil and chili. (But that still doesn't stop hui guo ruo from being my favorite dish)

柏黛 said...

I think it's a matter of good guidance for where to eat and how to eat it. I do agree that ingredient really matters and how to play with texture of the food also important. It's like Italian food, I use to hate it since most restaurant in CA only got couple of options. However, I love it now since I learn to make it use fresh herb and olive oil. You may want to skip most boring place in BJ and check out some innovative Chinese Chef's cuisine. Like this guy that I read upon http://dadongduck.blog.sohu.com/. I do agree find good food takes lots of work and rating system like Zagat does not exist in China yet. There are room for improvement. I do like Zui Gao De Guo's comment on Yunnan food. I just hope more chefs in China would appreciate the fresh ingredients more and try to be more innovate on taste. Thanks for having guts to say it and hope better luck next meal!

Froog said...

Well, thanks for looking in, 柏黛. Da Dong is certainly good, but a bit too fussy for my taste - rather 'Westernized' Chinese food.

I actually have a huge soft spot for Hubei food, and always enjoy a night out at the 9-Headed Bird or 9-Headed Eagle chains. And near where I live - in addition to the numerous hole-in-the-wall Xinjiang places - I like Hancang, the Hakka place on Qianhai, and Dali Courtyard, a beautifully modernised siheyuan with some great Yunnan food.

It's just that overall, I find the food here is lacking quality and variety.

Kind of Anonymous said...

The real deal with Chinese food seems to be that everyone cooks exactly the same dishes, but only a very small minority of restaurants can cook the dishes well. It's that 98%, in accordance with Sturgeon's Law, of Chinese food in China is a Shanzhai copy of actual Chinese food.

Home cooking is also frequently better than restaurant cooking; when people cook for themselves they take care to get the level of spices and the timings on all the dishes correct.

There's no quality-fade, where the chefs and restauranteurs are incentivized to cut corners as much as they can get away with to maximize profit, in home-cooking.

===

To prove that there's actually good Chinese food, come to New York and go to some of the high-Zagat Chinese restaurants. The rating system is objective and they have to compete with upper-middle French and Italian.

I've also had incidents with tycoons; these people know where to properly source good and motivated Chinese chefs alongside high-quality ingredients.