The story of all the substandard Chinese food in Europe

By Jens Renner & Wentao Lu

Jens and Wentao met each other in the same master’s programme in journalism, and they both agree that the Chinese food in Europe isn’t authentic enough. This is a story of them finding out why that is.

Jens:Growing up in rural northern Denmark, there was one option if I wanted to eat Chinese food – going to China House. The “China Box” was the most popular option: a cardboard box filled with fried noodles and deep fried spring rolls, shrimps and calamari rings. On top: A generous splash of red sour/sweet sauce. China House was a place where food was a bit more expensive and far more oily than at the neighbouring pizzeria. Thus, for most people, a less attractive choice unless trying to recover from a serious hangover. I’ve probably always known that my experience with Chinese food wasn’t representative, although I never actively set out to challenge it. That was until I met my graduate co-student Wentao. Hearing this thoughts made me think that my first encounter might have tampered with my curiosity to try again. So I did.

Wentao: Before coming to Denmark to study in late 2017, I made a promise to myself: I would try my best to experience the culture in the country widely known as a “fairy kingdom” in my homeland China. However, my disinterest in Danish food and the price of the restaurants there hindered me from really experiencing Danish food culture. Feeling a little guilted, I started going to Chinese restaurants. Quickly it dawned on me that the Chinese food that I tried was very different from that in China – generally in a pretty bad way. A mix of meat and vegetables together with a lot of sauce was the typical dish that I’d get – something not popular in China at all. As I traveled around Europe between my semesters, I noticed much less variety in the Chinese food offered: Most restaurants with decent food specialise in regional Cantonese or Sichuanese food, while in China every province has their own style. There was so much missing.

How come Chinese restaurants in the West often don’t offer the many delicious meals available in China? And why do they make up deep fried alternatives with sticky sour/sweet sauce? We thought the best to answer our common questions would be the people cooking the food, so we went to a Tripadvisor-favourite in central Hamburg. We were lucky to catch Ms Shanshan Chen, who has worked there for the last 16 years.

Interview with Ms. Shanshan Chen

The first thing coming to mind, Ms Chen said, when defining typical Chinese food in Germany, is fried and crispy. “When Chinese immigrants open a restaurant, they make their food catering to the preference of the Europeans”, she added as an explanation. She emphasised that it’s the same principle applying to European restaurants opening in China. The restaurant that Ms Chen works for, according to her, doesn’t make westernised Chinese food like others do: They have great chefs that were trained in Hong Kong. Yet she agrees that there are few of such authentic restaurants nowadays, partly because of the difficulty keeping such places afloat as cheap and fast Chinese (or “Asian”) restaurants, who don’t necessarily need good culinary skills, steal customers. The increasingly strict labour laws for foreigners in Germany also makes it harder to recruit good chefs from China, she added. She is concerned that if her chefs retire, the restaurant’s future could be jeopardised.

The quality of Chinese food in the West should not be judged solely by a restaurant who manages to keep the sour/sweet sauce at bay, we though. Thus we went to a professor in Chinese cultural history, who taught at Oxford, Leiden, Heidelberg before moving to and now teaching at Hamburg University, Mr. Barend ter Haar.

Both Mr ter Haar and Ms Chen agree that the appropriation of food to foreign cultures is a common practice. If Europeans want deep fried calamari rings, they can have it – as the professor noted – a restaurant cooks food that can be sold. But as we talked to Mr ter Haar, he started out questioning the whole concept of Chinese food: Everyone knows that China is huge, either by area or population. For such a country, he said, it is impossible to talk about one kind of food.

Interview with Professor Barend ter Haar

It is well accepted that there are eight major cuisines in China, including the famous Cantonese food from southern coastal China and Sichuan food from southwestern China, known for its spiciness. Both of these cuisines have been successful at making it to Europe. Other cuisines are not so well-known in Europe, such as, among others, the Hunan, the Huaiyang and the Hui cuisine.

The most important factor making Chinese food in Europe different from that in China, according to Mr ter Haar, is the patterns of migration. According to the professor, there are three major origins of Chinese immigrants in Europe: The Cantonese people who travelled through Hong Kong, the Fujianese people who are from Fujian Province and people from the mountainous regions close to Wenzhou in Southern Zhejiang Province. All three regions are along China’s southern coast, which used to mean much easier access to boats traveling overseas compared to people from the inland. According to ter Haar, this simple logistical hurdle explains why most Chinese food in Europe is southern Chinese food.

Ter Haar added that contrary to what many Westerners may think, good chefs within China have always been able to earn money. Thus a lot of the best chefs never left China, as they were well-off staying there. Immigrants coming to Europe were quite often from poor and uneducated backgrounds, many of them lived in Europe illegally.

The situation is changing though, as more and more Chinese from different parts of the country are flying to Europe, many of them from the booming Chinese middle class. In London it’s possible to find a much bigger variety of Chinese food than in most other European cities – the trending bubble tea is one example, another is the popular Chongqing grilled fish (see below). Finally, another group of Chinese coming to Europe today are refugees, e.g. the Uyghur Muslims from the Xinjiang Province, Mr ter Haar noted, leaving their homeland in fear of persecution and bringing with them their own culinary traditions. This all means that a more diverse Chinese food scene might be on its way for Europeans.

However, supply is – like in any other business – connected to demand: A possible factor hindering Chinese food in realizing its full potential in Europe, something keeping the current Chinese food in Europe substandard, is simply that many Europeans don’t know what to ask for. A negative loop. Ter Haar pointed out that the Chinese use a broad variety of ingredients that Europeans don’t know or like, such as duck feet and animal innards, which often amount to negative stereotypes about “what Chinese eat back home”. Perhaps wishing not to scare off Europeans, some restaurants never offer unknown options. Others keep them on seperate menus only for Chinese customers.

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