Man, if there's one thing that I learned while operating a Chinese restaurant, it's that everyone seems to think that they're an expert in Chinese food. For example, you'll get the one customer who comes in telling me that he/she is a huge fan of Chinese food and that my restaurant serves the best...then he/she proceeds to order stuff like chicken balls, garlic spareribs, eggrolls, chicken fried rice, etc.

Then we get the customers who order what they think is the more "authentic" stuff...things like Imperial Chicken, General Tso's Chicken, Hunan Beef, etc, and proceed to tell me that the dishes I serve can't be authentic because they had a different version at the local Chinese buffet house.

Anyway, my point is this...most Westerners will never truly get a taste of authentic Chinese food unless they actually eat at a Chinese family's house. What you get at the restaurants, even at the "authentic" ones, are watered-down and generally Western-friendly. The only exception is probably dim sum where you get all the same dumplings and entrails that we enjoy. Otherwise, you're out of luck unless you can read the Chinese menus where you'll find true stuff like stinky salted fish (the smell itself would probably drive you away). This is also true for many other Asian cultures...for example, what you eat at a Thai restaurant is also watered-down because most Westerners would never be able to handle the intense flavours of true Thai food.

My advice for fellow westerners who find themselves face to face with a real chinese meal: close your eyes, open your mouth, and begin to chew. It'll end up tasting good--no matter what it looks like--I promise.

Above all--this is of the utmost importance--don't listen to your hosts when they tell you what you're having. Ignore them. Find out what's actually in the food your eating AFTER you're done.

I don't wanna sound disrespectful--I learned to love chinese food. But the first time I, a sheltered young adolescent north-american male, used to hot-dogs, roast beef, and the like--found myself at a friends for supper, face to face with chicken's feet, shark's skin, cow's tongue, jelly fish, and scads of veggies I'd never heard of or seen before...

Food from China (duh).

What's interesting to note is there are many, many regions within China that each has its own different style and types of food. China herself is a huge, huge country with an extremely long history and has therefore much varied types of cuisine. The main difference between food within China and many other ancient countries such as India is there is no restriction in the type of animals or plants used. There is an old Chinese saying: "Whatever flies the sky and walks the earth, it all may be eaten." (and swims too, seafood is a very important part of Chinese cuisine as well).

My own experience is I am a third generation American brought up in an old fashioned Chinese household. The dishes my mother makes are very traditional and some are not even found in restaurants. The region my family is from is Taishan, a region within Guangdong province (Also spelled Canton in the old form of Chinese/English conversion). The Cantonese are the most visible Chinese culture to the outside world, Chinatown's around the world are filled with the sounds of Cantonese. While most of China was much more isolationist, it was the Cantonese that generally emigrated out of China until recently. This is why a movie such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sounds different than if you went to a North American Chinatown. The dialect spoken in the movie is Mandarin, the official dialect of China. This however is changing; you can har Mandarin, Cantonese, Fukkienese, Hakka, your occasional senior citizen speaking Taishanese, among others all spoken in Chinatowns across the US and Canada these days.

The dish of chop suey and most other dishes in American Chinese takeouts are mostly Cantonese styled dishes made with Western ingredients with scatterings of other influences like Szechuan. This is because the original emigrants that you would read in American history books were generally Taishanese in origin. Many if not most of the railroad workers that worked on the Transcontiental Railroad were from my region.

Some examples of Taishanese or Cantonese cuisines in my house include:

  • pig knuckles prepared two different ways, either in doh goi or marinated in num ngoo-ee. (sorry I don't know their names in english)
    For any Irish folks out there, a similiar dish is a plate of steaming crubeens.
  • various meat pies all made with pork and either Asian mushrooms or Chinese sausage.
  • roasted meats. These are the big ol' animals you see hanging in front of Chinese restaurants to show their freshness to customers. They include: roasted pork, bbq crispy pork, soy sauce chicken, among a few others. You can order them by the pound.
  • boiled leafy veggies of all different types such as bok choy, taiwanese bok choy, bean sprouts.
These are rice dishes. That is, they are meant to be put in the middle of the table while you grab your rice bowl in your hand. With chopsticks, you grab a piece of veggie/meat and bring it to your rice bowl and let the flavor of the food go with a few scoops of rice into your mouth. Most dinner tables will have an assortment of meat and veggie dishes right in the center within reaching distance.

Some non-rice dishes would include:

  • soup noodles. We love our soup noodles and they are usually pork-bone or beef-bone based soups boiled for awhile to get all its flavor. Veggies or fish can also be added. Also, Asian noodles in general are made with egg or rice and have many, many different forms and texture. Ramen noodles are the White Castle of soup noodles. They very, very vaguely resemble the real thing and tastes nothing like it.
  • jok. In English, I believe this is called congee. This is a rice porridge for brunches or breakfasts. Usually made in many various forms that could include tripe, pork, and other things I can't translate into English. Many times, you eat it with yoo ja gooey which is a fried breadstick.
  • sticky rice in lotus leaf wraps. They usually come with chicken, pork, sausages, eggs, and other delights. Comes in two forms. The smaller and more flavorful is doong which has the ingredients put within before steamed so the flavor of the lotus leaves and meats are propagated through the whole bundle. The other is much bigger and the ingredients added later. Both can be purchased in Cantonese restaurants.
  • meat buns. Buns either white (steamed) or baked (golden) with roasted pork, beef, even eggs and taylor ham. Also more of a brunch or lunch dish. These are the equivalent of a sandwich; fast and easy to eat.
  • dim sum. This is a brunch dish and very close in concept to Spanish Tapas. You can go to a dim sum/tea house and have waitresses push carts around the tables. When you want something, ask for it and she'll add it to your tab. Weekends are an especially popular time for dim sum. There are also many, many dim sum dishes including:
    • then jok goon, pork rapped in pressed bamboo sheets
    • shu mei, pork and small shrimp dumpling in a wrap, looks sort of like wontons but bigger
    • ha gou, shrimp dumplings in a white wrap

This is only the tip of the iceberg with just Cantonese style food. A few (very few, sorry!) non-Cantonese dishes I know include:

  • cold jellyfish. An appetizer mostly. It has the consistancy of jello but tastes like nothing else.
  • Shanghai style soup dumplings. Small dumplings steamed with various fillings including pork, pork with mushrooms, seafood, and others. You have to put it on a soup spoon before eating it. Once bitten, louds of juices that are sealed come out. The juices and meat are very delicious together.
  • pork and salted cabbage soup noodles. A favorite one of mine. Soup noodles are as loved in many regions of China, Vietnam, and Japan as much as the Cantonese love them.

There are literally thousands of Chinese dishes. Each region of China has hundreds of its own regional dishes. Consider the fact that there are roughly 40 or so dialects of Chinese by itself different enough that one can't understand the other. I speak Taishanese and can't understand a word of Mandarin or Fukkienese. I can't even imagine how many thousands of dishes would constitute the huge world of Chinese cuisine.

The chinese recipes section has a huge list of various dishes. This article gives a wee bit of background into some of those dishes you see from my very limited perspective.

(Note: the Chinese in italics is Cantonese or Taishanese for any confused visitors)
(Note 2: yes, we eat enough pork based dishes to put any religious Jewish or Moslim person into a state of convulsions, shock, and then coma)

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