A quote from a Chinese-American friend in Hong Kong: ‘It infuriates me that people always think that Chinese food should be cheap – it’s racist, it’s ignorant. They don’t understand that Chinese cooking techniques are just as complex as those used in French cuisine. I have sent friends in San Francisco to really good Chinese restaurants – and these are people who know about food – and they have complained that “it’s so expensive”. Even in Hong Kong, you find some Hong Kong Chinese people who are willing to spend a lot on French food, but not on Chinese food.’
The roots of this prejudice must surely lie in the fact that one of the main selling points of Chinese food in the West, in the early days of Chinese immigration, was its low price. In his new book, Chop Suey, Andrew Coe writes about the ‘all you can eat for a dollar’ meals offered by Chinese restaurant in North America in the 19th Century. And Chinese cooking was always best known in the UK for the cheap takeaway.
In London, a turning point in the fortunes of Chinese food was the opening of Alan Yau’s Hakkasan in 2001. Finally, here was a Chinese restaurant so deeply glamorous, so utterly cool, that people were willing to pay European-food prices. He made things a lot easier for other entrepreneurs, including the owner of the restaurant for which I act as consultant, Barshu.
But do westerners in general see Chinese food, even at the highest levels, as something that should be cheaper than, say, French or Italian?
N.B. I’m reminded, here, of the astonishment of three Sichuanese chefs at the price of a simple lunch in the Chez Panisse cafe in Berkeley a few years ago. They couldn’t believe anyone would pay so much for ‘simple, homestyle food’! I’ve no doubt, however, that they would have been willing to shell out a fortune on a shark’s fin or some aged pu’er tea.
22 Responses to “Relative values”
I think the advent of sushi has changed the game for ethnic restaurants. Good sushi has always been expensive in the US. And there was a time where it could only be found in high end restaurants. This opened the door to the idea that ethnic food did not have to be cheap.
Also, I live in a semi-rural area of North Carolina, and I would call the prices of the “ethnic” restaurants comparable or more expensive than the “traditional” or European restaurants, especially in the Indian category, but there are a few high-end pricey Asian places too (sadly, they don’t really have much more to offer than the mid-range priced places except ambiance, but there are some fantastic mid-range places around here so its okay). So while the expectation that Chinese food be cheap may have been true in the past, I think that’s changing. I do wish that there would be more adventure and authenticity in Chinese menus, its frustrating to run into the same five Americanized dishes even on high end menus. I think differentiating the cuisine from lower end restaurants would really help change expectations too.
PS- Gratuitous fan comment: I love your writing and your cook books. The Revolutionary Chinese cookbook has especially influenced my kitchen improvisations.
A lot of folks in the US have the same complaint about Chez Panisse, so I don’t know if it’s only a cultural thing.
I have not found too many Chinese places here in the US (even in the San Gabriel Valley and other Asian enclaves) to be that expensive (unless you’re ordering stuff with really exotic ingredients). I also haven’t seen that many (yet) that seem to be really picky about their ingredients (I don’t see what happens behind the scenes, but I don’t notice major differences in quality in the ingredients at more expensive Chinese places). As with Western restaurants, a lot of what you get at a high-end place is a fancier atmosphere, better service, etc.
I will say that a lot of times, both here and in my limited experiences in China, the cheap (in price) hole in the wall places have the tastiest food.
I personally would love to see a Chinese place that is authentic and not catering to a Western crowd, yet takes care with their ingredients. I won’t use the “l” or “o” words, but just trying to get produce and meat that are produced with minimal pesticides and somewhat more humane practices. I think this is something we’ll see in Chinese enclaves in the US as the upper middle class grows larger. You can already see the restaurants getting fancier in certain areas (Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, parts of Arcadia, Temple City and north San Gabriel.
Just read “Shark’s Fin…” and enjoyed it quite a bit. Look me up if you make it to LA.
