Something I’ve been told and I pass along

And also something that sounds reasonable but may or may not be.

Which is that Taiwan has the best Chinese food… least, the best in the classical styles. A little odd when discussing something which is pretty much unknown in China, General Tso’s Chicken (a bit like Chicken Tikka Masala in India):

The Taiwanese chef who invented General Tso’s chicken and made it a staple in America’s Chinese cuisine repertoire has died aged 98, according to Taiwanese and Chinese media.
Chef Peng Chang-kuei died Wednesday of pneumonia, the Taiwan News reported. Peng, a Chinese native who fled to Taiwan after the 1949 Communist revolution, began training as a chef at 13 years old.
He is believed to have invented General Tso’s chicken while cooking for a 1952 banquet in honor of US Seventh Fleet commander Admiral Arthur W Radford.

The point being not that but this:

The Chinese-born chef began his cooking career in his native Chansha, the capital of Hunan Province. He started as an apprentice to famous chef Cao Jingchen, who had previously worked as a private chef for a Nationalist official.

By the end of World War II, Peng worked for the Nationalist government and was in charge of the banquets. He fled to Taiwan when Mao Zedong’s Communists defeated the Nationalists in 1949 – and moved to the United States in 1973.

Those classically trained chefs did bugger off to Taiwan in 1949. And thus that’s where the influence of classical Chinese cooking still resides.

As I say, this is just something I’ve heard and it sounds reasonable enough. Just wonder whether it is? Anyone got experience of varied places out East? Is Taiwanese cooking substantially different to Mainland, Hong Kong, other parts of the diaspora?

21 thoughts on “Something I’ve been told and I pass along”

  1. Isn’t “Chinese food” a bit like saying “European food”? Pickled herring with pasta & yorkshire pudding, anyone?
    I know I’ve eaten with Indians/Pakistanis?Bangladeshis in their own homes & none of it has resembled in the slightest the filth offered in a UK curry house.
    For me, “Chinese” has always been a restaurant in the Gerrard Street area, seems to be patronised almost exclusively by Chinese. Cantonese cuisine, I suppose. And again, nothing remotely connected to a High Street Chinky.

  2. Bloke in North Dorset

    “For me, “Chinese” has always been a restaurant in the Gerrard Street area, seems to be patronised almost exclusively by Chinese. Cantonese cuisine, I suppose. And again, nothing remotely connected to a High Street Chinky.”

    Its the only place I’ll eat Chinese food outside China and HK (not visited Taiwan). Best restaurant, according to my Chinese colleagues, is the New World in Gerrards Place just opposite the fire station. They do an old style dim sum where they push the trolleys round so you can choose your dishes and take your time over lunch. And the service is quite authentic, if you know what I mean.

  3. I had a meal in a Chinese restaurant in Addis Ababa in 1983, Chinese decor, music etc. The only thing that was missing was any sign of anyone Chinese. All the staff were Ethiopians. As far as I can remember the food was OK though.

  4. Mainland Chinese cusine suffered from the general purging of the past in the Cultural Revolution.

    There’s only one place I’ve found in the UK that serves proper chinese food like what I had in HK, and I found it by accident. A small doorway between two shops that leads down some stairs to a basement restaurant that feels like I’m back in HK. Pick’n’mix food, eat as long/much as you like, stock prices on the TV in the corner… mmmm I’m hungry now.

  5. China’s a big place so it’s all about regional cuisine. Not that much in common between Szechuan and Cantonese for example.

    I’m no expert but based on 2 or 3 visits will say that food in Taiwan is bloody good. There’s a strong Japanese influence and of course it has had a long time to develop independently of China.

    You might not want to trust me though; I like a dodgy British ‘Chinky’ takeaway. Always get one in when I’m home.

  6. Oriental City in Amsterdam has a great dim sum menu. Get there for 11.30 for a table or you will be waiting at least an hour.

  7. Best ‘Chinese’ food you’ll find is Xinjiang style. If you get a chance to try that go for it. Not a big fan of Cantonese apart from Dimsum. Love Hunan and Sichuan stuff.

    As BiS said above, there’s not really any distinct ‘Chinese’ food, although often restaurants will often serve several styles together.

  8. Slightly connected – traditional Chinese music is similar, though I don’t think the practitioners went to Taiwan or Hong Kong so much as were Culturally Revolutionised away.

    If you look at other Asian countries they have music traditions stretching way way back (Korean music especially – astounding stuff ) still practised today. China? There are some old recordings but otherwise very much a desert with a few oases.

    Folks are taking it up again, but the lack of expert masters is astoundingly obvious.

  9. On a vaguely related note, the first time I had Greek food in the USA, I remarked upon how different it was from the Greek food that I’d had in the UK.

    Somebody (I forget who) told me that what’s on offer in the UK is actually Greek Cypriot food, versus dishes from mainland Greece in the USA.

  10. It’s part of a more general observation, that the Nationalists who fled China in 1949 took most of the good stuff with them including commercially viable fish stocks and particular crop and fruit cultivars, artworks and all kinds of other things. There is also the fact that Taiwan continues to use traditional Mandarin characters whereas China uses simplified characters. But there’s more than that because Taiwan was settled by Chinese from Fujian province over several hundred years and so there’s stuff here dating back to the Ming Loyalists who fled China in the 1660s.

