What Do You Mean, “Real Chinese Food”?

Guest Post: Chloe Lindeman
Before coming to China, one of the things I most looked forward to was the food. I’d heard over and over again that the Chinese food in America is not ‘real’ Chinese food, but I never knew exactly what this meant. If General Tso’s chicken and Buddha’s Delight are not Chinese food, then what is? Here are some of the most striking things I’ve found.
1.    There are potatoes! I don’t know about you, but I would have never considered potatoes a part of Chinese cuisine. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a dish featuring potatoes offered at a ‘Chinese restaurant’ in America. But here, they eat them in all kinds of ways—strips, slices, and cubes—often fried up with some scallions and hot peppers. Along with potatoes, other unexpected things like tomatoes show up. Scrambled eggs with tomato is a very popular dish I’ve never seen advertised outside of China.


Fried potato slices with scallions and hot peppers


2.    Pancakes does not mean what you think it does. You might have heard of something called “bing” (饼), which roughly translates to “pancake”. But that just doesn’t do it justice. There are so many kinds: 卷饼 (rolled-up pancakes), 煎饼 (flipped pancakes), 葱油饼 (scallion fried pancakes), 肉饼 (meat pancakes)… The list goes on and on, and each one is so different. Some are eaten for breakfast, others with lunch and dinner, and others as a sweet snack. Some are as thick as western pancakes, while others are thin, like a crepe. I think you could live in China for years and never try them all.


Scallion pancake, cut into quarters and stacked


3.    While we certainly have tofu in the U.S., it would be a crime to pretend that’s all there is to it. In my first week here alone, I tried more types of tofu than I even knew existed. There’s the normal tofu that comes in blocks, but there’s also 干豆腐 (dry tofu) that comes in sheets and is usually served as strips, like noodles, or tied into little knots. There’s tofu that’s white on the inside but as has a dark outer layer, and there’s tofu made of bunches of thin layers. And for the more adventurous eaters, there’s always the ultra-soft variety called 豆腐脑 (tofu brain) and the pungent kind known as 臭豆腐 (stinky tofu).


Strips of dry tofu served with hot peppers


4.    Sweet foods are quite different. There’s no lack of sugary options, but in a traditional setting you probably won’t find any pastries or chocolate-based foods. Instead, red bean paste or sweet potatoes are often used in sugary dishes. Many of these are not as sweet as western desserts (and are often served with the meal rather than afterward), but don’t be fooled—there’s something called 拨丝地瓜 (candied sweet potato) that is covered in enough pure sugar to satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. It’s served hot, so that the sugar is still liquid; if it cools, you might need a knife to break it apart.


Fried dough balls, often filled with red bean paste and covered in sesame seeds


Of course, China is a very large country, and food varies a lot by region. As a vegetarian living in Beijing, I have tasted one side of Chinese cuisine. Have you seen other foods that surprised you? Or heard about something that intrigued you? Let us know in the comments!

Chloe is a physics student studying abroad to improve her Chinese, learn more about China, and of course eat great food. When she’s not writing for HelloChinese, she practices the violin and watches Battlestar Galactica.