Chinese food is one of my favorite cuisines—it’s a good thing Chinese restaurants are so ubiquitous! If you ever get tired of the local food while traveling, a Chinese restaurant can provide the perfect break: it’s easy to find a Chinese restaurant practically anywhere—from South America to Italy and beyond—no matter where you are, no matter how small the town. In fact, I think I’ve had Chinese food in every country I’ve ever visited. But is it really Chinese?
Chinese Cuisine Varies Around the Globe
When you try Chinese restaurants in different countries, you start to notice that each place has its own style of Chinese food. The difference might be subtle, but travel enough and go to enough Chinese places and you’ll be able to tell the taste is localized.
Recently at a Chinese restaurant in Montreal, I found a dish called “General Tao’s Chicken” (aka General Tsao’s Chicken) on the menu. I’d never seen this before in Japan, Europe or anywhere else. Imagine my surprise when my husband told me you can get this dish in just about every Chinese place in North America! One thing’s for sure, in China they’ve never heard of it. North America, I’ve discovered, has its own kind of Chinese cooking–and so do the Japanese.
The Japanese Take on Chinese Food
Thanks to its proximity to China, Japan’s style of Chinese food is more developed and distinctive than most. Think of it like TexMex: everyone knows that’s not really Texan or really Mexican, but something different, something in-between, that’s its own thing.
Some Japanese-style Chinese dishes, like gyoza, are so established in Japanese cooking that Westerners tend to assume they’re Japanese. Others like mapo tofu (spicy meat with tofu) and ebichili (chili prawns) share a name with dishes served in Chinese restaurants outside Japan, but taste nothing like the Chinese version. And even something as quintessentially Japanese as ramen has Chinese roots.
It’s quite ironic. These days, in the West, ramen restaurants stress a Japanese theme in the menu and in the decor—because ramen is as Japanese as it gets—right? In Japan, however, ramen places often have Chinese-themed decoration and menus— because, of course, everyone in Japan knows real ramen is Chinese.
What makes Japanese-style Chinese cuisine different from other interpretations? For one thing, unlike their counterparts just about anywhere else in the world, Chinese restaurants in Japan are often run by Japanese owners. I think that’s another reason why Chinese food in Japan developed independently from authentic Chinese cooking into something that plays shamelessly to its consumers’ tastes.
Chen Kenmin: The Father of Szechuan Cuisine
It’s worth mentioning that China is a huge country with many different regional cuisines and that most Chinese food both in the West and in Japan is based on Cantonese cuisine, because many Chinese immigrants are from Guangdong province in Canton.
Szechuan cuisine is also popular in Japan and plays a significant part in Japanese home cooking.
A single Szechuan (Sichuan) chef who later became a Japanese citizen, Chen Kenmin introduced Szechuan cooking with simplified and arranged recipes to Japanese people via “Today’s Cuisine,” a famous TV show that aired on Japanese national public television at the end of 1950s. A kind of Asian Julia Child, Chef Kenmin opened Japanese eyes to all sorts of exotic delicacies. In the process, though, he had to dial down the spiciness and substitute some ingredients for things that were easier to find in Japan. It’s thanks to Chen Kenmin that generations of Japanese women have been making mapo tofu that isn’t really spicy and ebichili using ketchup. In Japan, he’s known as the father of Szechuan cooking, but we know he’s really the father of Japanese-style Chinese food.
Gyoza vs. Jiaozi
Another good example is gyoza (jiaozi in Chinese)–grilled or stir-fried dumplings. Gyoza are not-too-distant cousins to the steamed dumplings served as dim sum. But that’s from South China, whereas gyoza’s roots are in North China. In the north, dumplings are grilled or boiled, not steamed: they’re a staple food and people eat tons of them in a single meal. The Japanese version takes the dumplings and moves them from the center of the dish to the side, along with some rice.
Gyoza became popular after the war, when defeated colonists came home from Manchuria. They brought their taste for potstickers back with them, and started to introduce gyoza in Japan. Compared to the original Chinese dumplings, the Japanese kind has thinner skin and it’s grilled, not boiled. Japanese gyoza filling consists of pork and green cabbage, unlike the Chinese gyoza, which contains a mixture of meats and Napa cabbage. You’ll often find garlic in the filling of gyoza, but you won’t with jiaozi.
In Japan, grilled gyoza is the most typical menu item in Chinese restaurants and the most popular side menu at ramen place. Japanese eat gyoza at home quite often, too. However, in North America, you never see grilled gyoza at Chinese restaurants. Instead, they’re at sushi bars, squatting alongside real Japanese food!
Why is that, I wonder? One clue is that these sushi bars are often run by Chinese people. To be honest, I find it weird. I was horrified to see people eating gyoza and sushi at the same time.
I will say this only once, so listen up and listen good: eating gyoza with sushi is an abomination. It flies in the face of all Japanese common sense about what goes with what. It’s like eating sushi with a side of meatloaf. It’s on that level of wrong!
(This is actually a handy rule of thumb for when you’re trying to figure out whether a sushi place is for real or not: if they’re serving gyoza alongside sushi, it’s not authentic Japanese.)
And yet, Japanese-style Chinese food is great. With some luck, maybe it can catch up in the West, too. Why not—after all, you can certainly find TexMex in Tokyo these days: why not Japanese-Chinese in New York?
Editor’s Note: We love fusion flavors! What’s your favorite fusion cuisine?
Kanako Noda started helping her mom make dinner in Shiga, Japan, at the age of four. An artist based in Montréal by day, she evangelizes on the Japanese way of eating by night. "There's a fantastic, dazzling variety of Japanese dishes that Americans keep missing," she says, "because they can't see past the thick undergrowth of sushi bars everywhere." Kanako believes in real food made by real people using real ingredients, and is allergic to food gimmicks, straight-from-the-lab ingredients and diet fads of all kinds. Most of all, she's into introducing Westerners to Japanese common sense on what you should eat, when, how much, how and with whom. Her Japanese home cooking recipe blog is at KanakosKitchen.com.