Amanda – I found your point about sushi very interesting, and thanks for your comment about my books!
Will – I agree that it’s rare for a Chinese restaurant to pay the kind of attention to ingredients that high-end Western restaurants now do. In the West, I think it’s partly because of the prejudice about price. I doubt that, at this stage, Western restaurant-goers would be willing to pay the premium for well-sourced ingredients. In China, many restaurants proudly say they are serving åœŸé¸¡ (farmhouse, i.e. free-range, chicken), but it’s hard to know who to trust. I have no doubt, though, that the market for ç»¿è‰²é£Ÿå“ (green food products) will continue to grow.
There are exceptions in China, like the Dragon Well Manor – have you read my New Yorker piece? Search for me on their website, http://www.newyorker.com, and you’ll find it. You may also be interested in a forthcoming piece of mine for the Financial Times which touches on just this subject…
Perhaps part of the complaint comes because Chinese meals differ in structure to traditional Western food. There is an unwillingness to seem ignorant so people may order the wrong dishes to create a balanced meal (instead, just going for the most familar ones). This may mean a table for four gets five or six main courses making the meal more expensive than it would be for Western gourmet meal.
However, it seems that you do need to order a greater range and quantity of dishes in Chinese restaurants and this can easily rack the bill up.
In Bar Shan a friend and I had a dizzy bill, not because the food was expensive but because it was delicious and we kept ordering little bowls of dumplings here, dan dan noodles there, some cold dishes. We couldn’t stop – with the constrains of starter, main and desert taken away we were free to indulge!
I would really value more mid-range Chinese restaurants. I see so many Thai and Vietnamese restaurants (particularly in East London) that are good quality and well priced. Why should Chinese food have to either exist as a grotty take-away or high-end restaurant in the West End?
Though I left France some years ago and have been in China for almost 10 years now, I think it is very true that Foreigners in the West think that Chinese food should be cheap. It is partly because – when I was in Paris – years ago, there was no real decent Chinese restaurant. Chinese restaurants would be run by Chinese-Vietnamese-Laotian owners who would not cook a very representative style of what Chinese food is. I remember when we organized a New Year’s eve in one of the only Sichuanese restaurant of Paris with friends from various European countries who studied together with me and Fuchsia in Sichuan that we had to insist telling to the Chef that he should cook in authentic style and not serve what he usually thinks French people will like. Wrong, how would he know what French people like ? How would he know that his dishes without authenticity are still good ? Anyway, the point is not only about authenticity but about how long it takes to have a leading/standing out cuisine such as the Japanese did with either traditionalist or innovative Chefs who are now famous around the world ? And how long would it take for worldwide critics to identify them and understand the wide variety of Chinese cuisine. There are not enough food critics/writers investigating Chinese cuisine and I think this is why people are not eager to pay expensive prices in Chinese restaurants while for Japanese, they would. For the first time this year, The Michelin guide for Japan has given more stars to restaurants than the French Guide… and a lot of them are Japanese restaurants… so we can hope until it happens in China and drive somehow the prices up and the best Chefs to stand out…It might influence the view on Chinese cuisine in the West and drive better quality Chinese cuisine outside of China. By the way, I still can’t find anybody to go with me to Yubo Chufang in Chengdu because it is too expensive!
Gwen – I agree that Yujia Chufang is expensive by Chengdu standards, but my God, it’s a bargain by international or even Shanghai standards!
Beth – for mid-range Chinese restaurants in London, I would recommend any of the Royal Chinas (Baker St, Queensway or Westferry Circus near Canary Wharf), and Baozi Inn, which is another of the restaurants in the Barshu group for which I work as a consultant.
