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Discovering Authentic Chinese Food: How Is It Different Than Chinese Food Overseas?

Updated on November 15, 2020
Alessio Ganci profile image

Traveling is maybe one of the most beautiful opportunities we have. When traveling I also love to review hotels, restaurants & attractions.

Chinese food got the same destiny of many other ethnic cuisines. I am Italian and I realize dishes like pizza, Fettuccine Alfredo, pasta with meatballs and other recipes taste completely different abroad than our original ones (and with the exception of pizza, they are not even so popular in Italy). The same happens with Chinese food, which has been adapted in order to accomodate the taste of Westerners. Many people are still curious about how does authentic Chinese food taste. I love traditional Chinese recipes and always enjoy them with my Chinese friends even if I don't live in China: in fact I live in a city featuring a big Chinese community, so that traditional food of different parts of China is easily available here. Before writing about this delicious cuisine, let’s add a premise: we are not talking about dog meat, bats or other things most people with prejudices still believe are part of a Chinese ordinary meal.

The main Street of Milan's Chinatown: Via Paolo Sarpi. This street features most of the authentic Chinese food places you can find in Milan.
The main Street of Milan's Chinatown: Via Paolo Sarpi. This street features most of the authentic Chinese food places you can find in Milan.

Authentic Chinese Food Tastes Different

The most popular Chinese dishes overseas are actually belonging to the Cantonese cuisine. Also some dishes from Zhejiang (a region featuring many Chinese people who emigrate in order to open shops elsewhere) may be featured in our local restaurants. The same dishes are often adapted in order to accommodate taste of Westerners: fried rice, for example, is one of the most popular dishes overseas and it is even not the original one you can taste in China. The nearest Chinese recipes are Chaofan and Wenzhou rice.

Cantonese cuisine is only one of the various local Chinese culinary traditions, so you can easily realize there are many Chinese dishes that are not popular among Westerners. You can taste them only in Chinese restaurants targeted to their communities. Anyway there are people, even in Western countries, with growing curiosity about traditional Chinese food: that's why I have decided to write this article by sharing some of my favorite Chinese dishes ever. Obviously the dishes mentioned in this article are just an infinitesimal number compared to the entire Chinese food tradition.

Hotpot: The Chinese Fondue

The idea of hotpot is not only Chinese: you can find similar dishes also in other Asian culinary traditions. Hotpot is the symbol of authentic Chinese food culture for excellence, just like Neapolitan pizza in Italy. It is not only a dish, but it is a complete experience made of sharing, eating, cooking and socializing. You start by putting a pot at the centre of the table on a portable cooker (especially induction cookers are popular inside restaurants). In this pot, a broth made with water, salt and different spicies (there are various kinds of broths) is constantly boiling.

Picking lotus from the central pot.
Picking lotus from the central pot.
Some raw ingredients disposed around a central pot.
Some raw ingredients disposed around a central pot.

Around the pot you dispose several dishes, each one containing different raw ingredients: fishballs, beef and lamb slices, lotus, potatoes, dumplings, noodles, surimi, chives, tofu and much more. People sitting around the table have to cook their ingredients in the central pot, then they eat them, usually by also adding some sauces like the sesame sauce. Hotpot is an authentic moment of conviviality, in which people don't just eat some food quickly with a hand while using the phone with the other hand: by eating hotpot, cooking ingredients and spending even 2 hours by chatting with others, you discover the pleasure of spending some time together. Hotpot is generally very spicy and meat and fish are very popular: despite this, also non spicy broths and vegetarian broths are available, so that hotpot can be also enjoyed by vegetarians and people who don't like spicy flavors. Pots are also usually divided in two or three parts so that more than one broth can be chosen.

Xiaolongbao

Xiaolongbao are similar to dumplings and they are a popular Chinese dim sum dish. They are traditionally filled with pork meat even if also vegetarian alternatives are available. Finally they are steamed in small bamboo baskets. Xiaolongbao are quite common to find also in many Chinese restaurants targeted to Westerners, even if they are usually called "dumplings" just like the traditional ones.

The traditional Chinese xiaolongbao served in a bamboo basket.
The traditional Chinese xiaolongbao served in a bamboo basket.

Century Eggs

These are a kind of food many non-Asians are afraid to eat: they are basically eggs which have been preserved for around three months (less or more) in a particular solution made with ash, salt and clay.

Fresh tofu served with century eggs
Fresh tofu served with century eggs

They are traditionally eaten as an appetizer or employed in some recipes, like "fresh tofu with century eggs". There is definitely no reason to be afraid: century eggs are completely safe to eat and they are a really delicious Chinese ingredient.

Jian Bing (Chinese Crêpe)

This is a classic of Chinese street food. Jian Bing is a particular kind of salad crêpe made with eggs and fried flour, to which you can add pork meat, vegetarian ingredients or other ingredients. They are usually prepared on the moment and served with spicy sauce. In a Chinatown it is common to find street food sellers preparing this delicious and cheap dish, which is perfect to eat while walking.

Jian Bing
Jian Bing

Tangbao

have you ever wondered you can actually "drink” a dumpling? Tangbao is a particular kind of "dumpling" filled with soup you have to drink with a straw.

Tangbao
Tangbao

Chinese Skewers

Chinese skewers are another popular street food, even if they can be also eaten in a Chinese BBQ restaurant. They are made with the same ingredients you can use for hotpot (for example tofu, lotus, lamb, beef and chives) and they are usually served with spicy sauce. They are usually very cheap, especially if ordered from a street food corner.

Chinese Skewers
Chinese Skewers

Rice Claypot

This is a dish which is traditionally proposed inside a claypot. Rice is usually served with vegetables, different kinds of meat and eggs. This dish can be eaten by everyone, also vegetarians, as you can usually choose the ingredients you prefer. You can also add the level of spiciness you prefer in order to enjoy the taste you most like.

Rice claypot with vegetables and eggs
Rice claypot with vegetables and eggs

Fire Pot (干锅)

The idea of this dish is similar to hotpot, even if it is surely a smaller version of a Chinese dish you serve in a pot and then you leave cooking at the table. These pots are usually prepared with vegetables, meat and fish and, just like claypot and hotpot, they can be served with different variants.

A "fire pot"
A "fire pot"

These are just some of the various authentic Chinese food you can taste. Chinese culinary tradition is very huge and It deserves to be discovered, especially if you like Chinese culture and if you enjoy exotic and, sometimes, very spicy tastes (in many Western countries there is not the same idea of "spicy" you can actually find in some Asian countries, so the first approach with a spicy hotpot may be a little difficult the first times, until you get used to that level of spiciness). My tastes are similar to those of Chinese people and that's the reason why I enjoy eating with them authentic Chinese food, even the most spicy dishes.

And you, do you like this food? Don't forget to share your opinion in the comments!

© 2019 Alessio Ganci

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