There can’t be a single town in the UK or North America that can’t boast at least a Chinese takeaway or a brace or two of Chinese restaurants, but have you ever wondered why it’s Chinese food that is so ubiquitous and not, say, Malay or Turkish?
J.A.G. Roberts has written China to Chinatown – Chinese Food in the West and it’s a book that goes some way towards charting the history of our (that is, western) relationship with those delicious dishes that have been loved and loathed in turn over the last couple of hundred years.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century Europeans living in China were very reluctant to even try Chinese food. It was often more of a reflection of social prejudice than dislike for a cuisine they knew nothing about. It’s true that there were (and still are) a few challenging dishes. The prospect of eating dogs was, and still is, rather distasteful to Europeans who are more comfortable eating a cute fluffy lamb or bunny.
Chinese food became more popular to westerners when they had the opportunity to eat Chinese food on home territory. Some of the first restaurants frequented by Europeans were in California where there was a sizable Chinese population, and having your own Chinese chef became a status symbol.
There have been various “Chinatowns” around Britain for a considerable time. These were not places that most of the indigenous population would frequent. They were considered as dens of vice with laundries, and the few eateries catered to the Chinese, with no concessions to western tastes.
These last decades have see our eating habits change, and now Chinese food is no longer considered strange or fear-provoking. “Instant” Chinese food was available in supermarkets in the 70s and fish and chip shops run by Chinese might also sell a spring roll or two.
Ken Hom had a popular TV cooking series in the 80s and he helped to present Chinese food as delicious, fresh and different. Most of us have a wok at home and now find Chinese restaurants that don’t offer European dishes, and these days you’ll have to ask for a fork. We have come to expect higher standards and are more eager to try authentic dishes.
The swings in popularity of Chinese food have had more to do with the politics of the moment rather than culinary preferences. More Chinese have come to the UK and food is big business. The days of deeply-felt suspicions are gone and the rumours of cat skins being found in dustbins are now consigned to the annals of urban myth.
It’s been a fascinating evolution and J.A.G. Roberts has penned an absorbing account. China to Chinatown probably tells us as much about our own attitudes as host community as it does about food. A worthwhile read.
China to Chinatown
Author: J.A.G Roberts
Published by: Reaktion Books
Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018