The Royal Chinas can be expensive for dinners and main meals, but if you go for dim sum at lunchtime, avoid the specials offered on a tray by your waitress (which tend to be more expensive delicacies such as suckling pig) and drink tea rather than alcohol, you can eat your heart out for less than Â£20 a head. The dim sum are excellent, on a par with most I’ve tasted in Hong Kong. They are, in my opinion, one of the great gastronomic bargains of London. My favourites are the steamed scallop dumplings, the ‘turnip paste’ (actually made from slivered white radish and glutinous rice) and the roast pork puffs.
Baozi Inn is small, somewhat cramped and v casual, but the mainly Sichuanese snacks on offer are very tasty. It’s a good place for a quick meal on the way to the theatre or the cinema. I love the flower beancurd and the dumplings in chilli oil sauce.
Mr Kong in Lisle St used also to be v good (particularly the dishes on their chef’s specials list), but I haven’t been there in years – does anyone have up-to-date information?
I agree with Gwen. When my husband and I lived in the US, we were lucky to have a range of cheap to moderately-priced restaurants, both Chinese and Indian (and others) The difference between them was not only the ambiance and service, but also the food, which was typically more carefully prepared and I think more authentic, although at the time I wouldn’t have known. We were often told that such a range was due to the influence nearby Air Force base which made for an ethnically-varied population and travel-educated natives.
Having lived in the UK for a while (and visited China a number of times) we struggle to find any Chinese restaurant, not to mention a good or authentic one. A friend has said that she ‘hates Chinese food’ because it is ‘so sweet and gloopy’. I think this is rather like thinking that all American food is rubbish because you didn’t like your McDonalds burger. Many Brits (and Americans) have travelled to European countries and are passingly familiar with the difference between a countryâ€™s fast-food and its real food. Unfortunately, the same is often not the case with Chinese food, and there is no knowledge against which to judge the quality of the food or how much it should cost if well-prepared. Perhaps as more westereners travel to China this will change.
By the way, I have to echo previous comments – I was feeling jealous that my husband was in China on business (and I was home eating boring food) and found your highly-rated books on Amazon. Thoroughly enjoyed Shark’s Fin, and your cookbooks give me hope that, finally, I will be able to make some decent Chinese at home. I just visited Singapore for the first time a couple months ago, and am looking forward to your views on it (particularly the food)
A sample from the menu of a well-regarded Chinese restaurant in Dayton, Ohio:
æ¶¼ æ‹Œ è‚š çµ²Lian Baan Do Si $6.50
é†‰ é›žRummy Chicken $5.50
æ³¡ èœPau Tsai $1.95
äº” é¦™ ç‰› è‚‰Five Spices Roasted Beef $6.95
æ¶¼ æ‹Œ æµ· èœ‡Jelly Fish $6.95
ç´ éµVegetarian Goose $7.95
æ¶¼ æ‹Œ å¹²çµ²Bean Curd Salad $6.50
ç—² è¾£ èžºç‰‡Mala Conch $9.95
é…¸ èœ è‚š ç‰‡ æ¹¯Suan Tsai Do Pyan Tang $6.95
é›ª èœ è‚‰ çµ² æ¹¯Shuay Tsai Wro Ts Tang $6.95
é’ èœ è±† è… æ¹¯Bok Choy & Bean Curd Soup $6.95
å…« ç è±† è… å ¡Eight Treasures & Bean Curd in Clay Pot$15.95
è¦ ä» è±† è…Jumbo Shrimp with Bean Curd $13.95
é¦™ å¹² è‚‰ çµ²Five Spicy Bean Curd with Shredded Pork$10.95
æ¢… èœ æ‰£ è‚‰ May Tsai Ko Wro $13.95
å éŒ¦ ç ‚ é‹ Sea Food Hot Pot
ä¸‰ æ›´ è…¸ æ—ºSan Gun Chung Wong $12.95
ç‰› å— å ¡Neau Nan Bou $11.95
ç´… ç‡’ ç‰› è…©Hong Sow Neau Nan $11.95
ä¸‰ æ¯ å°¤ éšThree Cups Squid $11.95
ä¸‰ æ¯ å¤§ è…¸Three Cups Da Chung $11.95
ä¸‰ æ¯ é›žThree Cups Chicken $11.95
çƒ¤ é´¨ (åŠéš») Roasted Duck $11.95
é…¥ ç‚¸ å¤§ è…¸Su Tsa Da Chung $11.95
é‡‘ å§‘ è‚š çµ²Gin Goo Do Ts $11.95
é…¸ èœ ç‚’ è‚š ç‰‡Saun Tsai Do Pyan $10.95
é›ª èœ ç‚’ è‚‰ çµ²Shua Tsai Tsau Wro Ts $10.95
ç—² è¾£ è‚š çµ²Mala Do Ts $9.95
ç´… ç‡’ ç‰› ç‹Hong Sow Neau Gin $11.95
æ¤’ é¹½ è¦Rock Salt Prawn Chinese $13.95
èœœ æ± è¦Me Zhu Sha $13.95
ç´… ç‡’ æµ· åƒSimmered Sea Cucumber $18.95
å®® ä¿ é· éšKung Pao Squid $14.95
> There are exceptions in China, like the Dragon Well Manor – have you read my New Yorker piece?
