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Chinese Food And Seconding The Call For Dumpling Diplomacy

Posted in China Travel

Whenever I return to Seattle from China, I cannot eat Chinese food for months. I simply do not want to spoil the memories. I know I am not alone on this. And since Seattle has a large Asian population and a relatively sophisticated food scene, I very much doubt things are any better in other U.S. cities.

Just a couple of days ago, the Seattle Times did a story on Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, British Columbia (that’s Canada, people), entitled, Have chopsticks, will travel? Go north for Chinese delights.  The gist of the article is that Vancouver is THE North American city for Chinese food:

This is where hotshot Hong Kong chefs create innovative dim sum that trickle down to restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

This is Vancouver, where the Chinese culinary bar is raised higher and the Cantonese restaurants are more trendsetting than anywhere in the United States.

“Hands down, I think [Vancouver's Chinese food] is superior to other cities’ in North America,” said Nathan Fong, a Vancouver-based food-stylist and noted expert on Chinese cuisine.

The Chinese food scene here exploded due to mainland China’s takeover of Hong Kong 10 years ago, which brought a flood of wealthy Chinese immigrant’s and injected much competition in the Vancouver restaurant industry. That’s why the Vancouver area has been serving Chinese food that is arguably as good as in the homeland, much like Vietnamese cuisine is in Westminster, Calif., or Indian cuisine is in London.

The article goes on to describe my favorite Chinese restaurant in North America, Sun Sui Wah, as follows:

But the overall star attraction remains Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant in Vancouver, considered by many critics and local chefs to be one of the best Chinese restaurants in North America, especially for seafood and dim sum.

I once suggested (begged?) a friend of mine, whose wife’s family owns a number of very large and very successful Chinese restaurants in Asia, talk to his in-laws about opening one in Seattle. He reported back that Seattle could not support such a restaurant because such restaurants need to serve meals late into the night and there are just not enough Seattleites who go for that. He then noted this was why Seattle did not have any great Chinese restaurants and why it never would.

Nina and Tim Zagat (of the Zagat Guide) wrote an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times, entitled, Eating Beyond Sichuan, first bemoaning and then explaining the extreme dearth of great Chinese food on these shores:

Chinese food in its native land is vastly superior to what’s available here. Where are the great versions of bird’s nest soup from Shandong, or Zhejiang’s beggar’s chicken, or braised Anhui-style pigeon or the crisp eel specialties of Jiangsu? Or what about the tea-flavored dishes from Hangzhou, the cult-inspiring hairy crabs of Shanghai or the fabled honeyed ham from Yunnan? Or the Fujianese soup that is so rich and sought after that it is poetically called “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall,” meaning it is so good that a Buddhist monk would be compelled to break his vegetarian vows to sample it?

The historical explanation for why “the lackluster Cantonese, Hunan and Sichuan restaurants in this country do not resemble those you can find in China” is the lack of “key ingredients” from China, but that is no longer the case. The reason the United States is today mired in Chinese restaurant mediocrity is that it is nearly impossible for Chinese chefs to get visas to come over here.

Not sure if the Zagats are right about this, but they do provide some anecdotal proof. And, hey, if opening the floodgates to immigration would raise the level of Chinese cuisine over here, than I say “open.” Food trumps politics, hence the call for dumpling diplomacy.  Of course, our visa policy holds back more than just great Chinese cooks, but people, let’s stay focused here.

In its post, entitled, Hear, hear for dumpling diplomacy! Foreign Policy Magazine weighs in on this crucial issue with its own whine:

And they’re [the Zagats]  absolutely right. Let’s face it most of what America considers “Chinese” food SUCKS. It’s too sweet, too sticky, too oily, too heavy, and too bland. There are exceptions, of course. (Notably, my mom’s kitchen and the Chinatowns in New York, San Francisco, and LA.)

But take Washington, D.C., [please do!] for instance. I’ve been living in this city for nearly two years, and have yet to understand why it’s so hard to find a single decent Chinese restaurant in the nation’s capital.

Again, so true.  I have always suspected PF Changs to be the leading cause of increasing sugar prices.

The Rose Cantine Blog is skeptical of the reasons given by the Zagats for the “abysmal state of Chinese food in the United States.”  According to its post, Is 9/11 to blame for bad Chinese food, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean chefs are subject to the same restrictions and yet their food is good.  The Rose Cantine, posits the following reasons for the difference:

  • Thai, Vietnamese and Korean restaurant owners are relatively new immigrants to the US and have not lost touch with the authentic recipes. Because US-born Chinese are no longer in touch with their homegrown cuisine, restaurant owners have to import Chinese chefs and the visa restrictions are making this impossible (Zagat theory).
  • The type of Chinese cuisine that got locked in was Cantonese which is relatively bland.
  • The Chinese who settled in the US and Europe cook differently when they make dishes for Western people than they do for themselves.

