There are a lot of restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai, including a few very good ones. But recently I’ve concluded that your average restaurant-on-the-street in China frankly isn’t that good. This was driven home after I moved to Jinqiao (Pudong) and found that all the local eateries on my street a) pretty much serve all the same stuff and b) none of it sparks my appetite. So, I’m going out on a limb here and saying something I know a lot of people are thinking–Chinese food is overrated.
Chinese food enjoys a high reputation around the world and Chinese people take pride in their culinary tradition. They spend plenty of time discussing it, comparing it, consuming it. There was last year a high-profile series of beautifully shot videos, Bite of China, which combined travelogue with eating. There’s a tradition here of master chefs and seasonal cooking, local sourcing, secret recipes etc etc. There are expensive restaurants staffed by descendants of ex-Palace cooks. There are plenty of good restaurants which aren’t staffed by ex-Palace Cooks and which aren’t that expensive. But I’m guessing: those restaurants aren’t in your neighborhood.
It’s not like that elsewhere. Go to a random street corner in Japan and the quality of the food/restaurants is simply better. The food is cleaner and shows more consideration in preparation. The restaurant has some sort of identifiable decorative theme rather than just a TV hung in a corner showing Ming dynasty soap operas. In general, I felt the same in Vietnam, Taiwan and Thailand–the average restaurant restaurant in those places is simply better than the average restaurant here. And that’s just Asia.
I used to blame myself for Chinese cuisine’s lack of appeal. I’m American, and so am at a disadvantage in the culinary category. Americans in general don’t see food as much more than something you need to stuff in your mouth three times a day. We are the inventors of “food as product,” after all. My general apathy about the local restaurants I attributed to my ignorance of local cuisine–not knowing what to order–as well as lack of adventurousness when it comes to what I put in my mouth. Now I realize that the restaurants just aren’t any good.
I’ve had plenty of good meals in China, mainly jiachangcai (home cooking) made by people close to me or by people deep in the countryside. The Taihu crabs, for example, were amazing. I’ve had plenty of great meals like that in the last 15 years. But there’s nothing in my neighborhood and there are endless neighborhoods in China all full of restaurants that can only be described as feichang yiban–really friggin’ average.
These restaurants aren’t empty. There are plenty of people every night shoveling the food into their mouths, tapping on their phones, staring at the TV hanging in the corner–everything illuminated by that horrid flat fluorescent lighting which is ubiquitous in China. There is no relationship you develop with the laoban or the chef. There’s no loyal clientele. When I ask the odd laoban why they got into the restaurant business, they invariably reply with some variation of “ganhuo“–make a living–basically no different than plumbing or haircutting or selling fake DVDs.
The quality of a cuisine has to be measured by the restaurants in the middle–that’s where most real people eat in real life. Having a few great restaurants you visit once a year only saves your cuisine from being a total disaster. Quality home cooking is important, yes, but I aver that in China there isn’t that much of a gap between what is slopped onto plates at local restaurants and what is slopped on plates in most peoples’ homes.
And then there are the food safety scandals…