In a recent culinary debate that swept across social media, a video showcasing the contents of a British Chinese takeaway order ignited a fervent discussion on authenticity and tradition. While some Twitter users expressed sheer disgust, others proudly defended the cultural amalgamation that defines British Chinese cuisine. As the controversy unfolded, it became evident that the terms “authentic” and “traditional” held powerful connotations, revealing the intricate connection between culinary identity and the evolving nature of food.
Defining authenticity in the realm of food is a complex task, as dishes often undergo a process of authentication over time. What might be perceived as innovative or adaptive initially can eventually solidify into a traditional culinary offering with a distinct identity.
Chinese cuisine serves as a prime example of this phenomenon, transcending national boundaries and blending ethnic influences. The history of Chinese food, both within China and across the globe, is a rich tapestry woven with threads of trade, migration, and colonialism.
In the UK, the narrative of Chinese food began to take shape in the 1950s, driven by the migration of individuals from former British colonies like Malaysia and Hong Kong. Many of these migrants found employment in the food sector, often taking over vacant fish and chip shops in small towns and villages. In adapting to local tastes and circumstances, they expanded their menus to cater to those accustomed to traditional British fare.
The introduction of roux-like curry sauces into Chinese takeaways had a similar genesis. Inspired by the Indo-Pakistani migratory flow that brought diverse culinary influences to the UK, these sauces seamlessly integrated into the British penchant for thick, flavourful gravies. Comedian Pierre Novellie humorously encapsulates British cuisine in a single word – “wet” – highlighting the adaptability of migrants in shaping local culinary preferences.
Beyond the borders of the UK, Chinese takeaways have left their mark on global culinary landscapes. In Australia, Chinese food has a history dating back to the 1850s, when Chinese cookhouses catered to gold miners in remote areas. Today, it’s a common joke among Australians that a town isn’t complete without a pub and a Chinese takeaway, often being one and the same. The Australian variant of Chinese cuisine diverges from its British counterpart, favoring sweet flavours and vibrant colours over the brown and gravy-laden offerings found in the UK.
The legacy of colonialism has also played a significant role in shaping Asian cuisines around the world. In the US, UK, and Australia, Japanese dishes like ramen noodles and gyoza dumplings have gained popularity, reflecting the movement of people, ideas, and foodstuffs across borders. Barak Kushner, in his book “Slurp,” traces the history of ramen and gyoza, revealing how Chinese noodle varieties introduced by migrants in port cities influenced the consumption of wheat-based noodles in Japan.
The interplay between China and Japan after World War II further solidified culinary connections. Japanese soldiers and farmers who had been stationed in China returned home, opening local Chinese restaurants that drew inspiration from their time in the Middle Kingdom. Similarly, British troops stationed in Japan introduced local chefs to curry powder and roux-like sauces, laying the foundation for the evolution of dishes like Katsu curry sauce – a distant relative of the British Chinese takeaway.
The recent social media trends surrounding British Chinese food underscore its unique significance in local identities. Cuisines undergo phases of innovation, adaptation, and localization, ultimately earning the label of authentic or traditional through these processes. The passionate defense of British Chinese food on platforms like TikTok highlights the enduring importance of the humble takeaway and the substantial contribution of Chinese migration to shaping British culinary identity.
As the debate rages on, it is essential to appreciate the dynamic nature of food, acknowledging that authenticity is not a fixed concept but an evolving journey through time, culture, and diverse influences. The British Chinese takeaway stands as a testament to the rich tapestry of global culinary exchange, where traditions intertwine, adapt, and thrive in response to the ever-changing palates of communities around the world.