This posts makes me wonder though if what the Zagats are saying about Chinese food holds true for most Asian cuisines. I know very little about authentic Thai food, so though I love what get of it here in the United States, I am not qualified to compare it to the motherland. I have eaten great Vietnamese food in both the United States (particularly in California) and in Vietnam. I am generally not a big fan of Korean food (seeing as how I do not eat meat and I do not think food should be judged on how long it has been buried in some old auntie’s backyard), but every Korean in Seattle with whom I have discussed restaurants has told me there are no good Korean restaurants here.

Daniel W. Drezner, in his post, I want to believe the Zagats — I really do, is also skeptical of the Zagat explanation and he posits three of his own:

1) Because China has a larger internal market, there is more innovation and competition at home, leading to more frequent innovations. Without a reliable transmission mechanism (i.e., migrating chefs), Chinese cuisine in China will improve at a faster rate than in the U.S.A.

2) Law of averages. There are 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., but only 9,000 Japanese restaurants. If quality is a function of quantity, then the average Chinese restaurant will simply be of poorer quality than other cuisines.

3) Innovation in a different direction. As this Washington Post story from last year suggests, American restaurants tend to innovate by using new cooking styles to present more traditional foods. Indeed, as the Zagats observe, this tendency is strongest in cuisines that have been here for a while — like Chinese. This roils devotees of “pure” national cuisine, but delights everyone else.

The Zagats end their article with this clarion call:

So, we welcome Chinese chefs to share their authentic cuisines with us. American palates, unlike those of previous generations, are ready for the real stuff.

To which, I would think we can all say, amen.

  • Law Office of Todd L. Platek

    Dude, where’s my puppy?
    Talk about authentic! Still one of my favorite dishes in the Korean restaurants in China, and not likely being buried in any old auntie’s backyard for too long – demand is too high. Also not likely to make it high on Zagats’ list for the foreseeable future. No, I don’t look at my Black Lab that way; she’s exempt.

  • http://xiaoniu.org Shaun

    3. The Chinese who settled in the US and Europe cook differently when they make dishes for Western people than they do for themselves.
    This is true. Various people through out my wife’s family own or previously owned and operated Chinese restaurants on the east and west coasts. They will tell you that they cannot cook authentic Chinese dishes because they simply would not be accepted by the majority of Americans. It makes good business sense to simply change the menu to suit the tastes of the majority of your customers. Hence most places serve sweet, fried foods.
    As for the “close to authentic” restaurants in big cities (e.g. Chinatown in NY) I think they lack good chefs because there are not enough people that would appreciate good authentic Chinese food.

  • http://nitawriter.wordpress.com/ Nita

    You will not get authentic Indian food in the west…at least not in most restaurants. This is not just because westerners cannot eat very spicy food because there are many Indians who prefer non-spicy food and you get it here. The reason is because the majority of people in any nation like cuisines which are in some way similar to theirs. For example the majority of Indians prefer chinese food which has been indianised. Finally its the money which hoteliers want to make and they want people to come again and again…
    I think this applies to westerners too. When we were in China we found that the majority westerners preferred western food over chinese. I guess eating an authentic cuisine once in a while is fine for most people, but not too often.
    From what I hear,Indian food in the west is westernised to a large extent. Also, India has many cuisines across the country and the kind of food they serve in most Indian restaurants abroad is mostly north indian food.

  • Ahmet

    Having lived in Yunnan for almost two years, and having taveled throughout China during that time, I am not impressed with Chinese cuisine. The quality of ingredients are poor. Most cooking cooking has incredibly high levels of oil, sodium and/or animal fat. There are exceptions of course, but much of the Chinese food I’ve consumed has all three of these issues whether it’s hot pot in sichuan, dumplings in Hielonjian, heavily sweetened and soy laden dishes in Shanghai, or highly spiced dishes in Yunnan. Even Cantonese style food in Guangdong is filled with fatty pork.
    In general, I think that Thai places in the US have done well because the food is just better (I realize that this is an opinion), the Zagat’s not withstanding.

