When it comes to Chinese food, most people have a story to tell. I still remember a girl from Hong Kong who told me that she had had a most “hilarious” meal at a local inn near the Forbidden City in Beijing a few years ago. Not a speaker of Mandarin, she was confused by a dish on the menu whose name literally meant “ants climbing on the tree”. Besides confusion and astonishment, she was curious about the secret behind this mysterious name, especially when she noticed the note on the menu: “There are ants climbing on the tree”.
She took courage and ordered the dish, which turned out, however, to be stir-fried bean threads with minced pork in soybean sauce. The small pieces of pork mince look like ants, while stir-fried bean threads in a dark colour sauce are similar to wild tree trunks, hence its name was given in accordance with this scene. She and her foreign friends found this very amusing and praised the title when leaving.
The huge cultural gap, however, brought about by a long-time lack of true communication between the western world and China, has misled many foreigners to have a striking misunderstanding of Chinese cuisine; nowadays the presumption is that it’s all MSG (Monosodium Glutamate), orange gloopy sauces, greasy prawn balls and cheap takeaway dishes.
Even with the recent introduction to the international scene of refined and complex Chinese fine dining – which is actually more reflective of authentic Chinese cuisine – there is still a huge amount of work to be done to rebrand the image of Chinese food, dispel the well-established bias and overturn entrenched misconceptions.
The origin of this problem arose initially due to a lack of motivation by the first migrants reaching the western world to present authentic Chinese cuisine. Being poorly educated or unable to speak the language of their new country of residence, many opened Chinese restaurants as the only means of making a living. They were able to afford only small establishments in less desirable parts of the town, and the class of western clientele they attracted had little concern for the nuances of Chinese flavours, not to mention the fact that authentic ingredients were hard to come by or expensive.
As such, Chinese food outside China morphed into crowd-pleasing homogeneous clichés. Bad dining environments and unhealthy ingredients were the awful impression left by most overseas Chinese restaurants in the consciousness of many westerners. Ironically this stood in stark contrast to real Chinese food, the kind that Chinese people prepared in their homes in the provinces, based upon a deep reverence and understanding of local seasonal produce, utter respect for the ingredients used and a strong belief in the importance of food and its effects on health in accordance with Chinese medicine.
The successful exportation of a nation’s food is as precarious as the exporting of a brand or corporation, and the public image is equally important. For example, China’s neighbours Japan and Thailand have been phenomenally successful at exporting their low-salt, low-oil cuisines with a focus on fresh ingredients. So how did Chinese food get it so wrong, and is it too late to turn the tables?
Kenny Fu, a renowned Chinese chef from northern China and now based in Beijing, specialises in creative, contemporary Chinese fine dining and explains why the ‘MSG image’ is not so easy to shake off. “Chinese food culture is quite profound, and opening a new restaurant is not a rapid and effective way to re-educate people. For example, dishes like Red Braised Pork (Hong Shao Rou), Fried Sauce Noodles (Zha Jiang Mian), Superior Broth (Shang Tang), Chilli, Spicy Soybeans Sauce (Dou Ban Jiang), these are all Chinese foods we are very familiar with as native Chinese.
“But unfortunately I am afraid it is not wise to present them directly in a dated, traditional way to foreigners who do not know Chinese food well and deeply, because it will not be visually appealing enough. What I need to do is to make full use of ingredients, permeate and blend them into dishes, and make a breakthrough in my cooking techniques.
“All of the above help me make Chinese food more easy to accept, just like visual attraction and falling in love at first sight. For people who know little about Chinese food, most importantly, we need to raise their interests and curiosity in Chinese food culture with a fine dining approach – for instance, eating in style, creatively.”
Generally speaking, in Chinese culture, each style of cuisine has its own identity and characteristics which express its region of origin and uniqueness. From this point of view, the four most iconic cuisine styles in China could be geographically classified as Huaiyang, Chuan, Yue, and Lu; respectively representing East, West, South and North.
Kenny Fu introduces: “Huaiyang represents eastern cuisine, which requires the cook to pay extra attention to cutting and slicing skills, as well as fire and temperature during the making process. The ingredients are treated in a very simple way in order to make people recognise their original tastes instead of being modified or mixed too much.
“The most typical food in the West is Chuan cuisine, in which chilli pepper, Sichuan pepper, black pepper, and sour, hot and spicy are the most notable features. Food in southern China is based on Yue cuisine, and its emphasis is on quality and taste with carefully chosen ingredients and a light flavour. Northern cuisine focuses on salty flavours and combines a wide range of cooking techniques.”
This gives a brief insight into regional nuances, but respect for ingredients is something sorely lacking in most Chinese restaurants around the world. So what are the most cherished and authentic Chinese ingredients to a native Chinese cook? Yang Jiaxi, a food enthusiast from Shanghai, runs a food blog called Zao Tou Jian (The Cooking Stove). Jiaxi has lived in metropolises like London and New York and has an intimate knowledge of food ingredients used around the world.
She tells us: “If we mentioned the most unfamiliar Chinese food ingredients to the West, I would definitely think of Chinese vegetables, for instance, Pak Choi. Though it seems like vegetables are very ordinary, they need a specific natural environment, soil and air in order to grow, so the difference in vegetables around the world is quite striking.
Certain vegetables do not do well with transplanting. Also, they do not endure long-distance transport well due to their fragility. In New York, actually, there were many choices to satisfy our nostalgia for homely Chinese food to some extent, but what we longed for heavily was the Chinese leaf mustard wrapped in Shanghai wontons and the irreplaceable scents of tender leaves in Chinese toon in fried eggs.”