I haven’t – don’t subscribe anymore, but I just read it. I was speaking mostly to restaurants in the US (and specifically, mostly ones that cater primarily to ethnic Chinese), but I do realize that there’s a high end in China that doesn’t really exist here, and I’m not surprised to hear about this place. I will say that, pesticides / pollution or not, a lot of the produce I had in China seemed to be fresher and tastier than the produce here, probably because it gets so quickly from farm to market, because supermarkets still aren’t that popular, and because so much of farming is still smaller scale.
Here, even in areas with a fairly sizable (and increasingly affluent) Chinese community, Cantonese banquet places (which usually do high-end dim-sum in the mornings) are about as fancy as it gets. The prices are high, especially for exotic ingredients, but I don’t get the impression that the meat or produce are that exceptional. There are some places where you can buy freshly killed (right in front of you) birds (and I think rabbits), and I would be surprised if a lot of restaurants didn’t at least ensure that their meat is fresh and high-quality… I would think that standard Western factory-farm raised pork wouldn’t pass muster with a lot of Chinese, but I’m not really sure if there are any smaller farms that cater to that market or not.
Going back to the original question, I do think that the difference in serving style does also factor into Western perceptions… with the possible exception of tapas and other small plate type dining, family style eating isn’t what most Westerners consider “high-end” in terms of presentation, serving, and portion size, and, maybe more to the point, there aren’t that many truly high-end Chinese places in Western countries, even in these Asian enclaves.
As you very perceptively mention in your book, the more conceptual aspects of high-end cuisine don’t always transcend culture.
Really, though, the biggest factor is probably just that people in the US and other Western countries associate Chinese food with what they see around them — which in most places ranges from express buffet / takeout places to slightly nicer, but still cheap, places. Usually there are neon signs involved, and often bad 80s decor. Then you’ve got whitewashed chains ranging from Panda Express to P.F. Changs. I’m sure plenty of people know (or guess) that there is more out there, but that’s what most people here are confronted with daily.
re: freerange chicken — I did recently notice a place in SF Chinatown (not a super high-end place either) that was advertising free range chickens or something along those lines. I don’t remember what the Chinese text on the sign said.
Personally, I would gladly pay twice the price for a place that sources really top quality ingredients but still produces delicious food. But I think I’m in the minority.
One of the most revelatory meals of any cuisine I have enjoyed recently was, for lack of a more concise or informed way of putting it, a prix fixe Chinese meal I experienced at Jai Yun in San Francisco. $65 per person for 14 cold dishes followed by at least another 16 or so (eventually you lose track if you’re not keeping notes). Ingredients were very fresh, flavors amazingly balanced, presentations measured and beautiful. You can read more about it here: http://oldworldoldschool.blogspot.com/2009/11/old-riesling-and-chinese-at-jai-yun.html
I was infinitely more satisfied with this meal than any number of 3-4 star (ok mainly 3) dining experiences of French, California-French, Spanish and Italian meals I have eaten.
