Chinese Food Is Overrated

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…

3 thoughts on “Chinese Food Is Overrated

  1. Hello,

    I realize this is a year late, but have you considered eating at the holes in the wall more often?

    Despite their homelier conditions and admittedly terrible conditions by comparison, the food is typically much cheaper and much better, at least when I was in Xi’an and Wuxi. (In Beijing it is still hit or miss.)

    I remember going to a number of terrible street restaurants around China and Taiwan; usually the holes in the wall and high-end places are much better.

    It’s rather sad; Chinese food is indeed one of the best things out there, but it’s reputation is often tainted by a tendency both at home and in China for also having a plethora of mediocre restaurants.

    That, and tourists get trapped into places with scorpions and stuff, which is weird even to the locals.

  2. I have to say most home cooked meals here in China (I live in Kunming) are not much better than the street places. And there is the added pressure of having someone lose face or hurting the feelings of a good person of China if you do not like something or want to try something strange looking, like a chicken head or large fish fin. I just eat here because I am hungry and would die of starvation if I did not put something into my mouth now and then. It is a sorry state of affairs indeed when going to McDonald’s or Burger King is one’s idea of eating somewhere special for the evening.

  3. You’re right, most placea pump out average rubbish. My personal theory is that it all comes down to the Chinese trader mentality. It’s all about making money and not about passion. This is also to do with which jobs are considered suitable in China by parents, etc. Most people who would be passionate about food are probably forced to work as accountants or sales people or government clerks bynoarent and grand parents more interested in a comfortable retirement than a happy child. Maybe I’m too cynical, or wrong, but the fact remains that out of 100 restaurants here, maybe 1 is good or different.

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