“What kind of restaurant would you like to go to?” we were asked by my wife’s supervisor upon arriving in Taizhou. They wanted to take us out for dinner on our first night in town, but this question oddly dumbfounded us. Our generalizing minds assumed that as we were in China we should eat at [...]
“What kind of restaurant would you like to go to?” we were asked by my wife’s supervisor upon arriving in Taizhou. They wanted to take us out for dinner on our first night in town, but this question oddly dumbfounded us. Our generalizing minds assumed that as we were in China we should eat at a Chinese restaurant — which should just be called “a restaurant.”
“I would like to eat at a Chinese restaurant, a normal restaurant,” I finally stated with a slight amount of foolishness, not quite knowing what kind of answer they were looking for.
I then found myself sitting in restaurant booth modeled off Old Country Buffet staring into a menu with photos of steaks and potatoes with replica Da Vinci pictures hanging on the walls over my head. I was in a Western restaurant in China. I don’t mean a Western restaurant as in McDonalds or KFC — these are multinational chains which, at this point, are just as much Chinese as they are American — but a Western restaurant as in one that mimicked and magnified the Asian notion of what constitutes a restaurant in Europe or the USA — an occidentalist romanticism for sure.
Watch video of Western restaurant in Taizhou
The restaurant was called Water Paradise. When you walk through the door the hostess, manager, waitress, and a gang of cooks all call out “Good Morning” to you in succession no matter what time of the day it is. There are low lamps hanging from the ceiling emitting a low evening tone. The wait staff is decked out in imperial England style waiter costumes. The cooks wear big bulbous Chef Boyardee hats. Classical music gently purrs out of the sound system. The rear wall of the restaurant is designed to look like the outside of an English cottage. There is not a chopstick on the premises. The entire place is designed to look like a story book rendition of The West, and it all comes off as a gross exaggeration of a style that I take for granted in my home country.
But for all the pomp and show, there is something about this restaurant that comes off as a big deflation when the food hits the mouth. The food that is served is suppose to be American/ European cuisine — steak, potatoes etc . . . — but it is cooked in a way to suit the Chinese palate. The steak is soaked in sweetish/ sour sauces, everything is heavily salted, and despite the presentation the overall effect of a meal here is overtly Chinese. A restaurant in the USA or Europe would never serve food that tasted anything like what is dished out at Water Paradise. This is not to say that the food is bad — to the contrary, this is one of the best places to eat in Taizhou, but it is to say that it’s Chinese Western food — a new, fashionable type of cuisine that has become incredibly popular throughout China.
Chinese Western food is like American Chinese food. In the USA, the Chinese restaurants serve a type of food that is completely foreign to China. General Tso’s chicken and all that is a Western manipulation of Chinese food that was designed in Manhattan’s China town to sell to tourists. People in China don’t eat that stuff. The presentation of the food is Chinese but the effect is distinctly American. And this goes for Peruvian Chinese food and European Chinese food as well: so called ethnic foods are just a way to bastardize a culinary tradition in a way that can be marketed abroad.
China is becoming packed full of “ethnic” restaurants, and most of these establishments are aiming to sell their meals to Chinese clients, not foreign expats. In Taizhou, a small city of 500,000 people in Jiangsu province that perhaps boasts an inconsequential 30 person expat community is packed with restaurants themed off various types of foreign cuisine. There are probably four or five Japanese restaurants (invariably they have paintings of Sumo wrestlers all over the walls), a handful of Argentinian steak houses, Taiwanese noodle joints, Cantonese dining houses, and a whole mess of restaurants that can be called nothing other than Western styled. Taizhou is not a trend setting sort of place — rather, it is the type of city that reflects the mood of a country very well, the kind of place where you can see the status quo.
China has become a country that is hungry for the outside world, it’s a country that takes various elements from other cultures, gobbles them up, and makes them Chinese. This country has a population that has a notion about other places in the world, it’s a culture that learns about other countries and keeps up with world events, that reads literature from other cultures, and eats food influenced from other culinary traditions. It’s my impression that these are attribute of an advanced culture. But I have to admit that this is a predominately middle and upper class trend — as it is just about anywhere else in the world.