  • http://ancientscience.spaces.msn.com/ David Li

    Best chefs don’t really have to migrate.
    Vancouver has an unique advantage of the panic of 1997 Hongkong returning to China. Many people from Hongkong moved to Vancouver as well as the excellent chefs.
    In Shanghai, ask anyone coming from outside of Shanghai where to get authentic home town meals, the typical answer is “there is no authentic one in Shanghai.” Sichun hotpots in Sichun tasted completely different from those in Shanghai. Someone told me the missing ingredient is poppy seed. :)

  • nanheyangrouchuan

    I disagree completely with all of this “westernized” preference. Most chinese restaurants in the US/Canada are HK/Taiwanese garbage. I loved real sichuan, Hunan and dongbei food (and the beer that went with it) and still despise the typical suzy wong, hong kong phooey, general Tso’s super sweet deep fried chicken schlock that is shoveled on Americans. There is so much good, real chinese food that would do well in the US. Hot pot is another great example and is very low in fat content (after you boil the fat off of the lamb and beef) as well as having high veggie content.
    It is simply an assumption of chinese that home grown cooking would not go over well in the US. No, Americans won’t eat stomach, chicken’s feet, duck tongue or other such “exotic” fare, but there is plenty that can be done with beef, chicke, pork and yes, lamb.
    Among my favorite dishes is hot sugar coated apples (dongbei), hot pepper fried beef (sichuan) and beef/garlic/onion stir fry (hunan). Shanghai food sucks.

  • http://popchina.blogspot.com Rene

    Sometimes I appreciate Americanized Chinese food, even after having been in China for 3 years. There’s nothing like a big fat Egg Roll of the sort you get on the East Coast.
    I think an important factor to consider is cost. I’m not sure the real reason is that so-called “American tastes” can’t tolerate spicy food (and contrary to popular opinion not all Chinese food is spicy), but rather the average American family wouldn’t want to foot the bill for a more authentic meal. And I think that is probably true for any country.
    I also know from the experience of eating out with a friend’s Chinese family that you can get better food that doesn’t appear on the menu if you order in Chinese.
    On the other hand, I think “Western” food in China is likewise very poor. And expensive to boot.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Todd Platek –
    Never had it. Not for moral reasons as I do not see any moral difference between eating dog and eating cow or pig, but because I stopped eating any meat more than 15 years ago. I admire your courage in admitting your love for dog though as I am sure this will make many people rather angry.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Shaun –
    I think what you are saying was true ten years ago in terms of a lack of appreciation (and, equally importantly, a willingness to spend), but I have to believe a high end authentic Chinese restaurant would do well in many cities in the United States.
    I remember when Wild Ginger (one of Seattle’s most famous restaurants) opened in Seattle in 1989. I went there, really liked the food, but swore I would never go back because I insisted it was no better than many local Thai restaurants which cost 2/3 as much. Wrong. I did go back and I slowly came to realize what I was getting for my money and my views have completely shifted and Wild Ginger grew so popular it had to move to much bigger digs, where it is still difficult to get a table. Seattle now has a couple of high end and expensive Thai restaurants and they are doing just fine. Same with Vietnamese. So why not Chinese?

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Nita –
    I love Indian food, but I am certainly no expert on it. In the United States, I would ask for 5 stars (out of 5) in terms of spiciness, and then I would always conclude with, “and I mean it.” I was fine with it.
    Then I went to London, where it seems the Indian restaurants rate their spiciness on a 20 point scale. Stupid me, I assumed a London 20 was the equivalent of a U.S. 5 and I ordered my food at 20 and even added an “and I mean it.” The waiter talked me down to a 17 and to this day I have to believe I lost about five layers out of my mouth trying (and failing) to eat my food. Based on this experience, I’m guessing a London 5 is the equivalent of a U.S. 5 and a London 20 is 4 times as spicy as a U.S. 5.
    So yes, I have no doubt the Indian food we get here in the US is less than full on authentic. My friends tell me the best Indian food is (and here we go again) in Vancouver, British Columbia (and its suburbs) which has a huge Indian population. I cannnot vouch for this because I am too busy eating Chinese and Japanese food when I go there.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Ahmet –
    Definitely the region in China matters greatly, but I have had unbelievably good food in many different cities in China, including Hong Kong.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    David Li –
    I certainly see where you are coming from.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    nh –
    What is going on here, this is the second time in two days that we agree on something?

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Rene –
    Amen to Western food being poor in China. Same is true of Korea, but not Japan and I think the reason for this is that the Japanese really want good Western food, whereas just being “western” is still enough to sell in China and in Korea. I am a big believer in the old, “when in Rome…. ” adage.
    I think you have a point about Americans being unwilling to pay for Chinese food, but I think that is only because there is the mindset that it ought to be cheap. I do think that mindset would shift if a killer Chinese restaurant came to town and in a comment above I talk about how that has happened in Seattle with Thai and Vietnamese restaurants going upscale.

