[Picture story] How Chinese food made its way all over the world

Chinese cuisine is far from the sweet and sour pork or fortune cookies found in the Chinatowns of the West. From the familiar flavours of Cantonese cuisine to the spicy notes in Sichuan fare and the clean flavours of Jiangsu cuisine, every taste has a place in the rich tapestry of China’s food heritage. Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao traces how the Chinese and their food — complete with an entire culture — travelled in history beyond Asia into the wider world.
A stall selling Hokkien fried noodles in the 1950s, Singapore. The Chinese in Singapore were mainly emigrants from the Guangdong and Fujian provinces of China, and their food reflects the characteristics of their hometown. But fried Hokkien noodles is a dish unique to Singapore.
A stall selling Hokkien fried noodles in the 1950s, Singapore. The Chinese in Singapore were mainly emigrants from the Guangdong and Fujian provinces of China, and their food reflects the characteristics of their hometown. But fried Hokkien noodles is a dish unique to Singapore.

(All photographs courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao unless otherwise stated, Chinese ink paintings by Tania Hsu.*)

Over its long history, China’s food culture has been passed down through the ages. Its main beverage is tea, with tea leaves a major export item. Trading teams from Central Asia traversed thousands of miles on camels through vast deserts and grasslands to come to China for its porcelain, silk, and tea. Chinese food is also well-known all over the world, but apart from the classic image of chopsticks, most foreigners know nothing about Chinese cuisine beyond the dishes offered at their local Chinatown, which are adapted to foreign taste buds. 

China is huge, with cuisine unique to each province. Nevertheless, put all this food beside one another, and one would still find a few standout dishes. Imagine putting together a state dinner, or a lavish wedding dinner, with ten to fifteen guests at each table. Each dish presented would have to look, smell, and taste perfect, and in ample portions — what Chinese call “main courses” (大菜).

Chinese New Year’s Eve meals are never complete without a fish dish symbolising a year of abundance. Steaming the fish also sounds like a Chinese saying that means to be on the ascendancy (蒸蒸日上). Everything from the technique used to clean the fish to the cooking temperature determines whether the end-result is a perfect dish full of umami.
cantonese sausage
Cantonese sausage (lap cheong, 腊肠) is a must-have during Chinese New Year, as a gift or at the reunion dinner. As taste buds become more sophisticated, the flavours in lap cheong are becoming more varied. Pork is no longer the only option — fish or chicken lap cheong, or those with spices or alcohol, have opened up more possibilities.
longevity greens
“Longevity greens” — a vegetable dish usually cooked with mustard greens or spinach along with carrots — is a staple dish during Chinese New Year, symbolising long life.
drunken chicken
Drunken chicken, or chicken cooked in Chinese wine, is a common dish during Chinese New Year. This dish from Jiangsu and Zhejiang is made by soaking the chicken in Shaoxing wine — which promotes blood circulation — and nourishing Chinese herbs, and then chilling it to be served as a cold appetiser. The aroma hits the nose pleasantly even before this simple and popular dish is eaten.
Scallion fried with preserved meat is a classic home-cooked dish. Preserved meat is cured and usually eaten at the beginning and end of the lunar year. It is a staple during Chinese New Year and a “mandatory” purchase as a gift or to cook, with a strong New Year flavour in every sense.

Generally, China’s main courses consist of dishes from Guangdong and Sichuan, which are more richly flavoured. Sichuan cuisine is mostly about mala, and lots of chilli. One joke goes that children in Sichuan munch on chilli like it’s chewing gum; yes, they love their chilli there!

Guangdong or Cantonese cuisine is a blend of sour, savoury, and sweet. The flavours are rich and the ingredients varied, and it is possible to come up with large plates of tasty dishes in generous portions, which is why they are found as part of large-scale functions. By contrast, Jiangsu and Zhejiang cuisine is lighter, with many types of cold dishes and side dishes, and rice as the staple.

Guangdong and Fujian are the main tea-producing provinces in China, and a source of the world’s tea. The word 茶 (tea) is pronounced “cha” in Cantonese and “te” in Hokkien, and without exception, the word for tea in any language comes from one or the other of these.

