I grew up in China, and after three years of graduate school in the United States, I’ve become a bit of a value-focused foodie. I’ve eaten in all kinds of restaurants in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle. Chinese restaurants especially. They range from family places to mall-based chains to restaurants in Chinatowns run by first-generation immigrants.
As the People’s Republic of China celebrates 60 years on Thursday 1 October, I’d like to acknowledge the country’s unsung culinary diplomats and make a few humble suggestions for people who love Chinese food.
Excellent Chinese meals are available in any city with a large Chinese population, whether it’s Chicago or New York, Toronto or London. The most authentic food is usually in Chinatowns.
You can’t really go wrong with these restaurants because the chefs are usually straight from China, and they are cooking for genuine taste. For example, in Chicago’s Chinatown there is not a single restaurant that I can complain much about.
If you live in an area without a Chinatown, a good source of recommendations is first-generation Chinese-Americans, co-workers, and immigrant families. Yelp.com and Chowhound.com also provide great online information.
Paying more for a Chinese meal does not always translate into better quality. Sometimes authentic Chinese restaurants look plain, because all they care about is the food.
If you find yourself stuck in a crummy Chinese restaurant, there isn’t much you can do. Usually the food isn’t fresh or the sauce came from a two-liter jug. I stick with fried rice, served with a simple vegetable dish. Fried rice is really simple and pretty hard to mess up. It is just rice, egg, small pieces of meat, some vegetable, and soy sauce.
Outlining the Chinese restaurant community
Four qualities attract the average non-Chinese person to Chinese food: low price, large quantity, something different, and delivery. But the true spirit of Chinese cooking is in the seasonings and the sauces. They cannot be pre-made. Chinese food and Chinese culture are all about harmony, creating balanced proportions of vegetable and meat, soup and rice, light and heavy flavors.
By focusing on specific provinces, Chinese restaurants in other countries could simplify the exercise of capturing harmony and integrity. China is a big place, and the food in different regions tastes differently.
When my mother visited me in Chicago two weeks ago, I took her to a restaurant in Chinatown called Lao Beijing, “Old Beijing,” where they cook original dishes common in Northern China. We had a great dinner there. Northern Chinese cuisine focuses on steamed buns and noodles, wheat is heavily used in nearly every meal, and rice is less common.
In major metropolitan areas of China, such as Beijing and Shanghai, Szechuan restaurants tend to be lower priced because Szechuan is the most common and well-accepted cuisine of China. Szechuan food in China is kind of like Italian food in the United States. In one version or another, nearly everybody likes it.
Cantonese dishes are least likely to be mixed up with other Chinese regional cuisines. A good Cantonese dim-sum restaurant never serves Kung-pao chicken. This is because Cantonese food is usually less oily and spicy compared with other regional foods. It is also because in early years, most Chinese emigrants were from Guangdong Province, where Cantonese food originated.
There is one noteworthy exception where foods can be mixed together, and a chef might master specialties from two separate regions. Szechuan and Hunan cuisines blend well because they are both slightly spicy, both rely on steamed rice, and many dishes are fried.
The humble Wuhanese noodle shop
A simple shop serving excellent noodle soup could be a promising opportunity for the Chinese restaurant community. It may seem like an easy dish to prepare: noodles in a spicy beef broth. But it is really difficult to make the noodles to the right firmness and the soup to the right level of spiciness. I can’t really make it properly, either.
The best noodle soup in the world comes from Jianghan Street near my home in Wuhan. I don’t think the restaurant has a name, other than something like “beef soup noodle,” and it has only four tables. The kitchen is outdoors in an alley. The food there is simply amazing. Food from Hubei province in central China is difficult to distinguish from other regions, because the region has been a transportation hub for hundreds and hundreds of years. Families and chefs there have accumulated millions of influences from merchants, travelers and locals.
If you are ever in Hubei province, forget about sightseeing. Instead, treat yourself to a big breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal to Wuhanese. There are countless dishes to choose from, and none of them will disappoint you. Just writing this makes my mouth water.
Michelle Cui Xiaoxiao has degrees from the Beijing Language and Culture University and the Rochester Institute of Technology. In December she will receive a master’s degree in integrated marketing communications from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.