... apart from western countries like the Australia or the USA themselves.

During my visit to Taiwan, I wasn't able to find the dishes I'd typically encounter in a Chinese restaurant in Australia or the United States, such as sweet and sour pork, honey chicken, Mongolian lamb/beef, and fried ice cream.

I have two main theories on why this is. One is that Chinese restaurant food is totally made up, and has no similarity with food anywhere in the world. In which case, I'd better give up trying to find the right location. This seems to be the case with fried ice cream, which Wikipedia suggests is an artificial modern invention.

The other is that maybe I visited the wrong location. China is a big place, after all. Perhaps visiting another area, such as Inner Mongolia, would find me what I'm looking for, with dishes either the same as, or the un-modified version of what is served in western countries' Chinese restaurants.

The Wikipedia article on Chinese restaurant mentions:

There has additionally been a consequential component of Chinese emigration of illegal origin, most notably Fuzhou people from Fujian Province and Wenzhounese from Zhejiang Province in Mainland China, specifically destined to work in Chinese restaurants in New York City, beginning in the 1980s.

As Fujian province is right next to Taiwan, and has had a major influence on it, it seems plausible that if some of the "Chinese restaurant" dishes were coming from Fujian, I would have seen them in Taiwan, but I didn't.

Where, if anywhere, can I find the dishes that feature in western countries' Chinese restaurants? Also, how should I identify the right kind of eatery in those countries?

  • 2
    For European (read Dutch) "Chinese" restaurant, I am in understanding that a lot of it originates from Indonesia, but I do not have first hand experience on that, therefore not a full answer.
    – Bernhard
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 10:51
  • 2
    This problem also goes the other way round. Most western-style popular restaurants in Asia that I've tried don't taste like anything you'd get in Europe.
    – drat
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 16:20
  • 1
    @Bernhard: That's fairly specific to the Netherlands (who were the former colonial power in Indonesia) but not elsewhere. And even in the Dutch case one has to account for the Chinese minority which lived in Indonesia. I suspect the British may have similar influences due to their former influence in South East Asia.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 22:51
  • 3
    It took me three long tours of Mexico before I found my first burrito for sale in a place not designed specifically for American customers. I had started to believe burritos were fake Mexican food! Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 0:22
  • 1
    @hippietrail Well, Cal-Mex (and Sonoran Cuisine, as well as Tex-Mex in general) is still Mexican food! It's just from a border region that has since been absorbed pretty wholly into the US. Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 2:03

6 Answers 6


Nowhere in China. American Chinese cuisine (and its relatives in Australia, Europe, etc) is heavily adapted for Western tastes:

"Chinese-American cuisine is 'dumbed-down' Chinese food. It’s adapted... to be blander, thicker and sweeter for the American public"

Some dishes are localized versions of actual Chinese dishes (eg. Kung Pao chicken, which completely lacks the málà kick of the Sichuanese original), many were created in America (fortune cookies, "Mongolian beef", etc). The Wikipedia article above has a good list of both.

Also, I've eaten a lot of "real" Fujianese (Hokkien) food in Singapore, where they're the single largest dialect group, and I can assure you that neither Fujian nor Hakka cuisine bears the slightest resemblance to Panda Express.

Incidentally, this phenomenon is by no means unique. For example, Indian Chinese is what happens when Chinese and Indian cuisines collide, in Japan you can try out heavily Japanized Western dishes (yōshoku) like "omelette rice", and everybody has bastardized the poor Italians. Of course, things get really interesting when these get re-exported back to the home country, which is why you can now find American Chinese food in Shanghai!

  • 4
    This must be like discovering Santa Claus isn't real. (Not that that happened to me - I don't recall ever believing he was real)
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 12:09
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    Similarly, I've read that there're a handful of restaurants in Japan selling the Americanized version of the local cuisine targeted toward nostalgic businessmen who spent a lot of time in the US in the '80's when authentic Japanese food was nearly impossible to find here. Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 14:43
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    Having grown up overseas (i.e. outside of the US, my native country), I never expect any local food anywhere to taste like it does in restaurants which supposedly serve its cuisine in other countries. Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 18:31
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    I know it wasn't your quote, but I think it's judgmental to refer to one country's adaptation of another's food as "dumbed down." It's just different. That being said, having lived in Japan, I think people used to American Japanese restaurants, full of "rolls" made with things like avocado, would be quite surprised by the "plainness" of a sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 12:48
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    Judgmental? Yes. True? Yes. Exported food is always "dumbed down", because that way it's less strange and sells better. And it's slowly "smartened up" again as people get used to it and start looking for more authenticity. Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 12:53

These foods are typically unique to where you eat them For example neither deep fried ice cream or honey chicken are "Chinese food" here in Canada. The Wikipedia article on American Chinese food does a pretty job of identifying which North American "Chinese food" dishes map to food you might eat in China and which do not. I don't know if you can construct a similar list for Australian "Chinese food", but look for ingredients like carrots and tomatoes, as well as anything salad-like, to be particular to your home version of Chinese food and less likely to be available in China or other parts of Asia.

