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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Chinese food in the West

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The quality and variety of Chinese food in the West, Spain included, has increased significantly in the last two to three last decades thanks to the massive immigration of Chinese nationals, which created a demand for authentic dishes from the Middle Kingdom’s long culinary list.

Before that, most Chinese restaurants used to be run by Cantonese from Hong Kong and a few by people from Taiwan, then known as Free China. These mostly gone establishments catered to the local taste and were only acceptable if you couldn’t take or never had the genuine stuff, like it was the case with me before arriving in Taiwan for the first time in 1988.

Almost every dish was prepared with a mysterious, soy-based brown sauce and some recurring ingredients like canned bamboo. You got the impression that only the type of meat changed…

Of course your expectations shouldn’t have been too high in the first place, as for many years Chinese food was probably the cheapest option for dining out available anywhere in Western Europe.

In 1997, I met an old lady in Peking who in 1960 had opened a Chinese restaurant in Augsburg, a city in the Western Bavarian region of Swabia. She told me that back then very few Germans were ready for any exotic kitchen-related experiments and therefore she had to adopt her fares completely or close down again very quickly.

My mother used to take me to one place near our home in Berlin, named after a famous freshwater lake in Hangchow, the capital of the province of Chekiang.

I was fine with it until I returned from East Asia in 1989. For me there was no way back to pseudo Chinese cuisine. I bluntly told her that she shouldn’t waste her money on me anymore.

Luckily, a couple of years later a much more authentic eatery opened very close by. Although my father used to eat like a bird, he was also very open to new things and we both became regular customers there.

As plenty of Asians settled in the reunited German capital in the 1990s, I had more and more choices and didn’t care too much about the usually bad service, especially as this was a pretty common problem in the city.

Yesterday I had a quick bite at a place located in Valencia´s Chinatown, which consists of a few streets next to the Estación del Norte, the old, very beautiful railway station.

It was nice, particularly as I´m quite tired of the Spanish food I get here. But compared to the amazing culinary variety I used to get in Taipei, it’s also somehow basic and quite heavy on pork.

Both the xiao longbao and the baozi, different types of filled steamed buns, contained no vegetables at all. In Taiwan, you always have options for vegetarians!

To see that one of my favorite Chinese restaurants had closed for good, probably due to the ongoing pandemic, made me very sad. Unfortunately, it’s not the first one in the area and most likely others will disappear as well.

The last time I tried to have dinner there with some friends we cancelled our reservation on the spot, which really made me feel embarrassed as I had negotiated the menu and the very fair price in advance.

A sewage pipe next to the entrance had broken that afternoon and the stench was unbearable for some of them. That obviously turned out to be a bad omen, as I never had a chance to return.

Luckily, the neighboring place offering one of China’s most famous and representative dishes, Peking duck, is still in business. I have to go back there soon, as they offer a portion for two persons at a very reasonable price, a concept that even in Taiwan doesn’t exist.

Usually, this impressive eat is very expensive in the West, especially if you want to enjoy the real deal. Remember that the soup always comes at the end, freshly made with part of the bones!

So I’m quite happy that nowadays I can get some decent Chinese cuisine in Valencia. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to be back in Taipei, a gourmet’s paradise for every budget. See you soon, my true love!

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  1. You have to understand that what people in the West know as “chinese food”, is actually “chinese-american cuisine”, an admixture created in the USA during the XIX century, by chinese immigrants but using local products. And whoever knows american cuisine, will know that it’s tasty but heavy on meat, and definitely not plenty of vegetables. Also, the social extraction of those immigrants didn’t keep them familiar with the high tradition of chinese cuisine. In other words, what we understand as “chinese food” has little to do with the rich chinese culinary tradition. Rather, it’s just another american export of simple, cheap fast-food staple. In short, it has as much similarity to chinese cuisine as spaghetti with meatballs to italian cuisine.


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