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Showdown: Authentic Chinese vs. American Chinese Food

Americans love to order Chinese food. It really shows too, since there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC combined. However, most haven’t tasted real Chinese food. That’s right, the dishes you have come to know and love in your favorite local Chinese restaurant are most likely Americanized.

When I first moved to China, I was really surprised by the food. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. It was a sobering experience when I realized the things I’d loved in the Chinese restaurant by my old Miami apartment didn’t exist in China.

Crab Rangoon, crispy fried wontons stuffed with cream cheese and crab meat, they don’t have those in China. When I explained them to my Chinese husband, he just laughed. “That’s not Chinese food,” he told me.

So what IS Chinese food? Here are some dishes you should look for when you go to China. Trust me, this stuff is much better than what you’re getting.

Mapo Doufu

You might have seen this on an American Chinese menu before. But in China, the full Sichuan flavor of this dish is uninhibited. It’s tofu in a spicy red chili and bean sauce. Typically, you’ll find it with ground pork in there too. If you like spicy, you really need to try it.

Image Courtesy of Charles Haynes

Xiao Long Bao

This dumpling is famous in Shanghai. And for good reason. Sure, you can get dumplings in American Chinese restaurants, but you can’t find these. These are soup dumplings filled with pork or sometimes crab meat. Bite into them carefully using the large soup spoon that comes with them. Hot soup will leak out of dumpling into your spoon so not one drop goes wasted. And, speaking of dumplings, in China there are many more types than just the typical pork ones you get in America. You can try them with beef, vegetables, seafood and more. One of my favorites was filled with cucumber and egg. Sounds unusual but they are some of the best you’ll ever have.

Image courtesy of Gary Stevens

Yu Xiang Rou Si

I always would ask my husband or his mom to make this fantastic dish of shredded pork with vegetables in hot garlic sauce. It’s a little sweet and a little sour and a lot of garlicky goodness. It’s one of the best dishes China has to offer.

Now before you think that there’s no similarities to what is served in American Chinese restaurants versus real Chinese restaurants, you won’t feel completely lost. They do eat Wonton Soup, only it is called Huntun Tang. Don’t pass it up if you have the chance to eat it in China. The huntun, or wontons as we call them in the West, are so much better in China. The wrapper is thinner and packed with more than just a wodged up ball of pork inside. Hot and sour soup, Suan La Tang, is also available in China. And as you may have guessed, it is distinctly better in its home country.

Image Courtesy of Joy

In many Chinese restaurants in America, you’ll find a Beijing or Peking-style duck available. In China, the skin is roasted to a crisp. It’s then served with little pancakes, scallions, and hoisin sauce. You then wrap it together for a perfect traditional experience.

Be forewarned though, there are some other differences when it comes to tucking into an authentic Chinese dish in China. If you order chicken for example, it is typically served hacked into small pieces with bones intact. That means you’ll need to carefully navigate when biting into those bits of chicken.

Whole steamed fish is another one to watch out for. If you have the good fortune to be invited to a Chinese dinner by your Chinese friends or family, at the end of the meal a whole steamed fish will be presented. While delicious, the bones are never removed. Don’t be surprised to find that your dining companions pile the bones of fish and chicken into a pile on the table either. It’s how the Chinese dine.

And if you’re expecting a fortune cookie at the end of your meal, it will never come. Fortune cookies are not at all part of Chinese cuisine and you’ll never see them. Instead, you can expect slices of fruit like oranges to be served at the end of your meal, which quite honestly makes for a much more refreshing finish than a bland cookie with ill-fated life advice tucked into the center of it.

Not going to China anytime soon? Bring the East home with an authentic Chinese cookbook. We like “Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking“, by Kian Lam Kho.