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Jun 5, 2008 11:58 AM

Chinese food -- which countries does it best? [from UK/Ireland]

>Talking of Chinese food (and taking into account its regionality) which countries do you think does it best ?<

Is this a trick questions? I've only had Chinese food in about 5 countries, and never in China, which I'm sure is the best because it has to be. Like most Americans, I grew up with Cantonese, but I'm branching out. The best I've ever had was in San Francisco's Chinatown, but that was my tastebuds.

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  1. I don't do trick questions. With me what you see (or read or hear) is unfortunately what you get :)

    Just interested because I've heard so many gripes about Chinese food in London from Americans. Just wondered whether it was down to way it is prepared in say NYC as oppose to London so that it's just *different* rather than worse. Also, whether the crit is aimed just at places in Chinatown which some of my Cantonese colleagues reckon is not a good place to eat anyway.

    Maybe mi hermano should come in here as he's eaten out a lot in US and has just completed his world tour of eating which included many parts of China.

    20 Replies
    1. re: Hermano Primero

      Hermano - it is a very interesting question. Food evolves especially with migrant communities adapting their foods to the local environment. How long does it take for a food from one country to morph into something that is different, yet has its own intrinsic qualities?

      I find one of the most depressing debates about food is the "but is it authentic?" argument that is applied to "ethnic food" (hate the term but it works). We seem to accept the evolution of French and other european cuisines, but many decry the evolution of Indian, Chinese or Vietnamese foods. Thus each country should be different, but does that mean one is better or worse?

      I suspect this is the reason there is such a degree of polarization over the top (Michelin starred) Indian, and Chinese restaurants in London as they tend to be innovative rather than "authentic".

      Bottom line is good ingredients cooked with passion and integrity will produce great food. So I suppose it comes down to the passion/integrity of the chefs.

      So to answer the question = Australia.

      PS - did the other brother get to Aus? If not he has only done a partial world tour....there must be a Malaga - Sydney flight...get him on it fast.

      1. re: PhilD

        He did

        Not overwhelmed with Sydney's food scene but still dreaming about the Souvlaki at Lamb on Chapel in Melbourne:-)

        1. re: Simon Majumdar

          Sorry missed them in the blog. I will peruse more closely. I fear he hit the "has beens" rather than those who are top of their game or on the cutting edge. Shame.

        2. re: PhilD

          "Food evolves especially with migrant communities adapting their foods to the local environment"

          Of course, you're right Phil - and I share your view of "authentic". But I wonder if there is a specific story to be told about Chinese food in the UK. I speculate thus:

          (1) Brits have a colony in Hong Kong. The local community is therefore already adept at adapting recipes to the British palate.

          (2) Almost all Chinese immigration into the UK has been from Hong Kong. Understandably. And much of that immigration has been specifically into the restaurant and takeaway industry.

          (3) Therefore, Chinese restaurants in the UK have, almost without exception, been geared to serving Western customers not their own community. As we know, apart from certain major cities where there are significant populations (London, Manchester, Liverpool, for example), it is a pretty dispersed community throughout the UK (but even large villages may have their own Chinese takeaway).


          1. re: Harters

            There are still Chinese restaurants where the interesting stuff is on the Cantonese (or Mandarin) menu and gwailo (for want of a better tem) gets the one with chicken and cashew. I remember asking for a hotpot dish at one place that used to be on the English menu. I was told that nobody liked it so they took it off.

            Several years ago, in a Korean restaurant, I was told that I couldn't have a particular dish because I wouldn't like it. They just wouldn't back down.

            This seems to be changing as some of the staff and owners are first or second generation immigrants and realise that people are a bit more savvy. Still think it goes on though.

            1. re: Harters

              It's still the case that in many restaurants the interesting stuff will be on the Chinese menu and gwailo will be left with Chicken and Cashew. A lot of Chinese restaurateurs still don't believe that Westerners want to try different stuff like offal etc.

              This might change as the ownership and staffing moves to first, second and third generation immigrants.

              1. re: scoopG

                "UK Government made sure everyone knew that the local HK Passport did not mean UK citizenship."

