Yep, that’s right, Western world. You have been eating Chinese food wrong your entire life. But don’t feel bad as I too have made the same mistake in thinking that these dishes were the epitome of authentic Chinese cuisine. It wasn’t until I moved to Hong Kong that I learnt that these Chinese foods are not actually Chinese at all.
It turns out that these popular Chinese dishes may be beloved in the UK and other Western countries, but they’re about as traditionally Chinese as a family pack of Tesco Value spring rolls:
Prawn crackers served with every meal? Pure fiction. When I first moved to Hong Kong, I sat down in a restaurant and perused the menu, wondering when the waiter was going to bring over a basket of crunchy prawn crackers for me to munch on while I made a decision on what to order. How long was I waiting? Well, I’m still waiting now…
The closest things I have found to prawn crackers are prawn flavoured crisps on supermarket shelves (and they’re not even cracker-shaped). They’re not the same and they definitely don’t come with every meal, or with a sweet dipping sauce, or in a white plastic bag on top of the foil containers of your Chinese takeaway.
Chow Mein literally means ‘fried noodles’ in Chinese. Therefore, it is technically real Chinese food, but it is used to describe any kind of fried noodles. ‘Chow Mein’ in the style that we eat it as a dish in the West does not exist.
However, there are a million different kinds of fried noodle to choose from: some familiar (Singapore fried noodles, always an excellent choice) and others you that may surprise you (there is a kind of ‘chow mein’ where the noodles come as a hard basket and you pour hot sauce over them to cook them on your plate and it’s heavenly!).
Sweet and Sour Chicken
What? I hear you cry, not sweet and sour chicken too! Never fear, the traditional Cantonese sweet and sour dishes do exist in Hong Kong, but just not in the form that you might imagine. Sweet and sour pork or sweet and sour fish are the preferred versions, and rightly so.
I have learnt the hard way that chicken in Hong Kong and China is vastly different from chicken in the west. The meat is often grey in colour, served on the bone and the emphasis is on the fat and skin rather than on white breast meat. Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste…
Ribs are often on the menu here, but, like sweet and sour chicken, they are far from the delicious fried ribs in a finger-lickin’ sticky-sweet barbecue sauce that you may order at your local Chinese restaurant. Instead, the ribs are often steamed and served in their own juices. Yes, you read that correctly – steamed meat. That’s a thing.
You can blame the home of the free and the land of the brave for this one. Fortune cookies were invented in the US and are the definition of American Chinese food. Chinese people think they’re weird. And those badly translated quotes from Confucius? Also bullshit.
So there you have it! Five typical Chinese dishes you have been stabbing at with chopsticks (before sheepishly asking for a knife and fork) from the local Chinese takeaway or at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet (also fictitious) all these years without them really being authentically Chinese at all.
But don’t worry, I also share in your despair and I’m not ashamed to admit that I actually crave western Chinese food living in Hong Kong (oh, what I’d give for a big plate of Yuk Sung at The Big Wok in Birmingham right now!).
However, I hope I can take the bitter taste of disappointment out of your mouth by revealing the five Chinese foods you wish you knew about next week? Or, you could just order a Chinese tonight safe in the knowledge that your Chinese meals are being catered to your western taste buds. Order an extra serving of prawn crackers on me.