In northern China, the main type of cuisine comes from Beijing, of which the best-known dish is Peking duck. Given the harsh winters there, people eat a lot of high-calorie or “heaty” food like grilled lamb and lamb hotpot, paired with strong alcohol and complemented with grain-based items such as noodles and buns, baked pastries (烧饼) and dumplings, which form the basis of northern Chinese cuisine. As for the border regions, Mongolia and Xinjiang have preserved the nomadic diet and flavours of the past, such as lamb kebabs and goat’s milk, and plenty of spices. Yunnan cuisine is similar to the food in Thailand and Myanmar, while Guangxi’s dishes are close to Vietnamese cuisine.

Rice dumplings are one of the best-known Chinese dishes. Each region has its own unique version, with the main ingredients being glutinous rice, salted egg yolk, and lean and fatty meat, along with peanuts, chestnuts, dried shrimp, and mushrooms, according to the usual methods in each region.
braised pork
The important thing in cooking braised pork with preserved mustard is to fry the pork belly meat over a medium fire until just slightly burnt, then use the lard in the wok to fry minced garlic, chopped shallots, and some red chilli to taste. Finally, put the pork belly in a bowl, filling up the gaps with the preserved mustard, then steam in an electric cooker; it will take about half an hour for the meat to absorb the flavours better. During the cooking process, the flavours of the preserved mustard and soy sauce seep into the pork belly, making a savoury and fragrant dish to enjoy with rice.

But even as various cuisines have their unique points and various fans, if one had to rank them, Cantonese cuisine would probably be the most popular and influential. One reason is that the Cantonese migrated all over the world, indirectly driving the globalisation of Cantonese cuisine. Second, Cantonese cuisine is not just about good food; it is a complete lifestyle, a culture of leisure and enjoyment of good food, as exemplified by the yum cha culture (饮茶, literally “drink tea”).

Guangdong and Fujian are the main tea-producing provinces in China, and a source of the world’s tea. The word 茶 (tea) is pronounced “cha” in Cantonese and “te” in Hokkien, and without exception, the word for tea in any language comes from one or the other of these.

The yum cha culture

The Cantonese love drinking tea, and enjoying a hearty breakfast — complete with tea — is known as 早茶 (zou cha, literally “early/morning tea”) or 饮茶 (yum cha). Cantonese-style eateries offering yum cha/zou cha are found throughout China, and are popular with local Chinese everywhere. The first question that servers ask is usually what tea the customer would like — the main choices are oolong, jasmine, pu-erh, or chrysanthemum. Then the servers move around between tables with push carts full of dim sum (点心, literally “dot the heart”, meaning small Cantonese dishes much like the Spanish tapas) and customers pick what they want.

Common dim sum dishes include siew mai (steamed pork wrapped in dumpling skin), har gow (steamed prawn dumplings), cheong fun (steamed rice rolls), steamed chicken feet, braised pork ribs, and radish cake (steamed or deep fried pieces of shredded radish with flour). Cantonese lifestyle culture is strong in China, and yum cha is a representative part of that culture.

dim sum
Common types of Cantonese dim sum include siew mai, pork buns, chicken feet, and custard buns. Going by “fan” numbers, Cantonese-style yum cha dishes would likely rank among the top three most popular Chinese foods. A hearty breakfast makes for an energy-filled day, and Cantonese dim sum has become a meal option.
lin heung
Lin Heung Tea House, a well-known dim sum eatery in Hong Kong. (Wikimedia)

In the second half of the 19th century, Cantonese coolies (manual labourers) crossed the Pacific Ocean to North America to build the railways or to join the gold rush. After which, many of them flocked to big cities on the eastern and western coasts and took on low-level jobs to make ends meet, setting up small businesses such as laundry shops and Chinese restaurants. Laundry shops were low-cost — a washboard, soap, and iron, plus a small shop space was all that was needed. The hardworking Chinese would work around the clock, exercising thrift to save money for a home, or for the education of the next generation as the most effective way to change the destiny of the family.

Opening eateries in new lands as a means of livelihood

Restaurants called for kitchens, furnishings and simple decor, and the cost was higher, but the early Chinese migrants ran small and simple eateries. Many Chinese male migrants had no family with them and had to prepare their own meals, and some became good cooks, so setting up a restaurant to serve food from their hometowns became an obvious option.

