CULTURE Discovering authentic taste of Chinese cuisine


Discovering authentic taste of Chinese cuisine

20:42, October 26, 2018

The Chinese culture, and its cuisine in particular, is something people the world over feel they are at least acquainted with. Several major capitals have a Chinatown, a nestled enclave that offers a displaced glimpse of China. London’s Chinatown relocated to Soho in the 1970s when rent was cheap and crime was rampant; it has since become the epicenter of Chinese culture in the UK, boasting a cornucopia of Asian products.


A chef is making xiaolongbao. (Photos:

Yet, Chinese food in the West is a spoiled shadow of the authentic food eaten in China, something that is fully appreciated once you have tried the real thing for yourself. The prevalent assumption among eateries in the Western world seems to be that it is unlikely the local palate would enjoy Chinese dishes in their native form.

Arriving in Shanghai from abroad, it is a struggle to determine the exact outline of the city’s distinct cuisine. It seems the melting pot created by widespread immigration and increased global influence is the major cause of this confusion.

The chief instruction when seeking out local food seems to be to take to the streets. The frenetic atmosphere of the cramped roads is mildly distressing to a newcomer; reams of cars toot horns and jostle past one another and pedestrians refuse to be constrained to the pavement and instead interweave amongst them. Amidst this chaos, the air is saturated with an array of aromas from the dotted food stalls.

At these various stands, numerous options for street food are available to the passers-by. Personally, the most memorable of these Shanghai delicacies was the “little caged buns” otherwise known as xiaolongbao: a decadent dumpling of soup and pork that is ubiquitous across the city. 

In my initial few days in Shanghai, I bought my first one from a street vendor near Jing’an Temple while exploring the city. I took an uncertain bite into the small parcel of goodness and a lot of the hot soup inside instantly dribbled down my chin but, persevering, I chomped a mouthful of the hot knuckle of pork inside. In my enthusiasm, I ended up burning my mouth in the process, but it was worth it for the salty delicacy. I was immediately hooked.

Upon subsequently returning to the UK, it became conspicuous how xiaolongbao was largely absent from the menus of Chinese eateries, even those that professed to specialize in Shanghai cuisine. This seemed in part to be owing to the complex and protracted construction required to make them. They tend to be priced higher than more humble forms of dumpling due to the skill required to contain the pocket of broth and meat inside.


One of the most memorable Shanghai delicacies is the “little caged buns,” otherwise known as xiaolongbao.

However, Western attitudes are changing and authentic Chinese food is gaining prominence. It is now ironically this necessary craftsmanship that is leading to the increased interest and exposure of xiaolongbao, as Western foodies are seeking out unfamiliar and authentic foodstuffs. In turn, this desire to seek out legitimate Chinese food has led to the expansion of chains such as Din Tai Fung to the West. The upscale dumpling empire now has nearly 160 restaurants across the globe, and there are plans to open the first branch of the powerhouse chain in London later this year.

Restaurateurs such as Din Tai Fung seem to expand beyond the confines of the East in an attempt to change the warped and limited Western conception of what Chinese food consists of. The current trend is seeing companies follow in the wake of this international sensation, as new Chinese eateries continue to set up shop across the Western world.

Last year saw the continued exposure of the xiaolongbao delicacy, and that in turn led to virtual ire in relation to their treatment. Time Out London revealed its ignorance when they published a video on their Facebook page showing diners “exploding” their xiaolongbao. The video only served to irritate Asian food lovers, who responded in a landslide of angry comments saying it was not the correct way to eat the dumplings, as the prized soup within was drained out and wasted. 

The debacle, for which Time Out apologized, demonstrated the legitimate lack of education in the West with regards to the Chinese cuisine and eating habits. 

However, it also indicates their keen dedication to grabble with the realities of Chinese cuisine, where it seems there is such an array of dishes it would take a dizzying stretch of time to plough through and sample everything. The point of vital importance for Westerners eating Chinese cuisine both abroad and in China is not to settle for the bland adulterated Chinese food, but to seek it in its authentic form.

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