Tonya posted this question on the Facebook page for Travel with Aging Parents: What’s the difference between Chinese food in China and the Chinese food you get here in the USA?
That’s a great question, Tonya—and one I hear all the time. There’s a huge difference between the two cuisines, mostly based on the fact that many dishes or ingredients in one are not usually available in the other.
If you scan a menu at most Chinese restaurants in the USA, for example, you’ll see such staples as General Tso’s Chicken, chop suey, chow mein, and moo goo gai pan. If you go to China, however, you won’t find those dishes anywhere, because they are all Western creations!
Early Chinese immigrants to the USA adapted their dishes to make up for the lack of ingredients they typically used in their native land and to appeal to Western palates. For example, most Chinese-American chicken dishes use only white boneless breast meat, but in China chicken dishes use both white and dark meat, and diners often find small bones in their food. (If you’re having a meal in China and find yourself with a mouthful of small bones, just do as the Chinese do and spit them out onto your plate.)
Another difference is that many Chinese-American dishes often feature one type of meat cooked with three or four different vegetables. In China, though, the cooks tend to combine one kind of meat with only one vegetable. (An example of this sort of dish is eel with five peppers, a Szechuan specialty that I can tell you from experience is hotter than blazes!)
You can find this dish (and other Szechuan specialties) at Yuxin Sichuan Cuisine (Dongfang Rd, 796号96广场, Pudong District). Not only is the food spectacular (and spectacularly hot), the restaurant is beautiful itself:
And the ubiquitous fortune cookie in Chinese restaurants in the USA? Not something you’ll find in China. They aren’t even Chinese, in fact: they were invented in Kyoto, Japan, and came to the USA in the 1950s via Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. American diners responded to them enthusiastically (who doesn’t love a good fortune, right?), and they accompanied the eastward expansion of American Chinese food across the country. But they never made their way to China.
In short, unless you visit restaurants that cater to American tourists, in China you’re unlikely to find most of the dishes usually associated with Chinese food in the USA. What you will find, though, is food based on what’s available locally and that day. Freshness reigns supreme, and local grocery stores pride themselves on the variety and range of their fresh foods.
So if you’re going to China, take advantage of the opportunity to try some authentic Chinese food! Over the course of ten trips there, I’ve sampled quite a few Chinese dishes, and I’ve become particularly fond of two local favorites: hot pot and Peking duck. I highly recommend both to anyone who travels to China!
Hot pot is similar to non-cheese fondue in the USA: in both dishes, raw foods (meat and vegetables) are cooked in a pot of simmering oil or broth. But the Chinese take this concept to a new level of pure deliciousness!
In the USA, fondue may entail cooking only three or four different items in one big container of hot oil or broth. In China, on the other hand, hot pot usually involves at least two dozen ingredients, including several types of meat and lots (and lots!) of vegetables. The cooking pot typically has two separate compartments, so that those with mild palates can coexist with those who are fond of spiciness that lingers for days (if you know what I mean . . .).
My favorite hot pot restaurant in Shanghai is Hai Di Lao Hot Pot. (The website is only in Chinese, but if you’re not a Chinese speaker, you can use Google Translate to read the text—or just enjoy the photos!) The restaurant is open 24/7 and busy at all times of day. In fact, I’ve yet to wait in the queue for less than an hour! With free Wi-Fi, fruit, tea, board games, and even manicures, however, the carnival-like atmosphere keeps customers entertained while they wait. The wait is well worth it, though: the food is amazing, and every time I visit my brother in Shanghai, we make sure to enjoy a hot pot from Hai Di Lao.
Hot pot is also a staple of street vendors throughout China. Here are some photos of me enjoying hot pot in Wuhan with a client. I didn’t get a manicure or play any board games with this particular meal, but it was delicious, so I have no complaints!
My other favorite dish to enjoy in China is Peking duck, and my favorite place to enjoy it in Shanghai is Old Beijing Duck. The restaurant doesn’t have a website; however, here is the restaurant name and address in Chinese in the event you’re feeling adventurous.
河南南路1号 (延安东路口), Běixīn qiáo, Shanghai
One of the selling points for this restaurant is that it’s frequented mostly by locals. In fact, so few Westerners visit this place that you’ll struggle to find a menu in English there. Just go with the duck, and you’ll be fine!
My best advice to anyone visiting a foreign country (whether it’s China or elsewhere) is to delve deeply into its treasures—and that certainly includes eating like a local! Do you have any favorite foods or restaurants you like to enjoy when you’re in China? Please share them in the comments—I’m always looking for recommendations for my next trip there!