                Indeed. It was one of the most shameful decisions our government had taken in many a year.

            2. re: Hermano Primero

              Americans are prone to qvetching... I'll leave that to the psychologists. Most aren't in the UK long enough to really get a true appreciation of what's available. I don't think Manhattan's Chinatown (the one I know best) has the variety that the one in London offers, but I haven't been to the former in quite a few years now. Maybe I'll drop in next week.

              It could be that Americans are just used to their standard, favorite dishes and don't like anything a bit different, but I hate to generalize about any people. I'm often the same. I tend to enjoy something basic like sweet and sour chicken at Wing Yip... just because it tastes like the American style I ate for years. Haozhan does something similar but so much lighter and just as delicious.

              1. re: zuriga1

                "It could be that Americans are just used to their standard, favorite dishes and don't like anything a bit different"

                Not just Americans, June. I know plenty of Brits who go to the local Chinese or Indian and always order the same thing - because it's what they always order. And to order something different may mean they won't like it. It's why chain restaurants do so well - you can have what you alwasy have whereever you go.

                Me - I like it when there's something not entirely wonderful. Even when there's something a bit crap. Gives me something to talk about afterwards. I mean - how much can you find to talk about over a Pizza Express American Hot. "Yum, that was nice - just like last time....."

                  1. re: zuriga1

                    I would agree that NY's Chinatown leaves a lot to be desired, but any decent New Yorker knows to get out to Flushing for more, better Chinese (and other Asian) foods. I don't live in NYC and I know that, so it's not a big secret, so I'd suggest heading out there when you visit.

                    And I suggest visiting the Chinese restaurants in LA. SF and NYC might be famous for their Chinatowns, but LA has entire cities filled with Chinese immigrants. And other towns with Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, etc. immigrants. Their impact on the local eating scene has been outstanding and I have yet to find better options in London, NYC, San Francisco, etc. after living in those cities over the years.

                    1. re: glutton

                      LA? San Francisco? You must mean the vast San Gabriel Valley (LA) and the greater urban-exurban San Francisco area where one needs a car to get around. (Or maybe BART - as in Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco and I'd love to hear if it is being used to go to destination Chinese restaurants.)

                      One Chinese cuisine we have in Manhattan's Chinatown that is NOT found anywhere else is Fujian.

                      Manhattan's Chinatown is crammed with over 300,000 ethnic Chinese (60% of them are foreign born) and some 200+ restaurants . That adds up to plenty of Chinese deliciousness.

                      1. re: scoopG

                        BART is often recommended for visiting the Chinese restaurants in Millbrae (just south of the city). I also know people who use BART to go to the Pacific East center in Richmond. There are probably other examples.

                        Last time I was in England I had dinner in Manchester's (tiny) Chinatown. Before selecting one, I looked at the menus and tried to find one that had something besides typical gloppy stir fries. My English cousins let me order the meal (although I needed help understanding our waitress's Chinese-Manchester accent), and they were amazed at how different it was from what they would have ordered and how good it was. I thought it was decent -- about the quality of an average SF or Oakland Chinatown place, but nowhere near the better ones.

                        I think a lot of different factors go into regional versions of Chinese food, including perception of what kind of food the majority population expects.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler


                          Yes. Our Chinatown is small (as are all the British ones) - compared with, say, New York or Toronto. It's because, as I mention above, the community does not live in a close defined area. Most major centres for the Chinese are around ports (even though Manchester is 35 miles from sea, the Ship Canal gave us a thriving port). However, most first generation immigrants came, during the fairly recent colonial times, to open restaurants and takeaways (or work in them). Bear in mind also - not only is the community diversified across the country, it also small, in comparison with other immigrant groups. Total Chinese community in the UK is less than 250,000 (source: 2001 Census).

                          As Hermano points out, the good stuff is supposedly tucked away on the "Chinese menu" which is not presented to Brits. Therefore, you have to know what you are after - unfortunately I don't so will always order a gloopy stir-fry.