As most early Chinese migrants to Europe and the US were Cantonese, Chinese restaurants offering Cantonese food flourished, serving affordable dishes such as roast duck and goose, soy sauce chicken, wonton noodles, Cantonese-style fried noodles, Cantonese-style wui fan/mui fan (烩饭, rice with gravy/sauce), and fried hor fun (flat rice noodles). Also, to cater to Western taste buds, Cantonese food overseas did not taste as rich; for example, tomato ketchup is used to create the flavours of sweet and sour pork. As for chop suey and fortune cookies, these were created by overseas Chinese, and are not found in China.

After communist China was established in 1949, traditional time-honoured restaurants gradually became state-owned, and many well-known dishes lost their original nuanced flavours. And with that, the restaurateurs who went to Hong Kong and Taiwan ended up inheriting the authentic tastes.


roast meat
A “roast meat trio” (烧腊三拼) usually consists of barbequed pork (叉烧, char siew), roast duck, and crispy-skinned roast pork. The dips include honey, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and garlic slices. These meats are savoury but not cloying, which is the characteristic of Cantonese dishes.
cantonese duck
Guangdong roast duck is a well-known Cantonese dish. Many people cannot tell the difference between Guangdong roast duck and Peking duck, which are in fact prepared slightly differently; Guangdong roast duck is more refined in its flavour.


Chicken in scallion oil is another Cantonese-style dish. Southern Chinese like to marinate chicken then steam it to soften the meat, adding salt, white pepper, rice wine, and ginger to taste. This makes the chicken fragrant and tender and a good dish to eat with rice. The Cantonese way of cooking meat is very different from in northern China; southern Chinese like a clever blend of savoury and sweet flavours.

If most of the Chinese restaurants that opened overseas before World War II were just amateurs, the high-end Chinese restaurants opened after WWII by successful restaurateurs from Hong Kong and Taiwan who later migrated to Europe and the US were like major-league football cup finalists.

After communist China was established in 1949, traditional time-honoured restaurants gradually became state-owned, and many well-known dishes lost their original nuanced flavours. And with that, the restaurateurs who went to Hong Kong and Taiwan ended up inheriting the authentic tastes. In particular, when economic growth peaked in the 1970s, these restaurateurs started upgrading their restaurants or setting up high-end ones, creating a revolution in Chinese food and lifestyle enjoyment. 

Cantonese cuisine goes international

Guangdong is located near the sea. Its largest river, the Pearl River, experiences ample flow and is rich with marine life. Hence, it is not surprising that seafood is a key feature of Cantonese cuisine. Cantonese soups, with its fanciful varieties featuring rich ingredients, including a huge array of dried seafood and Chinese herbs, also features largely in the cuisine of the Cantonese. Not only that, the best dishes from other provinces are often included in the menu of these restaurants, such as kung pow chicken from Sichuan and General Tso's chicken from Hunan.

When these restaurateurs brought their high standards to Europe and the US, they created a new brand of high-end Chinese restaurants. These establishments had top chefs, adopted Western-style implements, hygiene standards, and management styles, and presented delicious and refined cuisines in a comfortable and chic environment.

At the other end of the spectrum, there were the Chinese takeout joints which sprouted all over the West, in line with the Western penchant for fast food.

US restaurant
A US postcard from the 1930s, showing a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco called Shanghai Low (上海楼, literally Shanghai House). Generally, “Shanghai” was just a name tagged on, mainly because Westerners were more familiar with Shanghai — the place may not have offered Shanghai cuisine.
A US postcard from the 1930s, showing a Chinatown scene. The sign outside the Chinese restaurant on the left shows “Chop Suey”, a creation by Chinese restaurants in the US catering to American tastes, showing the creativity of Cantonese restaurateurs.
A US postcard from the 1930s, showing Chinatown in San Francisco. The large sign on the right advertises chop suey, practically the first Chinese dish for Americans.
A US postcard from the 1930s, showing a Chinese restaurant offering free rice top-ups. The artist has drawn a little mouse in the lower right, a dig at the hygiene standards of Chinese restaurants. The queues sported by the Chinese are also a symbol of backwardness.
A US postcard from the 1930s, showing the Chinese herbs and medicines sold in Chinatown in San Francisco. Many can also be used for cooking, and they were generally imported to the US from Hong Kong.
A US postcard from the 1930s, showing a fruit stall in Chinatown.
A US postcard from the 1930s. After the Pacific Railway was completed in the 19th century, most of the Chinese labourers who worked on it moved to the east and west coasts, and many started Chinese restaurants.