  • Law Office of Todd L. Platek

    I find admirable the moral reasons for not eating meat, but am too fond of meat and cannot make the jump yet. Until that time comes, I see all animals the same way. To the extent that anyone is offended, I apologize. However, they should ask themselves why they hold one type of animal in more esteem than another; simply because it can be deemed a pet?
    Interestingly, in China now, this concept is gaining ground, and many young urban denizens find abhorrent the idea of eating dog. Another sign of the times.

  • David Li

    NH’s list of favorite are tasty but what would one call a “Chinese” restaurant having all three on their menu? American foods! ;)

  • http://xiaoniu.org Shaun

    nanheyangrouchuan,
    “…general Tso’s super sweet deep fried chicken schlock that is shoveled on Americans.”
    I disagree. The demand for these kinds are foods are what drives restaurants to sell it. For every person that orders a mixed vegetable dish you’ll have two dozen that order General’s Tso’s or Sesame chicken.
    The same can be said about Italian places that sell pizza or McDonalds selling hamburgers. They sell the same crap because that is what people want.
    CLB,
    I hope you’re right and that the time is right for the emergence of good authentic Chinese restaurants. I’d make the trip to a city just for a good meal.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Todd Platek –
    I stopped eating meat because I thought it would be healthier. Though it pleases me to know that animals are not killed on my behalf, I attribute no moral value to my decision to eschew meat. But, I too fail to see any moral distinction between eating dog and eating beef.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    David Li –
    Good point.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Shaun –
    I am certainly not for displacing the crappy Chinese restaurants selling Americanized food. All I am calling for are some really good restaurants to go with them.
    Where are you?

  • http://xiaoniu.org Shaun

    CLB,
    New York state. Close enough to NYC to visit whenever the desire hits.

  • nanheyangrouchuan

    The Americanized chinese food is popular because that’s all Americans are exposed to, that is the only reason the chop-socky places still do well…that and “dollar scoop”. Then when an American goes to China and eats at a good local restaurant they find out “Wow!”.
    More authentic places are opening where I live and Americans are discovering something new and better. A major problem with foreign style food is what foreigners perceive Americans will eat based on what they’ve learned about the US in their home countries.
    Western food is often poor in China because of the desire to proudly add “chinese characteristics” to western food and if you don’t like, you are looking down on China.

  • http://xanga.com/caliboy888 Caliboy

    Shanghai may not be representative of the rest of China, but there’s a lot of great Western food now, at least compared to when I was visiting China as a child in the late 80s and early 90s. Of course it’s too expensive for the average Chinese and they are oriented towards expats, but there several decent French and Italian places in the in the 200 RMB range.
    On the other hand, I grew up in the Bay Area and spent most of my life thinking that our Chinese food was pretty authentic (definitely superior to what you get on the East Coast). But after 2 years in China, I could never look at the food here the same ever again…

  • Law Office of Todd L. Platek

    Let’s face it – Chinese spend a huge amount of time and energy on food. Preparation is a major headache, and execution has to be just right. As they say, the ability to control the fire under the wok is paramount. With respect to ordering, call me simple, but when I’m hungry, I just order and want the food placed before me. When I first lived in TW in 1975-77, I discovered the phenomenon of people (i.e. Chinese) agonizing over menus to determine (a) which dishes they wanted to eat that day; and (b) whether each such dish complemented the other. Lengthy engagements with the waiters and boss were conducted. Somehow, the deal got done. When the food finally arrived, I had already filled up on fried or steamed peanuts and Szchuan cabbage (“la bai cai”)or seaweed or whatever had been put down as an appetizer to stave off immediate hunger. Then came culinary analysis time, where everyone had three opinions each, about each dish, before any chopsticks were even lifted. I sat there salivating and dying, just waiting for the cue to start eating. At the end of the meal, while everyone passionately disgorged bits of it from between teeth, the criticism continued. By that time, I really needed an aspirin. After 30+ years, I now see the logic behind the criticism and also engage in it – but not with respect to my wife’s cooking.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Shaun –
    I’ve definitely had good Indian in NYC, but nothing amazing in the way of Chinese, not that I really knew where to look.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    nh –
    I think you are right about US food and I think the same holds true for Westernized food in China. It gets Chinafied not out of nationalism but out of habit and expectation. This is natural. Some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had was in France (where they really care about food) and some of the worst I have ever had was in Germany (where food is what goes with the beer) and in Korea (where it is what one does before going out drinking).

