Authentic Chinese food is rarely like the Americanized version found in Chinese restaurants throughout the West. More than one traveler has hit the streets in Beijing only to be disappointed with what they find for food. Count yourself lucky to even find English menus outside of tourist eateries.
With only a few exceptions, don't expect to find those ubiquitous classics such as General Tso's chicken or Mongolian beef on menus in Beijing. If you do find familiar favorites, they are probably listed just to make tourists happy!
First, read about Chinese table manners for tips on handling chopsticks and eating the polite way.
American Chinese Food vs. Authentic Chinese Food
The cuisine that Westerners refer to as 'Chinese food' mostly originated in San Francisco during the 1950s. This fusion food, which later spread around the country and the world, was obviously catered to local tastes and prepared with locally available ingredients. With China still relatively closed off to the West, people eating 'Chinese food' didn't know any different!
Even authentic Chinese food dishes that were adopted by Western restaurants have some fundamental differences. For instance, Westerners often prefer white, boneless breast meat from chicken while Chinese dishes often utilize the dark meat and small bones.
Authentic Chinese Cuisine also Popular in the West
While a majority of the Chinese food favorites that we know from the West are not available in China, there are a few authentic dishes that were adopted and then Americanized.
- Egg Foo Young: The brown, Chinese omelet is a native dish from China.
- Kung Pao Chicken: While kung pao chicken is an authentic Sichuan dish, the Western version is usually less spicy than the fiery original.
- Cashew Chicken: Again, don't expect perfect chunks of white chicken breast in the authentic version.
- Moo Shu Pork: While this pork dish is available in China, it can be hard to find.
- Lo Mein: Typically one of the cheapest dishes on offer, lo mein noodles can be eaten throughout China.
- Fried Rice: Many varieties of fried rice are eaten throughout Asia, most often as a way to kill any potential bacteria that may have developed on rice leftover from the day before. Even President Obama ate nasi goreng -- Indonesian fried rice -- on his 2010 visit to the country.
Are Fortune Cookies Authentic?
Fortune cookies actually originated in Kyoto, Japan, and were later made famous by Chinese restaurants in California.
You won't find fortune cookies offered as a dessert after an authentic meal in China.
Are Egg Rolls Found in China?
Yes, however, the deep-fried egg rolls served in American Chinese restaurants are thicker skinned than authentic Chinese spring rolls. While American Chinese egg rolls are bulked up with cabbage and pork, Chinese spring rolls are often thinner and contain mushrooms, carrots, and local vegetables.
MSG in Chinese Food
Monosodium glutamate is a Japanese creation and Japan is the largest per-capita consumer of MSG in the world, but the Chinese most often get blamed for the use of MSG in food.
The term Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was even coined to describe the general unwell feeling after eating at a Chinese buffet. Ironically, sufferers rarely take into account that they probably overate and mixed many different types of foods that are prepared in heavy oil.
- See more about MSG and the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.
Avoiding MSG when eating authentic Chinese food can be difficult. Even restaurants that claim not to use MSG often use it anyway or prepare dishes with ingredients that contain MSG. Don't panic! A precursory scan of your pantry may surprise you: MSG (labeled as monosodium glutamate) turns up in many major Western-branded soups, lunch meats, foods, and snacks that you may already be eating regularly.
Eating Street Food in China
Eating street food from carts and markets is not only a cheap and delicious way to eat, it may be safer than eating in restaurants! Unlike restaurants where one can only imagine what lurks in the kitchen, you can see the level of cleanliness around a street cart. Also, unlike in restaurants, you have direct interaction with the cook whom probably does not want to make you sick!
Don't think that just because a street vendor does not have a brick-and-mortar location that the food could be sketchy. Competition is fierce between street food carts; a vendors who regularly makes customers sick would not stay in business for long!
- See more about eating the street food in Asia.