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Insects, dog meat, MSG, evil tofu and other Chinese food fallacies
A China-based chef dispels common misconceptions surrounding Chinese cuisine
There are many and various myths surrounding Chinese food.
For foreigners like me that have lived in China for some time, these become somewhat irrelevant.
This is because many of us have become, or already were, adventurous eaters.
We're happy to put any myth to the challenge and find out the truth for ourselves. For better or worse.
But not everyone shares that spirit.
As more international travelers are visiting China, many seem beholden to a lot of hearsay about the food they'll find during their time here.
As a professional chef, I've cooked in the past 15 years on three continents -- North America, South America and Asia -- including the last four years in Hangzhou. I'm still surprised at how many visitors seem caught up believing the many fallacies about eating while exploring China.
Here's a list of the most common Chinese food misconceptions I've encountered, along with a few dining recommendations.
1. Insects and vermin = China's street food
Simply not true, even if you're on a mission of indulging in pure shock value.
While it's still possible to find in some areas -- most notably the Houhai (后海) and Nan luo gu xiang (南锣鼓巷) districts in Beijing -- fans of the bug-on-a-stick will be disappointed to discover most Chinese cities are devoid of these infamous "delicacies."
Increasing awareness among the general population about food safety and hygiene standards is putting the pressure on vendors peddling bugs and insects, with many cities organizing efforts to curb unregulated food sales across the country.
2. Chinese food is loaded with MSG
I find this misconception particularly funny, since it's usually being spouted to me by people who eat bags of chips, claiming consuming junk foods is “at least safer than getting tons of MSG in your diet.”
Unbridled MSG usage has been declining rapidly in China over the last decade, and health-conscientious restaurants in big cities are spearheading a non-MSG movement, such as vegetarian outfit Wu Guan Tang (五观堂) in Shanghai.
On the other hand, a vast majority of pre-packed, ready-to-eat foods and condiments available throughout the world, such as ketchup, are actually full of MSG, in one form or another.
Wu Guan Tang, 349 Xinhua Lu, near Dingxi Lu, Shanghai, 新华路349号, 近定西路, +86 21 6281 3695, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
3. You can't find good sushi in China
This is like saying you can't find good sushi in New York City.
Finding decent sushi and sashimi restaurants in China is no longer akin to knowing a secret handshake. Shanghai, for instance, has one of the world’s largest overseas Japanese communities.
In Gubei, the most Japanese-populated area of Shanghai, it’s not hard to spot authentic restaurants run by Japanese chefs for Japanese diners.
A few established Japanese chefs have also moved to Shanghai and are setting up shops. These include sushi chef Hatch Kenjiro Hashida at Geisha and fifth-generation tempura chef Toyoichiro Seki at Karaku.
Japanese expat communities in Beijing, Dalian and Hangzhou are also on the rise.
The Geisha, 390 Shaanxi Nan Lu, near Fuxing Zhong Lu, Shanghai, 陕西南路390号, 近复兴中路, +86 21 6403 0244, 5 p.m.-late, www.thegeisha-shanghai.com
Karaku, 2421 Xietu Lu, Bldg 4, close to Kongjia Garden, near Wanpingnan Lu, Shanghai, 斜土路2421号4号楼孔家花园旁边, 近宛平南路 +86 21 6438 3822, lunch, 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (last order), dinner, 5-9:30 p.m. (last order)
4. Way too salty, way too oily
I'll admit, there's a relatively high dose of salt and oil in many Chinese foods ... but not all.
The fiery, flavorful and oily cuisines of Sichuan and Hunan have little to do with the much blander, lighter fare in cities such as Hangzhou and Guangzhou. The latter two will spare diners from taking in loads of lipids on a daily basis.
Steamed Cantonese fish is famous for being light fare.
And in Hangzhou, you'll find even lighter dishes; for example, the Longjing xiaren (dragon well shrimp, 龙井虾仁) and Xihu cuyu (西湖醋鱼) at Zhiweiguan restaurant (知味观).
Zhiweiguan, 83 Renhe Lu, near Dongpo Lu, Hangzhou, 杭州市仁和路83号, 近东坡路, +86 571 8706 5871, 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., www.zhiweiguan.com.cn
5. No bread, just rice
Like crumbs, this myth needs to be swept aside.
Although I can personally vouch for the fact that Chinese like their bread on the sweet and spongy side, there's a growing number of bread shops catering to those who want something with a yeasty flavor and chewier texture.
You'll find things on the sweeter side at Chinese bakery chain 85 Degree in many major cities, as well as classic European favorites like plain French baguettes at the hugely successful expat-owned Ravaud French Bakery in Hangzhou.
Ravaud French Bakery, 80 Feng’er Xi Lu, near Fengtan Lu, Hangzhou, 文二西路80号, 近丰潭路, +86 571 8836 9808, 7 a.m.-9 p.m.
6. Stinky tofu is disgusting
True culinary adventurists know that a nice, funky chunk of unpasteurized Stilton can hit your palate's pleasure receptors just as hard as Hunan-style mala chou doufu (spicy and numb stinky tofu), to name one regional example of this versatile snack.
Spicy, vinegary and with a nice salty bite, this dish is available in almost every back street and side alley in central China. And while it's not nearly as expensive as raw cheese, it delivers an equally strong taste and smell sensation.
7. No heart-healthy foods
By a landslide, pork is the most consumed meat in China.
It's also quite difficult to find street-level restaurants that won't sneak a bit of bacon fat into vegetable dishes to punch up flavors.
On the other hand, a growing number of venues that have heard desperate pleas from vegetarians and vegans alike are serving foods that range from creatively veggie-friendly, to certifiably organic and meat-free.
Many Buddhist temples and monasteries in China serve daily vegetarian cuisine that's often available to the public, such as Xiamen's Nan Putuo Tang Temple (南普陀寺).
8. Everything is cheap
Although you could conceivably sustain yourself on US$5 per day in smaller cities, eating in first-tier Chinese cities is more expensive than you probably think.
While a hearty bowl of re gan mian (hot dry noodles) in Wuhan (capital of Hubei Province in central China) will set you back less than a dollar, a bowl of similar noodles will run you three to four bucks in Shanghai.
In major cities, there's no shortage of world-class restaurants, and world-class tabs.
If you're looking to drop big money, the legendary Whampoa Club will gladly remind you that China isn't necessarily cheap.
Whampoa Club, 6/F, 3 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu, near Guangdong Lu, Shanghai, 中山东一路3号6楼, 近广东路, +86 21 6321 3737, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m., www.threeonthebund.com
9. Dog is a common dish
Although dog is consumed in some parts of China, mainly in the north, it's quickly falling out of favor, especially in light of recent public outcry over inhumane treatment of canines.
Since more people are becoming turned off by the idea of eating dog, fewer venues offer it.
With scarcity, comes value, which also means dog meat is a poor choice for vendors in general.
Travelers can rest assured that the vast majority of restaurants in China are happy to let sleeping dogs lie.