Originally, the relationship between food and people was an intimate bond, a kind of emotional interaction. But the growing disconnection between us and the food we eat is something that is causing concern worldwide. There is an urgent need to explore the right balance in order to make more people aware of the human and emotional element inside food, instead of telling ancient Chinese tales on guests’ tables.
This accounts for the massive popularity of the touching, government-produced Chinese food documentary A Bite of China, broadcast on national TV in China in 2012 and revealing hidden Chinese folk culture and emotional stories about Chinese cuisine. For instance, eating noodles is a custom among people holding birthday feasts in China.
In episode two, The Story of Staple Foods, Madame Wei, a key figure in Ding village, is asked to explain why Chinese people eat Longevity Noodles (Chang Shou Noodles) on birthdays. It is said that the shape of noodles is both long and slim and in Chinese Mandarin, the sound of long and slim is similar to the pronunciation of longevity (Chang Shou).
To celebrate her husband’s 70th birthday, Madame Wei got up early to prepare the noodles. At the birthday banquet in the village, a ritual participation of all people still exists: before eating the noodles, everyone picks out the longest noodle from their bowl, and puts it into the bowl of the one who is celebrating their birthday.
It is only when he eats the bowl with all the long noodles carrying the village’s best wishes that a birthday banquet could be regarded as complete. This seven-episode documentary not only took the audience on a tour of rare and precious Chinese ingredients and fine cooking methods; more importantly, it allowed us the chance to realise the cultural potential of Chinese cuisine by discussing just how much Chinese cuisine could achieve on an international stage.
Dong Keping, a food critic and also one of the food consultants for the A Bite of China series, points out the real problems Chinese cuisine faces in exporting itself today: “The rules of modern society are made and standardised by the western world and are based on the premise of their habit and mode of thoughts.
The main obstacle to Chinese cuisine internationalism is the absence of a proper presentation of one single taste of Chinese cuisine. Making Chinese cuisine into standardised fine dining might help pave the way for acceptance and its subsequent success. The problem is not about the taste, it is about the way of expression. Finding the right channel is essential; the right ingredients, design of the dishes, style of dining and other related aspects.”
Chinese food and traditional Chinese cuisine have been gradually influenced by the western world. Not surprisingly, concepts from western fine dining such as elegance of presentation have had their influence on Chinese cuisine. Since then, fine dining has become a bridge built by international food creatives and pioneers to eliminate the huge cultural difference that existed about Chinese food between the western world and the Chinese.
Yang Jiaxi agrees, “Fine dining should be treated as an art form. It has elevated the whole dining experience exquisitely and is no longer just about the dishes themselves. It includes the dining environment, details of service, the style of presentation, the use of ingredients and the methods of cooking.
“The concept of fine dining is to bring a holistic, enjoyable experience to all aspects in order to leave a memorable impression on guests. So in terms of Chinese cuisine, any Chinese dish is convertible and has the potential to be modified into fine dining once there is enough creativity and an excellent comprehension of cooking techniques.
“The invention and creation of Chinese cuisine comes mainly from Chinese folk wisdom. However, if you look more closely you discover that the cleverness and principles behind them are rather similar when compared with western cuisine and the modern techniques applied into fine dining.
“Consider, for example, small steamed buns (Xiao Long Bao) in bamboo baskets: the buns are filled with pork and pierced at the top prior to steaming (during the making process, they need to pierce a hole to insert meat aspic (gelatin) inside), so the tender and smooth skin has a circular cascade of ripples around the crown.
“We all eat them in China but we never wonder where the soup inside comes from. Heat from steaming them melts the gelatin aspic into soup to make soup buns. In modern times, refrigeration has made the process of making Xiao Long Bao during hot weather easier, since making gelled aspic is much more difficult at room temperature. Making the buns is a very fine art.”
Based on this kind of similarity linking the western world and China, the Editor-in-Chief of Epicure magazine, Shu Qiao comments: “From my point of view, Da Dong (Dong Zhenxiang) is the most internationally renowned and outstanding Chinese chef and is based in Beijing, where he opened two restaurants named Da Dong Roast Duck.
Chinese cuisine can show a lack of creativity; meanwhile, Chinese chefs are not good at baking skills and dessert making. However, Da Dong has made breakthroughs on all these weaknesses and is striving to achieve the balance of colour, smell and taste of each dish. The change of the core concept of Chinese cooking helps Da Dong become a pioneer in Chinese cuisine internationalism.
“He gives his cuisine a new understanding – artistic conception. At present, it is hard to define what dishes are qualified to lower the barrier of Chinese dishes for western world. In this situation, Da Dong should be commended for his huge efforts to realise the artistic conception. He integrates the change of season with local ingredients and combines them with elements from Chinese calligraphy. In addition to this, the environment of his restaurant keeps changing from season to season and their attention to detail is noticeable and admirable.”
Qiao says of the future development of Chinese cuisine: “If we cannot solve the problem of Chinese cuisine standardisation – for instance, the requirements of healthy ingredients – Chinese cuisine is not likely to reach a higher market level. But I personally would reckon that Chinese cuisine has a bright future, especially for small restaurants or bistros equipped with decent chefs with reliable experience and skills. I firmly believe this would take Chinese cuisine and international recognition on to a new stage and develop further.”
by Michelle Shi