In response to my post asking for reader opinions on why Chinese food in the US is so cheap, I got some amazing, intelligent responses.
They ranged from Big Think’s Lindsay Beyerstein‘s hypothesis that it was cheap overhead and ingredients, to Boston food writer’s MC Slim JB‘s observation on different cultural perceptions of what makes a good restaurant. Friend Sam Jackson and Jimmy Li thinks it’s a marketing/image issue. Serious Eats intern Leah Douglas cites her history class and the economic class of immigrant foodways. Another SE intern, Aaron Mattis postulates it might be lack of restaurant culture.
But no one quite tackled the issue quite as thoroughly as my friend and Chowhounder/Chinese food expert Sam Lipoff who emailed me a 1,000 word treatise on the topic.
I’m posting it here, with some minor editing for conciseness and flow. Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the topic.
Why is Chinese food so cheap?
By Sam Lipoff
In the modern world, how does food become haute?
Typically by applying French technique to the traditional ingredients.
Conceptually, Chinese food doesn’t follow this rule, one possible reason why the American-Chinese version is inexpensive. The other line of thinking is sociological.
The sociological reasoning would say that since the first Chinese restaurants in the United States were started by very poor people, and served inexpensive food, this “register” for Chinese food is what the American public became accustomed to. By contrast, by the time Japanese immigrants came to the United States, post-Meiji restoration Japan was a wealthy and powerful country.
I’m sure there is some truth to this, but I don’t buy this explanation.
I think the major reason is more fundamental to the nature of the cuisine itself. Contemporary restaurant culture has a French conception of high end food. Modern, Western menus are protein-centric, so that you can order by saying “I’ll have the beef” “I’ll have the pork” or “I’ll have the salmon.”
Modern haute cuisine tends to feature artisanal, high-quality proteins, cooked in a simple method to bring out the natural flavors of the protein, often with a simple sauce that pairs well with those flavors, and some accompanying vegetables to balance those flavors.
However, Chinese cuisine is based on different principles. Chinese food often uses protein less for flavor and more for texture, and utilizes extremely complex cooking methods and involved sauces to provide the flavor. You might have better luck on a Chinese menu ordering by cooking method than by protein.
This doesn’t mean at all that Chinese food is inexpensive, but it means that expensive Chinese food isn’t just a matter of purchasing the kind of expensive proteins reared in the West for Western-style meals.
I have had extraordinarily expensive meals in China (by any standard) and while some have been in relatively shabby surroundings, most expensive (and terrific) meals in China, were in palatial surroundings with excellent service. Occasionally, one has expensive meals in China that are expensive because of rare ingredients (think bear paw, birds nest, and tiger penis) but those are exceptions, and are usually restaurants intended to impress business clients by how much you are spending.
More often, high-end food in China involves delicate and creative preparation of classical dishes with a bit of a unique twist, where every constituent ingredient is carefully selected and precisely arranged, which is not inexpensive, even if Niman Ranch pork isn’t involved. Lung King Heen, the three Michelin star restaurant in Hong Kong, is obviously Chinese, even if it occasionally incorporates Western ingredients, such as fois gras, into dumplings. I think that because high-end Chinese food is high-end in a different way than the normal process by which a cuisine becomes high-end in the United States, expensive Chinese food hasn’t yet taken hold in the US.
There also may be a slight mismatch between what “restaurants” mean in different cultures. In many Chinese restaurants in the United States, you can order a $6.25 lunch plate during the week. But you can also host your wedding banquet there, and the same restaurant will be transformed with white linen, and $200+ a person food, from abalone to geoduck clam. Try getting Per Se to serve you lunch for $6, or try getting a McDonalds to provide black-tie clad table service and Filet Mignon for a banquet.
Finally, I think there is something else going on too. It is extraordinarily difficult to get Chinese restaurants to produce authentic food for non-Chinese patrons. By contrast, it is extraordinarily difficult to get (real) Japanese restaurants to produce inauthentic food to cater to foreign tastes. I think this has something to do with deep ways in which these cultures define themselves. To Japanese it is obvious that foreigners should like authentic Japanese food, because Japanese food is obviously the best, so why wouldn’t everyone like it? To Chinese, however, the boundaries of the authentic are circumscribed by what foreigners can’t appreciate. If a foreigner says that he likes something, that thing must not really be truly Chinese, because only a Chinese could appreciate the subtleties of something truly authentic. Obviously I’ve made some major generalizations here, but I didn’t pull these out of thin air either — I’ve experienced this attitude many times, in both the US, China and Japan, with respect to food, literature, films, history, and other spheres.
There is another theory, advanced by Tim and Nina Zagat — due to the arcanity of immigration law, it is apparently next to impossible for restaurateurs to secure visas for talented chefs from China to come to the United States. Because there are also very few Americans who go to culinary school in China (while many go to France), this amplifies the shortage of well-trained Chinese chefs.
Finally, this very topic was addressed by a WSJ article a couple of years ago, although not in a way that I particularly agree with.