I used to go to Mr.Kong every time I was in London, but the kitchen burnt out and they were shut for ages for renovation. Open again now and I found it OK, but I was in a rotten mood (kids and shopping), so I might have enjoyed it less than the food deserved.
On the other hand, if you think Chinese restaurants have it bad – what about your average curry house? I would say that Chinese food is at least a generation behind Indian as regards assimilation into British culture, so, as there are now a fair few “high-end” Indian restaurants springing up around the UK, maybe it just needs more time (and fewer all you can eat buffets…)?
My wife and I used to go to Mr Kong’s quite a bit and the food was pretty good, but got bored of the menu so currently trying other places out – at the moment we favour the Pheonix near Baker Street (the one with half the Labour party cabinet photographed on the walls).
As regards Chinese chickens, do you know how most chickens are raised in China? My wife (from Yueyang) thinks that most chicken here is pretty tasteless compared to food back home, and we were speculating that it’s because the chickens she’s used to eating will mostly come from the countryside in China, where they’re mostly left to wander around on their own (until it comes time for the pot)! I have to say the chicken we had when we stayed with her grandparents, did have much more flavour than even free-range chickens here (possibly the lack of central heating also stimulated the appetite!)…
Does anyone know where to get black-skinned chicken in the UK? I think they are sold as (expensive) pets, but we were hoping to make soup…
I agree that most people think chinese food should be cheap which of course is ludicrous. On the other hand restaurant prices have become inflated lately. I refuse to pay â‚¬80 and more for a meal which I could make better myself(thanks to very good cookbooks like Fuchsia’s). You really need a very nice salary as well to be able to pay that.
On the other hand I have just spent a day making cappelletti with mu Italian neighbours. Calculated that without taxes and ingredients and at â‚¬10 per hour, 100 grams would cost â‚¬20. I’ll try to post some pictures tomorrow at http://villainumbria.wordpress.com/
I second Michaels remark about the taste of the chicken. I only eat those walking around here, even the organic stuff is rather insipid.
In North America, the expectation of cheap prices may be b/c of the overriding presence of Cantonese immigrants, ready to prepare quick and inexpensive meals – migrants (from China – and mostly from the southern rim of provinces) historically have been part of the lower socioeconomic strata and those that disembarked in places like Vancouver, New York, and San Francisco probably had no exposure to higher end, premium cuisine back in China. One can easily then observe successive generations continuing to foster this notion of “Chinese” food as cheap.
Joe – thanks for the reminder about Jai Yun. I think I’ve read something about it on food blogs in the past, and I’ll make sure to visit next time I’m in San Francisco.
Michael – I also like Phoenix Palace. I don’t think the dim sum are as good as Royal Chinas, but they often have excellent specials, using quite interesting ingredients. And good soups.
On chickens – I’ve eaten the most delicious chickens I’ve ever had in China, mainly in farmhouses where they are free-range, fed on household scraps, and killed an hour or two before dinner. When I first lived in Chengdu (mid-1990s), I think most of the chickens must have been free-range, because they were very flavourful, quite lean and a little scrawny – better suited to stews and soups than stir-fries. At that time, however, you could also buy, in some places, what my Chinese friends called disparagingly æ¬§æ´²é¸¡, ‘European chickens’ – pale, plump, unmuscly, somewhat tasteless birds, which must have been intensively farmed. These days, I suspect most chicken will be the latter, because of the rapid industrialisation of the food chain, and because restaurants that serve free-range birds always mention this, by calling them åœŸé¸¡ (‘rustic’ chicken, i.e. farmhouse chicken) on the menu.
I’d also be interested to know of any sources for black-skinned chickens!
