The Problem with “Chinese Food”

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

HYBRID AMBASSADORS: a blog-ring project of Dialogue2010
You met our multinational cultural innovators this spring in a roundtable discussion of hybrid life at expat+HAREM. Now in these interconnected blog posts they share reactions to a recent polarizing book promotion at the writing network SheWrites. Join the discussion on Twitter using #HybridAmbassadors or #Dialogue2010

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 flavors 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 them as too foreign for his palate.

Thing is, there’s nothing so extraordinary about that. “Chinese food” encompasses such a variety of flavors, 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 to me. I can’t avoid it when I speak of China’s style of cooking, yet it cheapens the richness hidden below 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 of the rice.

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 flavored 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 delicacies were the finest he’d ever tasted. But he realized the limitations of his palette when, after savoring 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.

At the same time, you cannot just promote a book to a broad, general category without providing meaningful reasons why they should have a taste. You have to provide the menu, share the flavors, give samples — find those people within that group who love your own style of “linguistic cooking.”

We’ll never divorce ourselves from the linguistic generality of something like “Chinese food” (or, worse, “Asian food” — but that’s another topic for another day) 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 realized 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 is one of in the Hybrid Ambassador series, written in response to a post on SheWrites asking for ‘White Ambassadors’. You can read the other posts below:

Tara Lutman Agacayak’s Circles
Anastasia Ashman’s Great White People Book Club
Catherine Bayar’s Thicker Skin
Elmira Bayraslı’s The Color of Writing
Rose Deniz’s Voice Lessons from a Hybrid Ambassador
Sezin Koehler’s Whites Only?
Judith van Praag’s We Write History Today
Catherine Yiğit’s Special-ism

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17 thoughts on “The Problem with “Chinese Food”

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  • August 11, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    well stated. Whenever I would speak to Chinese about ‘Chinese Food’, they would give me a strange look, and then tell me to say ‘Chinese Dishes’. In a country with such strong passion food cuisine, generalization is not an option.

  • August 12, 2010 at 1:24 am

    Chinese food is always my favorite, especially the Dim Sum. Jocelyn, I like the photo of this post.

    By the way, I will start trying to talk about the relationship between Chinese men and western women. If anyone is interested in this, welcome to my blog. Your comment is always valuable.

  • August 12, 2010 at 5:24 am

    Thanks for this Jocelyn….

    The designation ‘Chinese food’ also seems to refer to a tradition of food served in American restaurants (often unlike anything I ever found in China). Just like food everywhere, Chinese food is regional, cultural (and religious sometimes — like the vegetarian versions of meat dishes often served at kitchens attached to Buddhist temples and monasteries).

    Once I went on a trip with a Chinese Malaysian family and the father wasn’t keen on me coming along because he thought they’d have to eat “American food” on his holiday. I didn’t even know what he meant by that. Turns out he understood American food to be McDonald’s. Poor guy had a real reason to be scared I was going to ruin his vacation with three visits a day to McDonald’s!

  • August 12, 2010 at 7:21 am

    This post not only makes me laugh because of your husbands reaction to his meal in X’ian (something I’ve heard from my husband’s mouth about some regional dishes in Turkey), but also makes me hungry. How amazing it would be to learn about each region’s speciality instead of lumping them all together. In Turkey, food from hot and southern Adana is very different from the lush and humid Black Sea region. Same goes for the Midwest, where I grew up eating pot roasts, casseroles, and Friday night fish fry’s. I would never equate all food in America to be of the same ilk, like some of my Turkish friends have about what they think American food is (McDonald’s like Anastasia points out, Pizza Hut, fast food, basically). I could have been accused of not knowing the vast richness of Turkish food when I first moved here, so I wonder if it about being exposed to a range of foods and flavors, that you have to have a relationship to the food you are eating.

    Thanks for a great post, Jocelyn!

  • August 12, 2010 at 8:19 am

    Hi Jocelyn,

    What a fascinating overview of the misnomer of Chinese food. I find myself explaining to people the difference between an Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani etc. curry, because people assume they are all the same just because the colonial label which used the name of a unique spice was given to all the dishes.

    “Chinese food” is a fascinating metaphor for the danger of generalisations. Like Catherine Yigit mentions in her piece, we are all special, and this extends to regions of countries as well. Even in the same place with people from the same culture they will find their own personal take on whatever issue it may be.

    Plus, thank you for the introductions to various Chinese foods. I think I would like your mother-in-law’s food style. Spicy food has always been one of my favourite things. Yum!

  • August 12, 2010 at 9:11 am

    This is such a wonderfully written piece. It makes me hungry for understanding as well as food.
    In Ireland I’m sure Chinese food means something completely different. It is adapted to the Irish palate, as that of a Chinese restaurant in Turkey is adapted to the Turkish palate. Unfortunately this leaves us without any real idea of what the range of cuisines in China is like.
    By taking too large a view of something we miss out on the detail included in it. We miss out on the diversity, the range, the quality. This is such a lovely reminder to take a closer look.

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  • August 16, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Dear Jocelyn,
    As Sezin already remarked, to show by example of your Chinese husband how diverse “Chinese Food” really is, presents us with a marvelous metaphor for generalizations and prejudices. Not all Chinese “like” or can even stomach all Chinese cuisines.
    For the same token you don’t have to be Chinese to like any of the Chinese cuisines. All we have to do is leave the words food or cuisine out of the equation and we see that we don’t have to like everybody, we don’t have to agree with everybody’s opinion, we don’t have to like everybody’s artworks or literature just for the sake of wanting to be P.C. or open minded. Sometimes showing dislike provides a greater sense of equality than pretense would or could.

  • August 17, 2010 at 4:31 am

    Jocelyn, I love this subtly written, excellent reminder to refrain from thinking of anything or anyone as merely part of an anonymous block. Diversity in food, faces, thought, expression, you name it, as we please. The freedom to agree or disagree as we choose, without fear of being condemned by those who offer no reasoned thought as to why they think differently. Like spices, conflicting opinions are okay when you know how to flavor your point of view without causing an upset stomach. Now that’s a cuisine I’m truly hungry for!

  • August 17, 2010 at 6:25 am

    Jocelyn, it is difficult to touch such a delicate topic without getting personal or putting people on the defensive. How successfully you’ve accomplished this. It brings understanding without the strong emotions. That and you’ve awakened an interest in me to explore China more. Well done.

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