Chinese Food Quirks

Most of my friends back in the U.S. have long since ceased to write me with questions about China, other than “are you still there?! When are you coming home??” Recently, though, my friend Dan wrote me this question:

so here’s a question for you: you know how in the US 95% of the chinese food restaurants you eat at taste EXACTLY the same? i know u can find a few places that taste different, but for the most part it’s like they all use the same recipes for everything. also, the menus (both printed and up front) are almost always the same too. so my question is: is there like some business start up plan or special school in China where everyone goes to learn american style chinese cooking? and is american style really way different than authentic chinese style? cause if it is then the american ‘chinese’ food places must have learned the american style of cooking somewhere….
as you can see, a very pressing question.

Dan brings up an interesting question, but one which I’m unable to answer. Does anyone know the answer to why Chinese restaurants tend to be so uniform in the U.S.? I suppose maybe it’s quite different in California or New York….

As for the differences between authentic Chinese food and American Chinese food, I’ll make a small list here (commenters feel free to add to it).

The food in China:

  • is smothered in MSG
  • often contains lots of bones, bone fragments, and shells which must be spit out or otherwise removed
  • doesn’t normally encompass “beef with broccoli” (and I sure wish it did!)
  • includes dishes like chicken feet, pig brains, live shrimp, dog meat, and snails
  • usually contains no raw vegetables
  • doesn’t usually include any dessert but fruit (fortune cookies, being a Chinese American invention, are of course absent and almost completely unknown)
  • varies greatly from region to region, city to city, and restaurant to restaurant

John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Er..,
    In America chinese restaurant startups almost exclusively come via crucial advice from other people who have learnt the hard way what laowais want.

    fried rice
    pictures on menus
    white meat
    …, and so on. Strangely enough the chinese community in America can be ridiculously tight (cantonese mostly) such that they deem it necessary to learn from each other.., unfortunately the it’s all generalized so there’s the belief that ALL laowais need these things exactingly same in order to patronize their restaurant with less hassle.

    Think about it if you are an owner/work you will have a set amount of things to memorize and relate to in English because outside of those items the Laowai won’t abrasively engage you in conversation anyway…, unless you are cute…,

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