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5 Interesting Facts About Chinese Food and Restaurants

Alessio enjoys traveling and discovering new cultures and food traditions.

Discover some facts and curiosities about Chinese food and restaurants.

Discover some facts and curiosities about Chinese food and restaurants.

Chinese restaurants have opened everywhere, from the big cities to the smallest of towns. I bet, like me, you love Chinese food: still, how much do we know about it? Have you ever believed that Chinese and Italian cuisines share some things in common? Are you curious about the differences between restaurants in China and overseas? This article will list some interesting facts about one of the most appreciated cuisines in the world.

Facts About Chinese Food and Restaurants

  1. Many People Are Unaware of Authentic Chinese Food
  2. Chinese and Italian Food Have Several Things in Common
  3. Not All Chinese Restaurants Look the Same
  4. Ordering Food in China Can Be Very Easy
  5. Chinese Cuisine Is Good for Vegans

1. Many People Are Unaware of Authentic Chinese Food

Some people believe to eat authentic Chinese food while ordering fried rice or spring rolls. The truth is that most restaurants outside China adapt their dishes to local tastes. It happens the same with Italian food in the US, which is different from what you eat in Italy.

Others believe it to be common in China to eat dog meat, even if this happens in small areas of the country. Most Chinese people even consider it normal to adopt a dog or a cat as a pet. We can see a similar situation in Italy, in a rural area of Sardinia, where locals eat casu marzu, a cheese that contains live maggots. Most Italians do not eat this food, nor is Italy worldwide known for this cheese. The same reasoning should apply when attributing the habits of a minority to all the Chinese.

2. Chinese and Italian Food Have Several Things in Common

Some think that Chinese food traditions are different from Western ones. Yet, Chinese cuisine shares several things in common with Italian one. Below are some examples of these similarities.

Left, three Chinese-style potato cakes with rice. Right, three Italian-style potato croquettes with cheese, marjoram, and garlic.

Left, three Chinese-style potato cakes with rice. Right, three Italian-style potato croquettes with cheese, marjoram, and garlic.

Italy Has Pizza and Piadina: What About China?

Pizza is the symbol of Italy. Another popular dish is piadina, a flatbread wrapped and filled with several ingredients. Even in China, one can eat comparable dishes, for example:

  • Jian Bing (煎饼), a savory crêpe made with eggs and fried dough, which is then topped with several ingredients, and
  • Cong You Bing (葱油饼), a flatbread topped with scallions and oil. A popular legend suggests pizza is an adaptation of this dish. One fact is that the idea of a flatbread topped with something is the same in both Italian and Chinese cultures.
A wood-oven baked Italian-style pizza, topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and basil.

A wood-oven baked Italian-style pizza, topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and basil.

Noodles in Italy and China

In Italy, you can find various formats of noodles. The most popular is spaghetti, a thin-shaped pasta. Other examples are tagliatelle, medium size ribbons, and pappardelle, large size ribbons.

Also in China, you can find different kinds of noodles. The best-known ones are thin strands that resemble Italian spaghetti. Yet, there are several other varieties, such as:

  • Youpo Chemian (油泼扯面): large size rice ribbons that look like the Italian pappardelle,
  • Shahe Fen (沙河粉): medium size rice ribbons that look like the Italian tagliatelle, and
  • Cheung Fun (拉腸粉): rolled noodles filled with various ingredients. The closest Italian food is cannelloni, usually filled with spinach and ricotta cheese.
Clockwise from top left: Italian tagliatelle, Youpo Chemian, Cheung Fun, and Shahe Fun.

Clockwise from top left: Italian tagliatelle, Youpo Chemian, Cheung Fun, and Shahe Fun.

Chinese and Italian Dumplings

Dumplings are another dish that you can find in both Italian and Chinese cuisines. There are some differences between how Italians and Chinese prepare them:

  • Shapes are different (except for Chinese wontons, which look like the Italian tortelloni).
  • Italian dumplings’ filling includes cheeses and vegetables eaten in Italy. Chinese ones are filled with ingredients popular in Asia, such as chives, eggs, or pak choy.
  • Italian dumplings are the main course, like all the other pasta dishes. In China, they are one of the various dishes shared at the center of the table and eaten together.
  • Italian dumplings are generally boiled, while Chinese ones are often steamed.
A selection of varieties of Chinese dumplings: jiaozi, xiao long bao, and wontons.

A selection of varieties of Chinese dumplings: jiaozi, xiao long bao, and wontons.

A selection of different varieties of Italian dumplings: ravioli, tortelloni, and girasoli.

A selection of different varieties of Italian dumplings: ravioli, tortelloni, and girasoli.

Bread in Italian and Chinese Cultures

Bread is the staple of the Italian diet, like white rice in Southern China. A similar Chinese food is mantou (馒头), also known as steamed bread, which is the staple in Northern China. Another popular Chinese bread is baozi (包子), a steamed bun filled with a sweet or savory filling.

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Clockwise from top left: Chinese baozi, flat buns, mantou, and Italian bread.

Clockwise from top left: Chinese baozi, flat buns, mantou, and Italian bread.