                          FWIW, Manchester's Chinatown has a couple of places worthy of mention. Red Chilli gets all the praise these days - not least for rarely seen Sichuan dishes. The Yang Sing remains good - used to be generally recognised as one of the country's top places - perhaps not quite that good any more. Glamourous (just on the fringe on the city centre) gets mixed reviews - but has good dim sum trolleys.


                          1. re: Harters

                            Red Chilli is my favourite, although Little Yang Sing and Yang Sing are also OK. When we go to YS with Mr GG's best mate, who is a friend of the owner, we get better food!

                            1. re: greedygirl

                              I havnt been to the YS for a couple of years. Last time, we took a couple of e-friends who I was meeting for the first time. They particularly wanted to at there. Had the £25 "surprise" banquet which at least 3 of us thought was pretty good (and certainly excellent value). The companion in life isnt really keen on Chinese food and always goes vegetarian. Mistake on this occasion - the veggie dishes that came were bland and boring.

                              If you fancy a change next time you are "oop north" (near the land of footballers' wives), then the Chinese floor at Pacific (in Chinatown) will be worth a nosy. They have a Thai place on another floor but not only have I not tried it, it doesnt seem to get good mentions.


                            2. re: Harters

                              The conventional wisdom is that, at least in larger places that cater to both a Chinese and an Anglo crowd, when an order ticekt comes into the kitchen with dishes like sweet and sour pork or cashew chicken, it gets passed off to the lower level cooks. Therefore, not only are the dishes not as good, but the execution isn't as good.

                              John, you said "you have to know what you are after - unfortunately I don't so will always order a gloopy stir-fry." I know you can do better than that. I wrote a post on basic tips for getting better food in a Chinese restaurant: You can ignore all the bickering from people who said those tips were obvious -- those people are starting from a whole different knowledge base. Anyway, those are the basic techniques I used at the restaurant in Manchester (sorry I don't remember which one). One thing I remember was that I ordered some kind of braised pork belly (a claypot dish, IIRC), and it was a big hit. I was pleasantly surprised that they had Chinese broccoli, too, as lack of access to fresh Chinese vegetables in many parts of the world is a major cause of dumbing down Chinese cuisine in various parts of the world.

                              Next time I'm in Manchester (which is unfortunately probably not any time soon), I'll be sure to check out the current state of Chinese food. Of course, that's if I can tear myself away from the Cheese Hamlet in Didsbury (which is fortunately not far from my cousins' house).

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler


                                Thanks for the heads up on the other thread. Interesting reading. And have learned much from it. The tips were not obvious to me (which is indicative of my low level of knowledge about Chinese food)

                                BTW, the Cheese Hamlet is 5 minutes drive from home. Good - but not as good as the Cheese Shop in Chester, Which, unfortunately, is 40 minutes away - too far for half a kilo of Shropshire Blue.

                                1. re: Harters

                                  If you try those tips out, let me know how they work (my email is in my profile -- if you just post it to the UK board I probably won't see it).

                          2. re: scoopG

                            BART isn't especially useful in my opinion -- too slow, too limited. But there are definitely good places outside SF as you suggest. I think the good places in the LA area are better, though. More variety, more quality, etc.

                    2. hong kong (a sar) is pretty good. same for singapore and the states (new york city, los angeles, san francisco/ bay area).

                      i'll do more research and get back to you. :-)

                      1. Never been to China but have had food from different provinces here in Canada. In Toronto with and without Chinese dining companions I have been satisfied and look forward to more palate awakening discoveries. Have also experienced eye-opening and tastebud-expanding cuisine in Vancouver.

                        1. In Paris, I remember that the Chinese restaurants there generally had pre-made food lying around, and was usually combined with other Asian cuisines. It really looked horrible.

                          And I think within a country, you're going to find a wide variety of Chinese food. For example, some of the best Chinese food I've had was in Toronto. And my worst Chinese food experience was in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Really, really, really bad. Unfortunately, I was dating somebody who loved to eat this type of really bad Chinese food in PEI. So I was subjected to this experience multiple times.

                          7 Replies
                          1. re: Miss Needle

                            Interesting you should mention Toronto (my city for the past 25 years). Here are some demographic stats:

                            • 43 per cent of Toronto's population (1,051,125 people) reported themselves as being part of a visible minority, up from 37 per cent (882,330) in 1996.

