‘Chinese and chips’: a brief history of British Chinese takeaways

“I have never been so disgusted in my life.” was a Twitter user response to a recent video showing the spoils of a British Chinese takeout order. ‘British Chinese’ was trending on social media as US users analyzed and criticized the cuisine, apparently baffled speak “inauthentic” inclusion of fries or thick curry sauce.

British consumers and Chinese food producers proudly displayed their takeaways in retaliation. Posters on either side of the debate sought to label their version of Chinese cuisine as “authentic” or “traditional”, revealing the powerful connotations of these two words and their connection to culinary identity.

There is no precise definition of what makes food authentic or traditional. Instead, the food goes through an authentication process. A dish once considered new or adaptive can form a strong identity over time, eventually becoming traditional in its own right.

Chinese cuisine is a perfect example. It has always been produced in a way that blurs both national boundaries and the boundaries between ethnic cuisines.

The history of Chinese cuisine both in China and around the world is a rich testimony to trade, migration and colonialism. Many citizens of former British colonies such as Malaysia and Hong Kong who emigrated to the UK started working in the food industry. Starting in the 1950s, they began renting out vacant fish and chips in smaller towns and villages.

In rural areas, these businesses were often one of the few take-out options available. Using the facilities available, they have added a variety of dishes to their menu to meet the needs of those more accustomed to fish and chips.

Roux-type curry sauces have been included in Chinese takeaways for many of the same reasons. Indo-Pakistani-inspired curries from another colonial migration stream were the other major source of ‘un-British’ takeaways at the time.

Comedian Pierre Novellie defines British cuisine in one word: ‘wet’. There is some truth in his observation. It’s amazing how migrants have adapted and shaped Britain’s love of thick sauces and simple takeaways to suit their own businesses.

Chinese takeaways around the world

In Australia, Chinese takeaways date back to the 1850s, when Chinese kitchens and greengrocers supplied gold miners in remote parts of the country. Today it’s common for Australians to joke that a town isn’t a town without a pub and a Chinese takeaway (often the same establishment).

As Jan O’Connell, author of A Timeline of Australian Food, notes, Australian Chinese cuisine reflects a complex history of pro and anti-immigration policies.

A typical takeout order from British China, including chicken chow mein, chilli beef and prawn crackers. DronG/Shutterstock

Cantonese-inspired “honey sizzling prawns” and large Australian variants of “Mongolian beef” are considered staples of the modern Australian diet. Where British Chinese food is brown and laden with sauce, Australian varieties favor sweet flavors and bright colors.

The legacy of colonialism has also shaped other Asian cuisines. Japanese dishes that have become popular in the US, UK and Australia – like ramen noodles and gyoza dumplings – are the product of the movement of people, food and ideas across national borders. .

In Slurp, A History of Ramen, cultural historian Barak Kushner traces how movements between China and Japan shaped the rise of ramen and gyoza.

A bowl of chicken covered in katsu curry sauce.

Katsu curry sauce shares a common ancestry with British Chinese takeaways. Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

Chinese noodle varieties – often but not always made by migrants in port cities such as Yokohama – have popularized the consumption of wheat-based noodles in Japan. The terms “ramen” and “gyoza” are very similar to the Japanese pronunciation of northern Chinese foods. delicious And jiaozialthough Kushner disputes the direct link between the two terms.

After World War II, many Japanese soldiers and farmers who had been stationed in occupied China returned home. There, some have opened local Chinese restaurants with dishes inspired by their time in China.

British troops stationed in Japan as part of the occupation forces in the same post-war period introduced local chefs to curry powder and roux-like sauces. Today’s popular Katsu curry sauce in many ways shares a common ancestry with British Chinese takeaways.

It is clear from recent social media trends around British Chinese cuisine that the cuisine holds unique importance in different local identities. Kitchens go through stages of innovation, adaptation and localization, becoming considered authentic or traditional.

The passionate defense of British Chinese cuisine on TikTok shows how important the humble takeaway is today and the contribution of Chinese migration to British identity.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *