Tony Karon in Rootless Cosmopolitan:
I’ll freely admit to being a sucker, at least occasionally, for the sweet and starchy Hunan/Canton/Sichuan fare — cooked by people who were not chefs in their home country — that we know as “Chinese” on these shores. But now I learn, from Nina and Tim Zagat, that in fact we’re not getting Chinese at all. They write:
Chinese food in its native land is vastly superior to what’s available here. Where are the great versions of bird’s nest soup from Shandong, or Zhejiang’s beggar’s chicken, or braised Anhui-style pigeon or the crisp eel specialties of Jiangsu? Or what about the tea-flavored dishes from Hangzhou, the cult-inspiring hairy crabs of Shanghai or the fabled honeyed ham from Yunnan? Or the Fujianese soup that is so rich and sought after that it is poetically called “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall,” meaning it is so good that a Buddhist monk would be compelled to break his vegetarian vows to sample it?
Like so many other aspects of Chinese life, the culinary scene in China is thriving. As capitalism has gained ground there, restaurants have become a place for people to spend their newfound disposable incomes. Cooking methods passed down within families over the centuries have become more widely known as chefs brought the traditions to paying customers. Today, there are a number of regional cuisines known in China as the Eight Great Traditions (Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang cuisines). Unless you’ve visited China, they most likely have never reached your lips.
That’s because the lackluster Cantonese, Hunan and Sichuan restaurants in this country do not resemble those you can find in China.