Some Chinese People Are Afraid of Eating Certain Italian Foods, and Vice Versa

This is a funny topic related to Chinese and Italian smelly foods. Some foods in Italy have a bad smell but a delicious taste: an example of them is Gorgonzola Cheese. The same happens in China with stinky tofu, a fermented soybean preparation. Many Italians who get to know stinky tofu tend to be afraid to eat it. Some Chinese people are also afraid to eat smelly Italian cheeses, as they think they are rotten. Still, the Chinese dish that most scares Italians is century eggs. These are quail eggs preserved in a mixture of ingredients like clay, salt, and ash for some months.

Fresh tofu salad with century eggs and soy sauce.

Fresh tofu salad with century eggs and soy sauce.

How Do Chinese and Italian People See Food?

In Italy and China, food is always at the center of attention. Meals are fundamental, and enjoying them with your family or friends is a ritual. Both countries also have a dish that is the symbol of conviviality par excellence:

  • Italy has pizza. Italians usually eat it with their family or friends.
  • China has the hotpot. More than a dish, it is a way to eat and experience food. At the center of the table, a heat source keeps a large pot of soup boiling. Diners have to dip different ingredients into this large pot, cook them, and finally eat them. Hotpot is a slow and convivial experience in which people chat for a long time while cooking and eating.
The traditional Chinese hotpot with several raw ingredients disposed around it.

The traditional Chinese hotpot with several raw ingredients disposed around it.

3. Not All Chinese Restaurants Look the Same

You enter a Chinese restaurant and look at the menu. You order fried rice, some spring rolls, and other dishes familiar to most people. At the end of the dinner, it feels like the food tasted the same as in other restaurants. If this sounds familiar to you, you are not alone.

 Spring rolls are one of the most common dishes served by restaurants outside China.

Spring rolls are one of the most common dishes served by restaurants outside China.

Many people think the experience in a Chinese restaurant is the same regardless of where they go. This happens in eateries that serve Chinese dishes adapted to Western tastes. Many of these serve frozen food like spring rolls and dumplings. This fact alone explains why dishes ordered in some places taste the same as in other ones. This does not happen in authentic Chinese restaurants. When trying traditional food, one can see that each dish has its own distinctive taste. Moreover, many traditional restaurants specialize in a specific kind of cuisine, for example:

  • dim sum fast food eateries, serving artisanal dumplings, baozi, and noodles,
  • hotpot and BBQ restaurants, and
  • restaurants focused on regional cuisines, like Sichuanese or Cantonese.
Left, a stir-fry and spicy pot cooked by a Sichuanese restaurant. Right, a clay pot rice served by a Cantonese eatery.

Left, a stir-fry and spicy pot cooked by a Sichuanese restaurant. Right, a clay pot rice served by a Cantonese eatery.

4. Ordering Food in China Can Be Very Easy

Visiting China is an amazing experience. Its cities are futuristic and vibrant, while the rural areas are very relaxing. Still, some people worry about being unable to order food at a restaurant if waiters do not speak English. Ordering food in Chinese can be a real challenge but there are two reasons why you should not worry:

  • Some restaurants feature plastic food models. In these places, you will be able to look at plastic replicas of the dishes served in the restaurant. Next to each model, there are bookmarks for you to take and give to the cashier, with no need to speak. Finally, you sit at the table and enjoy your meal.
  • A Chinese app provides real-time translation and payment tools. Alipay is one of the most used apps in China. It acts as a digital wallet (like PayPal) and as a lifestyle tool that provides several utilities. One of these is the real-time translator, to use with your phone camera when you need to read written Chinese. Another useful tool is TourPass, for paying in shops by using your actual bank account.
Plastic food models in a restaurant in China.

Plastic food models in a restaurant in China.

5. Chinese Cuisine Is Good for Vegans

Chinese Food Tradition Features Several Kinds of Tofu

Some people believe vegans can't eat Chinese food. Indeed, Chinese cuisine is full of animal-free dishes. Moreover, tofu, one of the main vegan staples, is Chinese. Supermarkets sell one type of tofu, but Chinese cuisine includes several others too.

Some kinds of tofu, one of the most important Chinese ingredients. These include fresh tofu, dried tofu sheets, and tofu skin sheets.

Some kinds of tofu, one of the most important Chinese ingredients. These include fresh tofu, dried tofu sheets, and tofu skin sheets.

Several Chinese Dishes Are Good for Vegans

There are several Chinese recipes involving tofu. Some are 100% vegan, while others, like hotpot and Ma La Xiang Guo, are adaptable on request. This fact is enough to debunk the myth that pretends tofu to be something bland. Tofu, exactly like pasta or rice, is not tasteless and, when cooked, can be a delicious alternative to meat.

A popular Chinese vegan recipe: stir-fry dried tofu with chives.

A popular Chinese vegan recipe: stir-fry dried tofu with chives.

References

  • Exchanges and Parallels between Italy and East Asia. (2019). United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Roberts, J. (2004). China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West. United Kingdom: Reaktion Books.
  • China's Rise and the Chinese Overseas. (2017). United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.
  • Albala, K. (2012). Three World Cuisines: Italian, Mexican, Chinese. United States: AltaMira Press.
  • Mendelson, A. (2016). Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey. United States: Columbia University Press.
  • Lin-Liu, J. (2013). On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta. United States: Penguin Publishing Group.
  • The World of Soy. (2008). United States: University of Illinois Press.
  • Shurtleff, W. (2013). History of Soymilk and Other Non-Dairy Milks (1226-2013): Extensively Annotated Bibliography and Sourcebook. United States: Soyinfo Center.

© 2020 Alessio Ganci

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