The Chinese Take on American Cuisine

Some time ago I wrote a series of posts on Chinese food. It’s a slippery slope, mind you, given that Chinese cuisine, like so many things Chinese, is quite regional. Restaurants actually self-classify by the regional cuisine they offer (e.g. we offer Sichuan food, or Hunan food, or whatever).

Working as we do with molten glass, however, you have to have some appetite for risk to be a glassmaker so I ventured forth on the topic anyway. And when the series was finished one insightful reader wrote back to pose the question: “Yes, but what do the Chinese think about American food?”

After I tackled a series on Chinese food one insightful reader asked, "But what do they think about American food?"
After I tackled a series on Chinese food one insightful reader asked, “But what do they think about American food?”

Being an American company, of course, we actually send quite a few Chinese back to the U.S. for meetings, training, and such. (That’s when the U.S. government will issue them a visa. It is much more difficult than you might think for our workers to get even temporary visas to the U.S., even when it is at our – a public U.S. company – request and we are with them at all times.)

So at lunch one day in the company canteen I shared the question with our Chinese HR manager, knowing that she had been to the U.S. several times and rather enjoyed the American version of Italian food she had been introduced to. She opined, however, that her enjoyment of American cuisine was not shared by her fellow Chinese, going on to share a few anecdotes of Chinese colleagues who had actually lost considerable weight while visiting the U.S. because they simply couldn’t stomach the food.

The Chinese love to barbecue.
The Chinese love to barbecue.

 

She nonetheless thought it was an intriguing question and offered to put out an anonymous online questionnaire (in Chinese, of course) to our rather significant population of employees, from all levels of the company and all departments, who have traveled there. (For many it was their first time to ever leave China. The first time on an airplane for some.)

Participation was almost unanimous, although it was anonymous, so I can’t offer a lot of insight into who thinks what demographically.

But they don't grill.  In fact, all forms of outdoor grilling, barbecuing, whatever, have now been forbidden in the city of Beijing as part of the many measures to improve air quality.
But they don’t grill. In fact, all forms of outdoor grilling, barbecuing, whatever, have now been forbidden in the city of Beijing as part of the many measures to improve air quality.

Before I share the results, however, let me point out that the Chinese fortune cookie that you receive at virtually every Chinese restaurant in America is not Chinese at all. I have never seen one in China and our employees, without exception, are quite perplexed when presented one at the end of the meal. To my knowledge, you can’t even buy them here.

There seems to be a consensus that fortune cookies were invented in California but there seems to be some controversy as to who invented them, with many believing that the inventor was not even of Chinese descent (The original fortune cookie, some believe, contained Biblical scripture, not “Good fortune will soon befall you.”) (As another aside, Chinese who speak English do not speak it as depicted in old American movies.)

The act of dining is central to the Chinese culture.  It is a medium for social interaction.  Which is probably why I have yet to see a buffet restaurant here.
The act of dining is central to the Chinese culture. It is a medium for social interaction. Which is probably why I have yet to see a buffet restaurant here.

Chop suey, by the way, is another American invention. It exists on no menu in China. And I have yet to see a Chinese buffet restaurant. Buffets are common at breakfast, where the breakfast is usually included with the cost of the room, but dining in China is highly social, intimate, and interactive, which is why most restaurants have private dining rooms but not the type of activity that would lend itself to diners getting up and going off to refill their plates at the buffet.

But on to the results:

Sixty percent of those surveyed said the American food tasted ‘good’, although 16% thought it tasted ‘bad’ and 24% thought it had no taste at all. The same results for smell, which, upon reflection, probably shouldn’t be too surprising.

The Chinese eat a lot of seafood.  But it might not all be familiar to the Western palate.
The Chinese eat a lot of seafood. But it might not all be familiar to the Western palate.

Also on the not surprising side, most of the Chinese surveyed felt that Americans eat too much meat (64% thought ‘too much’ or ‘way too much’) and not enough vegetables (36% thought ‘too little’ while only 20% felt the vegetables were served in quantities that were ‘too much’ and none felt that there was ‘way too much’.)

Almost all agreed that the portions in general, however, are too big. Only 12% felt they were ‘too small’ but another 12% described them as ‘huge.’

I was a little surprised that only 28% felt that Americans eat too little fruit (The Chinese eat it with every meal – but always 30 minutes later for digestion.) but not surprised that 72% think Americans eat too much cheese. (Twenty-eight percent checked ‘way too much.’)

The favorite food category was dessert, with 48% agreeing that the variety and portions were ‘about right.’

Fully 88% admitted that they had dined at Chinese restaurants while traveling in America, although I would guess this wasn’t always by choice. Their American colleagues, I suspect, some times take them to Chinese restaurants on the assumption that they will feel more at home there.

As it turns out, however, 68% of those who had eaten at a Chinese restaurant in America said that the Chinese food there was “not at all like the Chinese food I eat at home,” and 9% concluded that the ‘Chinese’ food served in America is “not really Chinese food.”

Not surprisingly, they are uniformly dumbfounded by the American obsession with ice. The Chinese believe cold drinks are bad for your health and prefer to drink water warm or at room temperature.

And we advise them that if a Chinese person is paying the bill to ask if the service has been included. Because China is a no tipping country we have found that many American restaurants will add the tip to the bill if they are serving a table of Chinese. (As a former college waiter, no complaint from me on that front, but we’ve also discovered they won’t always tell them if they have included the tip and the Chinese tip out of ignorance anyway.)

In the end, however, the Chinese surveyed were all pretty good sports about the cuisine. Eighty-four percent claimed that they would look forward to the food if they traveled there again and no one claimed that they would bring their own from home. (Not at all a good idea as far as U.S. Customs is concerned.

And what about me?

Many of my American colleagues assume it is a special treat for me to attend meetings in the U.S. and have the chance to eat my native cuisine. To be honest, it’s not. It’s not that I don’t like the food. But I don’t eat a lot of meat, I have generally given up processed meats and cheeses, mostly for the processing, and I generally find the portions to be a bit absurd.

But I do have my favorite American restaurants (e.g. Panera) just as there are several foods in China (e.g. any animal’s stomach, fried cicadas) that I refuse to eat.

And, as I’ve noted so many times, it’s a diverse world. There’s always a risk in generalizing. Many might be surprised to learn, for example, that rice is not a Chinese staple. That’s only true in the south and east. In the north wheat is the primary food staple. I eat far less rice here in Beijing than I did when I used to visit my company’s office in Milan, where rice was included with almost every meal and is grown in abundance in northern Italy.

“Wherever you go, there you are.” It’s as true of the stomach as the soul.

Rice is only a staple food in certain regions of China.  In the north wheat is the staple starch.  I ate more rice in Milan than I eat in Beijing.
Rice is only a staple food in certain regions of China. In the north wheat is the staple starch. I ate more rice in Milan than I eat in Beijing.

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Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.