If you’re visiting or living in a small town, you might notice that your food options can be quite scarce. But rather than resorting to cooking at home all the time, we like to think of scoping out the best restaurants in these areas a worthy challenge.
A lot of restaurants in smaller towns offer “Western” Chinese food, such as Kung Pao Chicken, Egg Foo Young, and the like. Those foods are delicious in their own right and deserve all of the praise and take-out orders that they get. But if you’re craving for authentic Chinese food, then things become more of a challenge. However, if considering the right factors and being a little observant, you can find a satisfying and authentic Chinese meal with these simple tips.
1. Know your regional specialties
China is huge, and it’s important to remember that with more than 20 provinces, the term Chinese food can hardly begin to describe what type of food it actually is. Take Chinese pastries for example. Steamed rice cakes from Northern China are bound to be vastly different from steamed rice rolls from the South, and a far cry altogether from fortune cookies, which are purely American.
Geographical regions can also determine the predominating taste of their traditional dishes. Much of Northern Chinese food will be salty or fermented because of the cold temperatures there, while warmer climates in areas like Shanghai will give way to sweeter tastes. Southern regions in China have a wide variety of tastes because of their broad availability of fruits and vegetables, and will feature some exotic tropical fruits you may have never seen before. Of course, if you are averse to spicy food, you might not like what Sichuan (Szechuan) food has to offer!
The key to finding authentic Chinese food is understanding what regions the restaurant specializes in. Usually, the more specific the region, the more authentic the restaurant will be.
2. Look for disorder
It’s commonly said that if you want to find a good Chinese restaurant, just go where you can find a lot of Chinese. Are the customers speaking Chinese? Are the waitstaff Chinese? Are there Chinese menus? If the answer is yes, it is a good indicator that the food caters to Chinese people, meaning authentic fare.
However, what is relatively unmentioned is the general mood of the restaurant. Western restaurants typically seek to exude a relaxed atmosphere, where you feel like you can stay for hours. This is not traditionally true for most restaurants in China.
Especially around brunch time, there will be a line of elderly Chinese people yelling orders. People are generally scrambling around each other to get their food the fastest. The atmosphere is noisy, crowded, and rushed. If you really want to find an authentic Chinese restaurant, you will see lots of chaos and disorder. Don’t hesitate to join the crowd and call for some service. It’s not rude to do so at traditional Chinese places, it’s expected!
3. The right ingredients matter
Many people associate Chinese food with its North American interpretations, with dishes such as Broccoli Beef, Orange Chicken, and Crab Rangoon. However, there is an inherent flaw with this assumption since most people in China would have never tried or even heard of these dishes.
Broccoli Beef would be unheard of because the Western version of broccoli never existed in China, and people there rarely eat beef because it is very expensive there. Instead, Chinese people would eat gai lan and pork as a popular side dish.
Orange Chicken makes a strange combination since Chinese people generally reserve oranges for dessert. Instead, their sauces would be sweetened with pineapple, or more commonly with just sugar.
Crab Rangoon would not sound appealing to most Chinese people since many of them are lactose intolerant. Cheese in general is not common, and pairing cream cheese with crab in a deep fried wonton would be a very bizarre concept. Instead, Har Gow, a steamed dumpling filled with shrimp, is a more authentic choice and a popular dish for dim sum.
Also, if you’re feeling adventurous, look for special ingredients that would not be popular with most Western customers. Many authentic Chinese restaurants will include ingredients such as chicken gizzards, intestines, pig’s blood, black fungus, and durian. Don’t be afraid to try something unfamiliar. You might love it!
There’s a reason why Western Chinese food is so different from its traditional Chinese counterpart. When the first Chinese immigrants landed in North America, they often had little cooking experience and only opened restaurants to make a living. Furthermore, they had to deal with the vastly different foreign ingredients that were available to them. In order to make do with the new ingredients and the lack of cooking skills, they used heavy sauces and deep frying to mask the otherwise unsavoury taste. This is why North American Chinese food is often synonymous with cheap and greasy meals that are drenched in sauce, and more associated with junk food than any notion of healthy food.
Of course, this makes it the antithesis of traditional Chinese food, which uses a variety of cooking methods to create nutritious, wholesome meals that bring out the flavours of the ingredients themselves. Looking for an authentic Chinese food should not be hard with our tips. Enjoy your next adventurous meal!