Within Asia, the Japanese have assimilated Chinese food as part of Japanese cuisine, most prominently in the form of gyoza (饺子, dumplings) and mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐, spicy tofu). However, the flavours tend to be a little muted. As for Taiwan, people from all parts of mainland China migrated there in 1949, which means one can find — and taste — cuisine from practically all over China. But because most migrants to Taiwan came from Fujian, Hokkien-style street snacks such as rice dumplings, fried oyster omelette, fried bee hoon (thin rice noodles), pork blood cubes in soup, and meatballs are popular. Of course, there is also fermented or stinky tofu, famous for being “smelly but tasty”.

sashimi don
A photo of Japanese sashimi don. Japanese and Chinese are Asians, but their eating habits are different. Japanese eat a lot of raw seafood, but Chinese do not like raw food, preferring to cook their food.
A photo of assorted sashimi. Sashimi or raw fish is the best-known Japanese dish, which clearly shows the difference between Chinese and Japanese food. Japanese like the original taste of ingredients, while Chinese prefer to cook their food and add rich sauces.
oyster omelette
Fried oyster omelette is a famous must-try snack for many tourists to Taiwan.
pork rice
Braised minced pork rice is a classic Taiwanese snack dish. It is easy to make, and appeals to gourmets everywhere.

Most Chinese in Southeast Asia are migrants from Fujian and Guangdong, and they too developed their own everyday dishes, like Hokkien-style prawn noodles, Hainanese chicken rice, and bak kut teh (肉骨茶, pork ribs soup). As eateries in Singapore and Malaysia expanded operations, these Southeast Asian Chinese dishes have made their way back to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China, gradually finding a place on the mainstream menu.

Hawkers selling rice dumplings and other snacks in the 1960s, Singapore. Traditional Chinese food can often be found in Chinese communities. The early Chinese immigrants such as the coolies, brought with them their own food culture when they settled in Singapore. Some of these dishes evolved to suit local tastes, and became quite different from the original versions.
Many people frequented such coffee shops for their meals in the 1950s, as seen here in Singapore. The elderly enjoyed having tea and chit chatting in such establishments, which was part and parcel of the local culture. In this photograph, a portrait of Mr Sun Yat-sen with his teachings hangs on the wall.
A stall in Singapore selling beverages and desserts in the 1960s. Its sign lists items such as lotus seed congee, water chestnut flour, barley water, and steamed sponge cake, which were all popular desserts at the time.
A salesperson in a cake shop in Singapore, handing out food samples in the 1960s. Cakes, biscuits and tarts are a traditional food item for the Chinese, and are often eaten as after-dinner dessert, and also given as gifts. Mooncakes and wedding pastries are part of important festivals and celebrations.
Early hawker stalls along the streets in 1960s Singapore. As they tended to be unhygienic and had the potential to cause serious public health issues, the government stepped in to regulate and improve the situation. Hawkers then had to meet certain standards before they could obtain a license to operate a business.
Female customers selecting live prawns at a stall in Singapore in the 1960s. As a port city, Singapore had access to freshly caught seafood all year round.
Women weave through a market in Singapore to select ingredients for preparing meals at home in the 1960s. The market is a convenient one-stop shop where vegetables, meats and spices could all be bought in one place.
A bustling market in Singapore in the 1960s, with all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and foodstuffs. Women regularly went to the market to select the ingredients they would use to prepare meals at home.

*The food illustrations in this article are Chinese ink paintings by Taiwanese young artist Tania Hsu. She graduated from the Department of Calligraphy and Painting Arts at Chang Jung Christian University and specialises in painting still lifes of international cuisine using traditional Chinese painting techniques. 

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