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Caliboy –
    SFO does have some really good Chinese restaurants, definitely better than Seattle. Then again, SFO has better Italian restaurants than us also. I generally do not eat Western food in Shanghai (hell, I generally do not eat Western food in Seattle either), but I have yet to be all that impressed by the Western food there. Not horrible, but not as good as the expats (whose memory is perhaps slipping) claim it to be.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Todd Platek –
    First off, smart move re the wife.
    Second, I have a theory (not sure if it is mine or if I stole it), but that there are food cultures and drinking cultures. France is a food culture. Germany is a drinking culture. Japan is a food culture. China is a food culture. The United States is becoming a food culture.
    Someone really ought to do a dissertation on this, first figuring out how to measure and then measuring. All I know is that if my hotel in Japan has 13 channels, at least five will be on food. That’s one measure. Chef’s pay compared to other skilled professions might be another. Ratio of income spent on food might be another. Time spent shopping and time spent cooking would be another. I’m guessing to do the study right would require at least $1 million so bring on the Ford Foundation….

  • Law Office of Todd L. Platek

    Dan, for $1 million, I’ll do that study and Harris & Moure can take my cases in the meantime. Todd

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Todd Platek –
    You get the million and we’ll take the cases.

  • Lilly

    I’ll just go on record and say that Sun Sui Wah was an utter let down of a restaurant after all the hype. The dishes there must be the most uninspired Chinese cooking I’ve ever seen. A relentless train of mediocre dish after mediocre dish.
    I agree Chinese food in the US is awful but then ethnic foods in all countries are awful. Canada included. I’m not sure why people think the Chinese food there is good. And have you ever tried pizza in another country besides the U.S. or Italy. It’s inedible. The pizza I tried in Korea was disgusting.

  • ll

    These Are Cantonese!!!!!!!!!!!
    Cantonese is the nasties and disgusting people in China. They will eat anything! Why do people keep calling these animal Chinese is beyond me. People need to learn the different between Cantonese and the rest of China. Ancient Chinese used to call Cantonese the Southern Barbarian. 90% of all Chinese in western World is Cantonese! These people is the one that started SARs in china because they ate a wild cat. IS NOT CHINA IS JUST Cantonese!

  • Andy

    You’ve apparently never eaten in the Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles. I’ve lived in China and Taiwan for many years and what you find in this mega Chinese community in Los Angeles is pretty much the same. It’s authentic, and has among other things the best sichuan and hunanese food I’ve had outside of these provinces and Taipei.
    Now if you’re just talking about high end Cantonese places (which it seems you are), L.A.’s got them too, but I can believe that B.C. might have better.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Lilly,
    Just about all foreign food (with the exception of Japanese) in Korea is awful. Same with Germany. But nearly all food in France is good and nearly all food in Japan is good. My theory is that France and Japan are food cultures and Korea and Germany are not. I like Sun Sui Wah and I also like Le Crocodile.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Il,
    Gosh, I thought Canton was in China.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com China Law Blog

    Andy,
    When in LA, I used to always frequent Wolfgang Puck’s because my wife’s best friend from college married the head chef there. I do recall eating really good Chinese food in LA once, but that was so long ago I might be making it up.

  • gerry tran

    The best chinese food I’ve had in the US was Los Angeles. The San Gabriel Valley area was like an american oasis of great chinese restaurants. I was actually shocked because people tell me SF and NYC is known for chinese food, but it is nowhere near the level as LA. It’s on par if not better than Toronto and Vancouver.

  • david

    I’d suggest you try the San Gabriel Valley, which is east Los Angeles. It will change your opinion about Chinese food in the United States. The reason the food is so good there is because there are wealthy chinese immigrants moving into the area, so they know their food, and the chefs make food to meet chinese rather than western expectation. That combined with unbeatable California produce quality. Vancouver is the best for cantonese. But for Taiwanese and other more regional, the cuisine in Los Angeles is astounding in breadth and range. Much more so than Toronto. Overall, it’s the most well-rounded of cities for Chinese food.

  • http://www.bestindianfoodcatering.com MyIndianRecipe

    Thanks for easy instructions on how to make Samosas. I will try to make them during holidays. I am just worried about the mess the sugar dough will create.

  • Jiushi Mingzi

    Lilly – June 26, 2007 9:39 AM: No. Not ALL ethnic food from ALL groups in ALL parts of the country are bad. That’s an absolute that doesn’t hold up. The opinion itself is flawed.
    ll – July 16, 2007 7:03 AM: Your post is not a kind, rational post. I ask the moderators to delete it. It’s not adult-like and gentlemanly to call Cantonese people the “nastiest” in China. Regionalism is not cool.