Chinese food is undeniably a part of British life. Perhaps as much a part of our life as drinking tea or enjoying a curry. Almost every Brit has had a Sweet and Sour, egg fried rice, some Wonton Soup or a vegetable spring roll at least once.
And almost anywhere you find people in the UK, you'll find a Chinese takeaway serving them. In the more built up or more multicultural areas you are likely to find a Chinese restaurant or two, serving the local Chinese and non-Chinese population alike.
But how did it get here?
Chinese food was brought to the UK by Chinese migrants, many of them arriving from Canton and Hong Kong. They brought their cooking along with the rest of their traditions and customs. Yet China itself has an enormous amount of variation in it's cuisine. A population in excess of 1.3 billion people and many thousands of years of recorded history have seen to that.
But, back in the UK, when we say we're 'getting a Chinese', how authentic is it to what actual Chinese people are actually eating?
Well, that depends on what region of China we're talking about. And who you might be buying your food from...
In the UK, the most popular form of Chinese food (and the one that probably arrived first) is 'Cantonese'. This is food from the Guangdong ("Canton") region of China. The cuisine that immigrants from Hong Kong brought with them is also strongly influenced by the Cantonese style.
In China there are four main 'schools' of cuisine (of which Cantonese is one). The others are...
"Lu" (food from the Shandong area)
"Yang" (food from the Jiangsu area)
"Chuan" (food from the Sichuan area)
The school of Cantonese food is referred to as "Yue".
Historically, Canton was a trading post, and so had access to many different kinds of imported food. It's for this reason that the Cantonese will eat a lot of different kinds of meat. And we mean lots. Asides from the accepted staples such as pork, chicken and beef, Cantonese food also includes duck tongues, snails, entrails and chicken feet. Another unusual trait of Cantonese cuisine is to serve soup before the main meal, which isn't particularly common in the rest of China.
Of course, many places in the UK will serve 'Anglicised' versions of Cantonese cuisine. You may find it harder to get some the more 'risque' dishes, such as the many kinds of offal available or the somewhat controversial shark fin soup.
Two Cantonese dishes that are quite popular (and easier to get) in the UK include...
Char Siu pork: "Char siu" literally translates to "fork burn". Usually made from either the loin, belly (which is fattier) or butt (relatively lean) of the pig, Char Siu is often seasoned with a sauce that contains hoisin and dark soy, and is served with rice, noodles, or in a bun.
Dim Sum: Literally translates "to touch your heart". In China, Dim Sum refers to enjoying a variety of small dishes in numerous courses, similar to Spanish Tapas or French hors d'oeuvres. In Britain Dim Sum is more often equated with a variety of steamed dumplings in many shapes and sizes that contain everything from roast pork to shrimp.
How to find authentic Chinese food in the UK: We ask the experts
We asked some native Chinese food experts to help us find more authentic Chinese food. Here's what they told us...
Lisa Tse, the head chef at Sweet Mandarin Sauces, offered this advice...
Chinese food in the UK is a snapshot of the colourful tapestry and wide choice of cuisine offered in China. The difference between what you get in a Chinese takeaway to what you get in a proper restaurant is quality and the types of dishes served.
I'd recommend people support their local Chinese, and ask the owner specifically to cook something that he'd typically have for dinner. That's the best way to get really authentic Chinese food."
Peter Tse, the Restaurant Manager at Royal China Queensway, says that it can be hard to
"Depending on where you dine the differences can be minimal or actually quite large as some restaurants will serve Chinese food that has been tailored to suit Western Tastes. They may use traditional recipes, but alter the cooking methods or ingredients accordingly. On the other hand, you can eat in some restaurants and the food is almost exactly what you would expect to find served in China."
So, where to eat then?
Jason Li has decades of experience in managing Chinese restaurants. He recommends that people in London looking for the most authentic Chinese food try the following restaurants:
Min Jiang (at Royal Garden Hotel)
Royal China Club (40 Baker Street)
Hunan (Sloan Square)
Bar Shu (China Town)
Empress of Sichuan (China Town)
According to Jason, traditional Chinese cooking involves fresh homemade soup stock and No MSG. He also recommends that the British family looking to try out some Chinese cooking start by steaming, with a traditional Chinese bamboo steamer.
Many know of Ching He Huang, the cook, entrepreneur, TV presenter and an author of multiple Chinese cookbooks. Ching believes that there are recognisable traits to authentic Chinese food, cooked at home. She describes them as...
- Cooking with a wok to get that "wok hei" flavour (the unique taste that a hot wok gives)
- The 'aromatic trio' of garlic, ginger, chilli
- Freshest produce - fish, shellfish and meats
- Fresh herbs - spring onions and coriander, and specific Chinese spices like five spice
- Chinese condiments - shaosing rice wine (or dry sherry), light and dark soy, toasted sesame oil and rice vinegar
Ching also says that it's easy to try out Chinese cooking by making simple Chinese soups, salads and stir fries.
"To the ruler, the people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven." - Ancient Chinese Proverb
As we said earlier, Chinese food is more a category of various cuisines. For the really adventurous amongst us, your best bet is to probably visit China, travel around and see what is on offer. There you'll find things like Cricket and scorpion 'popsicles', deer testicle soup (with wolfberries), squid sperm sacs (with scrambled eggs) and steamed chicken feet.
And as for us more timid souls, we can enjoy our next Friday night takeaway and perhaps consider if a native Chinese person would recognise what we're having for dinner.