Food is an important way through which we experience our culture and connect with our home. When we are away from home, familiar dishes and ways of eating, even familiar tastes, are especially reassuring.
In a short BBC video clip, a Chinese student studying in Scotland is shown trying “Scottish Chinese food”. She is served a collection of popular dishes from a typical Scottish Chinese take-away. These include prawn crackers, fried chicken balls, chicken fried rice, lemon chicken and salt and chilli chicken.
The only dish she finds familiar is the salt and chilli chicken. “It’s the same taste as the Chinese,” she says, no doubt with a degree of politeness.
Some of the dishes are truly more British than Asian. But not all. What of prawn crackers or lemon chicken? Both of these dishes would be familiar to anyone from Southern China. She thought they were strange too.
This was not surprising, as given her accent she was clearly not from Southern China. These dishes may well be exotic to her, just as Hubei (or Chu) food may be to someone from Guangdong.
Even a familiar, such as fried rice, means different things to different people depending on what part of China you are from.
For me, certain styles of fried rice is very much comfort food. It’s a link with home, not only to fast food at Maxims or from cha chaan tengs, but to what I’d have at home. It is what I cooked as a student to get me through cold winters away from home, whether in the UK or in Beijing. It is what I still cook today.
But for someone from the North or West, where dumplings and breads are the staple, rice doesn’t have the same resonance.
In the video the traditional Chinese characters on the menu should have been a reminder that China is too large and diverse a place to understand simply as one homogenous culture. Chinese people, though sharing a familiar civilisational identity, are very different in their tastes.
This rich diversity of cultural and culinary diversity is what makes China all the more enticing. It should be celebrated. Showcasing this diversity will also promote a more complete understanding of China and what it means to be Chinese.
This diversity is promoted within China, were regional differences are celebrated. Yet this message seems designed only for internal tourism.
Outside of Asia, and especially in Western countries, the overriding message is driven by politics. China is overwhelmingly presented as a whole. Stressing one China, and one political entity, leaves little room to showcase the many blooms of Chinese diversity, which is generally under- appreciated. As someone who is part Chinese, and more specifically part Cantonese, I feel this is a great disservice to a culture that I love.
The underlying message of the BBC video is that what many people in Scotland, and perhaps the UK, think of as Chinese food is not really authentic Chinese food. This is true. Foods change to suits local tastes and local ingredients. This is true everywhere.
Few Scots would find much familiar in “Xi chaan”（西餐）, or Chinese Western food. To think of food in such broad terms is to acknowledge not what the food is, but what it is not: it is not local food. But with sophistication comes an understanding and appreciation of regional differences.
As with all Chinese people I know living abroad, I know where to go to get authentic Chinese food. I know where I can find authentic Szechuan, Shanghai and Cantonese food. I am sure the students in the video are the same, or if they are still relatively new to Britain, will do so in time.
Often this means knowing not only where to go but what and how to order.
When we first went to our local Chinese restaurant we made sure not only to order in Cantonese, so to be clear what dishes we want, but also to tell the waiters to cook these dishes in a way they would in Hong Kong. Thus we are not served soggy wet fried noodles, but crispy fried chow mien（炒麵）as we are used to having back home. Now that they now what we want, we get what we expect — and the food is good.
So a note to the BBC: Prawn crackers and lemon chicken are authentically Chinese. Just understand what is meant by Chinese food.
Chinese people, though sharing a familiar civilisational identity, are very different on their tastes.
作者認為：The rich diversity of cultural and culinary diversity is what makes China all the more enticing. It should be celebrated.