Viva Variety! Escaping Chinese Food

Viva Variety! Escaping Chinese Food
Mar 25, 2011 By Jessica A. Larson-Wang, www ,

Let me start off by saying this: I like Chinese food. In fact, I have never disliked Chinese food. Over the years I have been asked this question many times by many many Chinese people, and the answer has always been, and will continue to be a resounding yes. Chinese food is great, I have nothing against it. So why is it, my husband often wonders, that I still spend hundreds of RMB on trips to the Western grocery store, occasionally feel the need to have a coffee and a sandwich at a local cafe, and why can’t I be content to, like the billions of Chinese people on the planet, eat Chinese food every single day of my entire life?

I think the answer is simple. Westerners are spoiled by variety and we get bored easily. Back home on any given I can choose between Italian food, Mexican food, Vietnamese food, Chinese food, Indian food, and pretty much any other cuisine on the planet. I can make these international delicacies in my home, or I can go out to eat. If I choose to go out to eat, well, then I can go to the cheap taco stand on the corner, or I can go to a classy authentic Monterrey style eatery. When it comes to food, we have a lot of choices, probably more choices than anyone realistically needs.

Chinese food

China lacks that variety when it comes to food. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a huge variety of styles and flavors within Chinese food, and regional differences can account for a large range of tastes, but it still isn’t really the same thing. And while the flavors of the dishes change, the basic premise of most Chinese food is usually fairly consistent. You get dishes stir fried meat or vegetables, sweet, spicy, savory. You get dumplings. You get noodles. There’s always the rice. Sometimes there’s tofu, and usually there’s a soup. Of course, there’s more to it than that, and there are exotic sides to Chinese cuisine – Xinjiang food, with its middle-eastern flavors, or Dai food, with its Thai sensibilities – but the pattern usually remains the same. And the Chinese food that most of us eat day in day out, the “homestyle dishes,” do not offer a huge amount of variety. When my husband cooks our meals we have about a 90% chance of eating some combination of either rib or chicken soup, fried egg and tomatoes, fried potatoes, fried pork with ginger, fried cabbage, or cold cucumber. While I know that many Chinese housewives are veritable gourmets, we eat what the majority of simple people living simple lives in this country eat.

My husband does not understand my need for culinary variety. He does not understand why I don’t want to eat pork ribs two nights in a row, or why I’d rather make myself some pasta for lunch than have last night’s leftover chicken soup. He gripes most of all about the expense of Western food. And on this point, at least, he is correct. Western food costs, on average, at least twice what a similar sized Chinese meal would cost. Imported snacks and goodies at the grocery store cost imported prices: 50RMB for a box of cereal, 30RMB for a bag of chips. Part of this is simply a difference in economy. In America our snacks cost more than Chinese snacks in China cost, but food in America is in general more expensive than food in China. When eating Western food in China one must factor in the cost of importing ingredients, not to mention training staff, and on top of that, there’s the exotic factor, where Western places hike up the price simply because they can.

Chinese food

So is it worth it, the added hassle, the extra effort, just to eat something familiar, to get that variety? It all depends, I suppose. My first six months in China I rarely ate Western food. I was a poor student, for one, and couldn’t afford it, and for another, I was still quite taken with the novelty of the local cuisine. Even now, six years in China and counting, I run into foreigners who spurn Western food. Why would I eat that trash when there is so much delicious Chinese food available, and so cheap? There are many foreigners in China who take the quest for authenticity to what I consider an extreme, including many of these Chinese food purists. For the record, I don’t think my life in China is any less authentic because I hit up McDonald’s for a burger now and then or because I made enchiladas instead of jiaozi last night. For me, Western food is like watching downloaded episodes of House MD, or spending 100RMB on imported English language books. At some point most of us expats start to crave a bit of home, and luckily for us, most big cities in China can provide us with some reminders of what we left behind. So don’t feel bad if you’d rather pass on the fried rice and munch on some french fries, or if you just couldn’t resist the temptation of Starbucks on your way into work this morning. While dining on purely Western fare can leave a large dent in your wallet (although if you’re working for Google or Microsoft, maybe you can afford it!), most of us will not suffer for the occasional indulgence. So when my husband frowns at my food choices, I ask him what he would be eating if the tables were turned and we were living in my home country. No doubt we’d be on first name basis with the Golden Panda and Szechwan Palace, and our fridge would be packed with tofu, cabbage, and pork ribs.

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This is so true. The writer hit the nail on the head. Wonderful article.

Apr 22, 2011 02:39 Report Abuse



I'm not so sure you can't say any cuisine is tiring and repetitive after a while, so I can understand where you're coming from. I try to vary things, but in the end it's all some kind of meat, starch, and veggies for me. Maybe I'm just a lousy cook.

I plan to visit Xi'an in a couple of months, and on the way back I'm going to stop in Guangzhou just to eat.

Apr 06, 2011 19:41 Report Abuse



I generally agree. And you're right: having the urge for McD's every now and then doesn't make your Chinese experience any less authentic. After all, even the Chinese themselves want to have McD's or Pizza Hut or StarBucks or KFC or Subway every now and then too, and that does not make them less authentic as Chinese, now, does it? And the fact that these foreign fast-food chains do so well in China says something.

Mar 25, 2011 22:24 Report Abuse



Sorry, I only spoke as a carnivore. Vegetables, dumplings, rice and noodles are usually great

Mar 25, 2011 16:39 Report Abuse


Anne Z.

Whatever you are smoking/drinking I want some too!