    “Is Taiwanese cooking substantially different to Mainland, Hong Kong, other parts of the diaspora?”

    Dunno. When in Hong Kong I usually just ate in the hotel restaurant. My one experience of “local” Hong Kong food suggested by my then girlfriend was frankly, disgusting and nothing at all like what I am used to here in Taiwan.

  11. I just now got back from the local 24 hour fruit and veg and nick-nacks shop with, among other things, a large, refrigerated Pitaya (alternatively known here as “dragon fruit”), which is an absolute treasure. There are two kinds which appear identical on the outside but once the skin is pealed back you find that one type has a white flesh (see the wikipedia entry) and the other, more popular type, has red flesh – which has the at first alarming, but later amusing result of making your urine turn dark red. There is also a kind of “white pineapple” or “milk pineapple” grown here which has a milder, less tangy taste than the yellow pineapple people in the UK will be familiar with.

  12. Lots of Taiwanese food seems to have tea in it as the flavour base. They’re proud of their stinky tofu (definitely a once in a lifetime experience), though I hear it’s made in some nontraditional process now (as with lots of things that used to take time). There is a fair amount of beef in the cuisine. Beef with noodles in broth is some kind of national dish.

    In “real” China, I’ve honestly only had mall food and hotel food. Not sure I’d take the risk on street vendors. Hong Kong is a real foodie paradise on all levels, from street snacks through markets, beachside greasy spoons to top-end restaurants.

  13. “There is a fair amount of beef in the cuisine. Beef with noodles in broth is some kind of national dish.”

    Yes, but since something like half the population are either Buddhist or Tao, they can’t eat beef.

  14. A Taiwanese friend of mine maintained that the best traditional Chinese food is to be found in Singapore, Taiwan and Adelaide: in the reverse order.

    Only been to one of those, so I don’t know.

  15. When I was an engineer cadet in the mid 70’s, myself and the other eng cadet went to an open air restaurant in either Keelung or Kaohsiung in Taiwan, with the two Hong Kong Chinese fitters off the ship. They had a large aluminium bowl full of green “veg” which was cooked at the table with a gas burner. When it had reduced down somewhat it was declared ready to eat. It all tasted quite strange and for “veg” was also rather crunchy and at the same time chewy. The following morning my stomach was in total bulk, with contractions, movements and generally real unhappiness. I had a chat with Shum one of the fitters and asked what sort of vegetables it was we had eaten the night before. “What vegetables”? “The ones in the bowl” I replied. “No, no vegetables. Sea squirt, sea cucumber, sea slug, anemone – – – – – ” To this day I have never been able to eat sea food, other than white fish and salmon.

  16. @BiT,

    True – was a Buddhist friend who made us have some though. And on another occasion took us to the most incredible vegetarian buffet I have ever seen, or ever will.

  17. @Daedalus

    That sounds vile – the sea cucumbers alone would have me reaching for the bucket. That they were “crunchy” should have told you something was up; in my experience Taiwanese prefer their vegetables overcooked and soft – the girlfriend complains otherwise, and low-end restaurants tend to overcook their vegetables to the point where, say, a broccoli will have gone completely limp and fall apart under the slightest touch of the fork.

  18. The best Hong Kong food is to be found in Toronto and Sydney, provided that they use the produce of Canadian and Australian agriculture and livestock.

    There aren’t enough Chinese people in the UK or rest of Europe to compete successfully (just like real Indian food that Indians eat, is better in London than Vancouver).

    stephen is roughly right, but Adelaide also doesn’t have that many Chinese. Of course Sydney has suffered from an influx of shit people from the PRC lately causing a decline; the old guard is still around though.

    Restaurant ingredients in Hong Kong come from shit farms in the PRC (go to any expat-targeted supermarket in HK and you can pay double for European/AU/NZ/Canadian ingredients) and since they don’t have any natural flavour you need to add lots of sauces and spices to make them not taste like the shit they grew in, rather than being subtle about it like proper chefs.

    Farms in the USA suffer from the same problem, but of course there are better standards, hence Chinese food in New York and San Francisco only comes third place.

    Tim: there are eight types of Chinese food and there is no specific “Taiwanese” cuisine. To understand Taiwan, assume no Brexit and 500 years of EU propaganda. Next-gen Putin takes over the continent, and all the European elite flees to Britain. The resulting cuisine is not going to be “British” but still “French” and “Greek” and “Italian”, despite the people believing they are all “European” and all speaking a single language – the type of English that a German who can’t speak French speaks to a Frenchman in Brussels nowadays.

    Bloke in Taiwan: on that note, you should really know better than to refer to “Mandarin characters”.

    BiND: New World is shit. They use Sainsburys basics ingredients yet charge as though they buy the top end of Waitrose stuff. Yes, they are slightly more traditional in that they cook all the food at 10am and keep it heated in trollies for hours, while everyone coughs and sneezes into them. They also have the tradition of employing illegal immigrants and shutting down every time the latest incarnation of the Home Office raids them.

  19. “…you should really know better than to refer to “Mandarin characters”…”

    The pendantry is strong in this one.

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