That situation can be looked at from a different point of view. It may be kind of a compliment. For example, I’m American, and I’d never expect to pay a lot of money for “American food” (not really sure what that would be. Hot dogs??) Why? Well, it’s common. It’s what I ate all the time (when I lived back in the states). It’s what my mom cooked. French food? How often does one eat French food? Well, other than the French, I don’t know of anyone who eats it that much. I’ve only had it twice in my life! (maybe I don’t know what I’m missing) However, Chinese food is as regular a fare in my life as American food. I have it on a regular basis. It’s a staple of sorts. I cook it (well, my version of it) and when I’m hungry, it’s one of the types of food that I think of first. So, I think it’s a kind of compliment. If I were to go home and my mom cooked Chinese food, I wouldn’t think twice. If she cooked something like French cuisine, I might be a little confused, unless it were a special occasion.
Having said that, Chinese food is an industry. It’s made cheaply in many places in the world. Unfortunately, business constantly looks for ways to save money and ultimately make more money. We’ve grown a little too accustomed to that I think.
Lots of comments and observations and questions.
I’ll start with the “bland chickens,” at least here in the United States, I tend to agree… This is one of the results of factory farming, and it extends beyond chickens to all poultry, beef, lamb, pork, etc… I started buying non-factory farmed meats and vegetables out of a sense of social conscience about a decade ago, and now I would not go back out of a selfish sense of flavor. Find a place that sells free-range “organic” meats, not stuffed with growth hormones, and you’ll find a more flavorful product.
Alas, you’ll also find a deeper hole in your wallet.
In that vein, it is probably not the most opportune economic time to chastise about the lack of respect for high-end restaurants, in any cuisine. In case you weren’t aware, San Francisco has something like 1 in 5 people unemployed or underemployed right now, and everyone I know is looking to cut costs. (The official rate is 12.3%, but that doesn’t count people who are “working part time for economic reasons” and people who have been out of work so long they’ve exhausted unemployment benefits.) Personally, I’ve seen my salary cut 30% after I was lucky enough to find work after a layoff. I appreciate expensive food, but for the time being, I’m having to abstain.
Oh, I’ll note that in Silicon Valley, the curry situation is much, much worse. So bad that when I used to fly to London it was hard to convince me to anywhere but an Indian restaurant, because the comparison between Brick Lane and California curries is greater than any other cuisine comparison I’ve seen.
As for “American food,” there are two decent answers. In many ways, we’ve adopted the traditional British food, with an American twist. If you accept that the traditional British meal is roast beef and potatoes, we’ve modified to be steaks and potatoes. We just don’t cook the beef to the texture of shoe leather. 😉
There is something, though, that I’ve often thought should be considered more traditional American food, although it is primarily in the US south: American barbecue. As I understand it, the slow cooking/smoking of the meat may have its origins in the native Americans going back to before Leif Erickson… Regardless of the origins, it has been adopted with a vengeance throughout the south, with many different, interesting regional variations. I am not familiar with all of them, but here are some:
North Carolina barbecue (my favorite, as my mother is a native of the state, and I went to university at Duke University): pulled pork with a light vinegar/pepper sauce with a hint of brown sugar. The best ones are vinegary and not sweet. In the state, it is divided into eastern and western, in the west they add tomato to the sauce. Always, though, it is not sweet. Alas, my favorite place closed after a hurricane wiped it out, Melton’s in Rocky Mount. Great cue, great brunswick stew, and great hushpuppies.
South Carolina barbecue is also pulled pork, but they add mustard to the sauce. Like most of South Carolina, the folks who run the most famous BBQ places have some unusual political views…
Memphis barbecue and Kansas City barbecue are also well known, have less vinegar and tend to be a bit sweeter. One has a dry rub of spices on the meat, the other has a thicker sauce, and I always get them confused.
Alabama (or is it Mississippi?) has a variant of barbecue in part of the state made with mayonnaise. Never tried it.