Where to begin... Obviously your understanding of Chinese food and China for that matter is pretty narrow. Living content by the coat tails of your wife to form opinions for you.

Lived in Shenzhen for several years. Food is edible, but in no way is it some gastronomic epicenter you claim. Your faulty logic claims that the best chefs leave their respected homes to seek their fortune in Shenzhen. Whereas the case is that the best chefs have no need to leave their home town/city because they have the skill and ability to make it their. The young and unskilled head to Shenzhen to seek out the fast RMB. Just like the fake goods that abound in Futian/Shekou it goes so for food in Shenzhen.

Oh, in case you didn't notice, most dumplings have a meat filling And where the hell can you make the case that Sydney/Melbourne have the best Chinese food?? I'll fill you in on the secret. Most, not all, Chinese that set up shop outside of China are mostly from Fujian/Guangdong. Many of the restaurants they open have the exact same menus and offer any real authentic food. So what you get often times is some Fujian person offering an array of tastes and flavors from all over China, but none authentic.

Open a book and read sometime.

Mar 25, 2011 18:44 Report Abuse



AnneZ, David is simply making comments based on his experiences in China - what's wrong with that? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. You, however, think it is fine to personally attack someone because you disagree with what is being stated. Personally, I feel that David's comments are closer to the truth than your own. Your comments are completely immature and narrow minded, and judging from what you have written I'm assuming you're an American!

Mar 25, 2011 20:40 Report Abuse



steve i want to make friend with you

Mar 25, 2011 20:48 Report Abuse


Anne Z.


No personal attacks. Just merely educated observations.

I take it from your assertion that you are a European teacher who thinks Americans are unworldly. Oh, I'm a Chinese-Canadian by the way.

Good luck with teaching!

Mar 25, 2011 20:48 Report Abuse



No you are wrong. that Anne girl said is right. Stay and learn more about China and you will know soon.
I do not understand why do some foreigners stay short time in China and think they know everything. I like foriegners and most I meet are nice and appreciate our culture language and food.

Be nice! Thank you! :)

Mar 26, 2011 20:14 Report Abuse


General Isation

A bit like some of the posters on here.

They have never been out of China, have met a few expat teachers, read a few blogs, and think they know all about the west and westerners.

Mar 27, 2011 02:02 Report Abuse


General Isation's Dad

Son, how many times have I told you to stop with your nonsense.
Now get back to the basement and continue drafting your "Manifesto."

Note to readers: I do apologize for my son's behavior. He has a lot of anti-social issues. Due to his lack of friends he can only vent himself on the internet. Fact is he has never left his Ontario Canada suburb. He is a classical narcissist.

Best thing to do is ignore him. That's what his mom and I do.

Mar 27, 2011 22:02 Report Abuse


General Isation


Mar 28, 2011 02:15 Report Abuse



I thought as much .......ensure it never happens again

Apr 02, 2011 20:07 Report Abuse



Both true and well explained!

Mar 25, 2011 16:36 Report Abuse



Ah, at last some analysis of chinese food.
I feel that Shenzen is the [ southern ] food capital of China. There's such variety and every regional taste is represented.
Many Chinese cooks head to the city to improve their income and [ may be] their way of life.
Consequently what has happened in many cases is regional cooking is of a higher standard there as the "not so good cooks " remain in their region.
My wife is a chinese "foodie". Aren't they all! She always sings the praises of Shenzhen.
However it was her who pointed out why regional cooking is of a far higher standard in the city than in the regions.
To prove my point we began a food safari starting in Chengdu, home of Sichuan food, and particularly " hotpot". We tried many other dishes which i didn't appreciate much, so was vindicated when she proclaimed that the Sichuan food cooked in the province was "crap" and that most of the good cooks had gone to the city.
My standing joke when she ordered chinese food for me was "No fat, no grissle,no bones and no skin"all of which she loves, so often my only way out was the delicious seafood , but you have to be near the coast.
The " Hotpot" that she loves, I call" lucky dip"
Here's a question. Where does all the meat go from poultry? Unless you buy the whole bird, there's hardly any in evidence. I asked in a few restaurants and they said they never ordered that part of the bird!
One day she ordered up a" delicious dish" [ her words] which I munched into only to nearly throw up. It was apparently cartiledge!
Chickens feet of course is a whole story in itself!
Shenzhen of course has a wide range of other asian and western food, which saved mem although it's much more expensive.
I said to my wife that if we could find Chinese regional cooking in Australia, the ingredients would be so much better and have quality control, which of course China doesn't.
So if you want top Chinese food try eating in Sydney and Melbourne.

Mar 25, 2011 16:35 Report Abuse


feng lei


I can appreciate your strong opinion on food. Taste is a very subjective matter and to each his own.

However, to make the audacious and unfounded claim that Shenzhen is a modern day "Food Shangri-La" is a bit much. You can get decent food in Shenzhen is true. But, in no way does Shenzhen compare to the vast majority of other Chinese cities.

Oh, btw, to make the claim that Shenzhen has better hotpot than real deal authentic Sichuan hot pot betrays your novice understanding.

Mar 25, 2011 17:48 Report Abuse



David .I want to make friend with you

Mar 25, 2011 20:47 Report Abuse




Agree fully with your observations.

I miss and crave variety of foods. Western food can be found around 5-star hotels (such as Garden Hotel in GZ).

Shenzhen has a great diversity, and even large french bakery - When in China I long for fresh bread.

Comment about Sydney, I was given a high recommendation and card for a restaurant in GZ, East Ocean - yes the same owners as the restaurant of the same name in Sydney.

Dec 31, 2011 22:10 Report Abuse