                            The top four visible minority groups in Toronto were:

                            * Chinese at 259,710 or 10.6 per cent of our population
                            * South Asian at 253,920 or 10.3 per cent
                            * Black at 204,075 or 8.3 per cent
                            * Filipino at 86,460 or 3.5 per cent


                            Vancouver has always had a large Chinese and Japanese culture. Much Hong Kong immigration occurred before that territory's hand-over to the People's Republic. The combination of wealthy ex-pats and proximity to a wealth of fresh produce and seafood has led to dining experiences rivaling those in the old country.

                            1. re: mrbozo

                              With a Chinese population comprising just over 6 percent of the metropolitan area, Calgary has the third largest in Canada. About 20% of Calgary is "Asian," and about 23% are visible minority. Calgary is with respect to diversity almost precisely where Toronto was in 1991, when it was already promoting itself as North America's most multicultural city. Among all cities in North America, in 2007, the three greatest immigration magnets (per capita) were Toronto-Vancouver-Calgary, 1-2-3. 4th was Miami.

                              But to the topic- I really loved the Chinese I had in Trinidad!

                              1. re: John Manzo

                                I know there's a long standing Chinese community in Trinidad & Tobago. Curious to know how (or if) the food has adapted to the local environment.

                                1. re: Harters

                                  One of my friends is from Jamaica, and his mom was Chinese. He told me there indeed was a fusion. I'm imagining something similar happened in T&T. I would love to try something like that. Sounds really good.

                                  1. re: Miss Needle

                                    I know for sure that there is Guyanese Chinese food. Don't forget that the roti we love so much is an amalgam of East Indian and African culture in Trinidad and Guyana (not a Jamaican dish, so beware of such offerings in a jerk hut). Gimme a double an' spice it up nice.

                              2. re: mrbozo

                                Again demographics, then LA Metro area has it down, with around 2/3 of a million-2 million ethnic and Chinese-Americans, of which the epicenter is the San Gabriel Valley immediately east of LA. Second largest ethnic minority in the city and largest Asian population in the western hemisphere. Entire cities in this valley are entirely Chinese, not just malls, restaurants, and supermarkets but everything from TV to newspapers, to any other form of media and service is all in Mandarin/Cantonese. The variety of food is probably the best in North America (dim sum cart style, menu sit down, fusion, etc.), though it's real standouts are in Taiwanese, and Hong Kong eateries, since most of the expats come from these regions.
                                The same can be said for Korean and Japanese.

                                Check these out:

                                1. re: b0ardkn0t

                                  I would guess that if you want the best Hong Kong/Cantonese food in North America, you'd probably find it in Vancouver, given the large number of HK expats there. But if you want the best Chinese food in general, the San Gabriel Valley is clearly the place to be. No other city in North America even comes close when it comes to the breadth and quality of the different styles of Chinese cuisine available.

                            2. "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" by Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, her middle name is a digit; it stands for good luck in Chinese culture), which is a history of Chinese food and Chinese restaurants primarily in the US but also in other countries. In the US, the first wave of Chinese restaurant food was Cantonese b/c that's where most pre-WWII emigrants came from--in particular, from Toishan. In the last 20 or so years, Chinese emigrants have come from Fujian, so the cooking style and dishes have changed.

                              Lee also goes into where the fortune cookie came from (hint: not China, and not the US, either), who was General Tso and why did they name a chicken dish for him, what is this stuff called chop suey, who makes all those little packets of soy sauce, where all those cardboard take out containers come from, who came up with the idea of take and delivery in the first place, etc. She also does some compare/contrast with the Chinese food found in other, non-Chinese countries. The bottom line is, Chinese restaurants make what sells.

                              I'm not sure if this book is available in the UK but it's definitely worth searching out! It was published recently, within the last year. Her day job is a as a reporter for the NY Times, so she's a crack researcher and a very engaging writer

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Erika L

                                The book sounds absolutely fascinating - thanks for the info.

                                1. re: Erika L

                                  great book. i second the recommendation.