Texas is probably the best known barbecue; beef brisket, ribs, etc, and with a heavy tomato/vinegar sauce, (Some North Carolinians deride it as “beef with catsup.”) The sauce is usually thick and spicy sweet. I like it, but prefer North Carolina pork.
Anyway, that’s a brief look at what I would call “American” food.
Last, a couple question: What are the high-end Chinese restaurants you recommend in San Francisco? I’ll admit two preferences which aren’t high end, Old Mandarin out near the zoo is wonderful, and for good Sichuan I go to Classic Sichuan in Milbrae. (I also like Sam Lok in the city.)
Another question, which you may not be able to answer? Is there another regional Chinese cookbook on the way? If so, what region? I was thinking about what regional Chinese cuisine needs more exposure, and, well, there are a few.
Anyway, sorry for the long post…
Well it is a bit of a swim but you can get black skin chickens in many of the chinese supermarkets in Flushing, Queens. They are VERY Expensive-even more so than the free range chickens and ducks which are next to them in the counter. Ducks come with the head or headless-your choice. I had a soup made from a freshly killed black skin chicken when i was hiking with a guide and my significant other in tiger leaping gorge-we all loved it but then we were also very hungry.
As for up-scale chinese restaurants at least in the States i find they cater to expense accounts and not food save perhaps for the now long defunct Hunan restaurant on 2nd ave and 44st which you wrote about in your Hunan book.
Dishes with farm raised chickens are available in NYC e.g. at the Grand Sichuam restaurants-there is a special listing on the menu.
What i don’t understand is why even the best sichuan restaurants in NYC don’t use facing heaven peppers, you can find them in the grocery stores, albeit the quality i see is not close to the ones i brought back from Chengdu, but the restaurants simply use the long chili peppers. Perhaps i will bring a package at my next visit to Little Pepper and Spicy and Tasty.
Re: American barbecue. It’s also the province of slaves originally, historically/usually given the worst cuts of meat and then ingeniously employing seasoning and marinades as well as a protracted amount of time to render those particular cuts to produce a palatable and appetizing concoction. Prefer a pulled pork sandwich to a beef brisket personally.
Impression is that American barbecue owes much of its lineage to the Caribbean and also somewhat to Mexican barbocoa. The citation of Brunswick Stew in tandem w/ South Carolina low country cuisine (despite its strong African and Caribbean influences) may be a worthier candidate for consideration as per indigenous cuisine in the “North” portion of the Americas.
James – I wasn’t really intending to advocate spending vast amounts of money on food! (although we all know that it can be fun from time to time, circumstances permitting…) The purpose of my original post was simply to highlight the fact that the sophistication of Chinese culinary culture is almost invisible and virtually unrecognised in the West. What people tend to see is the cheap, everyday stuff, and so they think that’s it.
One of the thrilling things about doing cookery presentations with my Sichuanese chef friend Yu Bo in various countries has been the total amazement of our audiences, who have generally seen nothing like what he does – in terms of the delicacy of his preparations, the imagination of his art, and the sheer beauty of the food he produces. Most Westerners, including culinary professionals, don’t realise this kind of thing exists in Chinese cuisine.
There is nothing wrong with cheap, simple food – in fact Chinese home cooking can be wonderful, even in very poor places (and do read my post some time ago about the catering at Chinese construction sites) – but that’s not the whole picture.
Mel: I agree that high-end Chinese restaurants in the West sometimes offer more glamour than good food. When I was reviewing Chinese restaurants for Time Out a few years ago, I found shockingly mediocre food in very expensive places. Generally, I don’t expect to find really good food in fancy Chinese restaurants that don’t cater mainly to the Chinese community – with a few exceptions, like Hakkasan and Yautcha, and Mr Chow, which I haven’t been to for a while but have always enjoyed.
P.S. James, I’ve no idea about good Chinese restaurants in San Francisco! When I was last there, I think the best meals I had were at the marvellous Zuni Cafe, and Delfina.
Personally, I think Chinese food is perceived as cheap because of the immensely populated Chinese takeaway in the UK selling cheap fast food with lack of “brand awareness”. Western countries have traditionally viewed goods from China as being cheap and it is viewed as a threat to their own industries. In order to compete on a global/national scale the western countries came up with the “branded products” – which discriminates against the foreign product. Chinese food presentation showcase their skill in carving decorative pieces and western food came up with artistic presentations, which I think adds more value. Western countries are better in terms of creating value whereas China always sell products at their true prices. Yes, there are chinese dishes that are extremely expensive, but the prices on these dishes are mostly based on the scarcity of the product or the level of difficulty in obtaining it ie. shark’s fin and abalone. Going back to the takeaway business, these are businesses initially started by the older generation that grew up in the countryside of Hong Kong who had lack of education and authentic cooking skills (also because there is lack of imported ingredients). Even if they had authentic cooking skills there was no point back because what brought them to the UK in the first place was because they saw an opportunity in Britain because back then Britain had very little culinary identity. Even today there are many takeaway/restaurant owners have minds that are still buried in the 70’s/80’s where they think British people cannot take really spicy food and dont know how to appreciate chinese food. Another reason why chinese food is perceived as cheap food compared to western food is because it is under-price – VAT! I see many problems in the Chinese food industry. There is no western food takeaway for starts which preserves its value where as chinese takeaways have to compete with the likes of kebabs, indian, fish and chips, pizza outlets etc. I recently came back from HK with some authentic cantonese recipes. Before I tried implementing it onto our menu I did a very small scale of market research by asking potential customers that if a chinese takeaway uses imported ingredients to prepare authentic chinese dishes are they prepared to pay for the marked-up price? And their response was it doesn’t matter if you put true ingredients in or not as long as it tastes good! I agree that the lack of appreciation/knowledge in Chinese cooking is some of the causes to why people are not paying higher prices, but there are many factors aswell such as buffets, and fukienese immigrants coming to the UK compete agressively on pricing ie. 4 meals for Â£10! Then you have people like my parents who have retired and expect their children having got educated and instead of taking over their business should work elsewhere. Also I heard that now immigration requires: that for a restaurant/takeaway to hire a chinese chef/worker from China they must pass english exams at pre university entrance level. Maybe I’m wrong but I feel that all doors are closed for people like me who really have a passion for cooking and cooks not for money, but to make people happy, and one that wants to continue and improve my parents business at the same time goal is to revolutionalise the chinese takeaway business. What if I want to create a franchise – there are lack of skilled British labour that are capable in cooking Chinese cuisine and current immigration requirements really is a problemn. This leaves the Fukienese people to takeover the takeaway businesses and produce cheap low quality food. I see an opportunity here, but I’m also really stuck in a dilema and was really interested in creating implementing authentic cooking into chinese takeaways. Actually initially I was intending to go abroad to learn authentic cantonese cooking, but at same time is aware that British food trend had changed plus my wife is from Gui Yang and I love spicy food so I stumble across Sichuan Institue of Higher Cuisine which lead me to your website! I haven’t read your books yet but I have bought them immediately on the internet can’t wait! I would appreciate any help you can offer.
I have always enjoyed my meals more in less expensive, or food stall, or hole in the wall places than I have in more expensive restaurants, whether here in San Francisco, or Singapore, or Borneo, or Texas. Less expensive eateries seem to generally have tastier food and friendlier people. Higher end restaurants serving of any kind of cuisine, never seem to be as fun or as tasty. And besides, being a fairly good cook, I can whip up a fantastic meal for way less than the price of a high end meal, and have much more fun doing it. Or maybe I’m just a pushover for fluorescent lighting?
Great books by the way, I hope you have more in store for us.
Always cheaper in the US – sad for us Brits