  • 2
    I can assure you I ate plenty of tomatoes all over China. Especially in a soup with egg which made a very good and cheap breakfast. And I almost never ate in places for tourists in China. Don't forget that tomatoes like chilis and potatoes and corn originate from the Americas yet have become fully nativized ingredients in cuisines such as Chinese, Indian, Irish, Italian, etc. Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 3:18

Fried ice cream (焼きアイスクリーム/"yaki aisukuriimu"), sweet-and-sour pork (酢豚/"subuta", lit. "vinegar pork") or chicken (酢鳥/"sudori") are well-known in Japan. If you find yourself in that part of the world, just ask the locals for these things by name.

酢鳥や酢豚など (sudori ya subuta nado) 食べたいんですから, (tabetain'desukara) この辺には (konohen ni wa) 中国式のレストラン (chuugoku-shiki no resutoran) 有りますか?(arimasuka?)

(I would like to eat something like "sudori" or "subuta", is there a Chinese restaurant around here?)

If you want Chinese food in Japan, you go to a Chinese restaurant. Any larger mall has at least one. Sweet and sour chicken can also be found as prepared food in supermarkets and delis (like the food delis in the basements of larger malls).

For Mongolian food, it helps to find a Mongolian restaurant. In China, there is a good one in Shanghai called "Home in the Grasslands". In this restaurant, they actually have a few tables that are under Mongolian style tents (indoors). Lamb features prominently in the menu.

Lamb is is also used in some Xi An style dishes (Shaan-Xi cuisine). If you see "Xi An" in the sign or the equivalent characters 西安, take a look.

  • 2
    Japanese Chinese has a bit of overlap with American Chinese (mostly in the neutered-and-spiceless sense), but most dishes are quite different: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_Chinese_cuisine And Am-Ch "Mongolian beef/lamb" has nothing to do with actual Mongol food, much less Xian's Shaanxi cuisine. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaanxi_cuisine Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 22:49
  • @jpatokal I gave the same Shannxi link in the answer; I only brought that up because of the connection with lamb meat, not because it is Mongolian in any sense.
    – Kaz
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 22:59

In addition to the "Chinese" dishes you find let's say in Canada not being identical to the original, consider that China is a huge country. Chinese people living in one part of the country don't cook the same as Chinese people living in another part. The food that you find in Beijing might be very unusual to people in Taiwan. It's similar to asking for "European" food and not being able to find cannelloni in Athens (apart from the cannelloni you find in Italy not being quite what you expect).

  • Yes. I had to totally re-learn hot to order from non-tourist menus in Yunnan, then Northern China, then Taiwan. Few dishes were on the menu in any two of these areas, let alone all three. Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 3:23

This isn't a substantial answer, but I would like to point out that while some Westernised "Chinese" foods - such as Mongolian beef - do seem to be pretty nonexistent in Asia, others aren't.

For instance, I have seen many instances of sweet and sour pork (although the cooking style might be slightly different) in Hong Kong fast food restaurants, and I have definitely heard of fried ice cream (炸雪糕) while living in Asia.

In my experience though (which of course is somewhat idiosyncratic), these types of Chinese foods aren't really the type seen as epitome of Chinese cuisine, even if they're probably seen as more "Chinese" than eating pasta dishes or McDonald's.


My wife is from Malaysia, and is ethnically Chinese (Hainanese). When she first came to the US to visit, at some point we ended up buying some "Chinese" food at a local supermarket's deli area, probably something like Kung Pao chicken, but I don't exactly remember. When we finally got it home to eat a short time later, she had no idea what she was looking at and asked me "what's this"? When I explained what it was and she tasted it, she considered feeding it to our dogs instead. I think she ate the rice and that was about it.

Fortunately there is a Chinese place in town where the owner makes a few "real" Chinese dishes that she just loves, so I can go have what I consider Chinese, and she can have "real" Chinese at the same restaurant.

When we travel to Malaysia & Singapore, we eat out a lot, but it's very-very-very rare to find what I think of as "Chinese" food, even though it's frequently Chinese food. Fortunately I like most of that as well as the Malay and Indian foods everywhere. However, after several weeks over there, I'm pining for some decent western food. However...

If you're in Malaysia or Singapore and looking for something western-ish, try Ramly-burger if you want a bit of east-west fusion in your burger, or Nando's if you want some Portuguese style chicken thrown into the mix. They're both fast food places I'd kill to have here in the Seattle area.

  • Nando's is not Malaysian/Singaporean but from South Africa. They have tended though to expand mostly only in Commonwealth countries and so far only a little in the US/Canada.
    – user8803
    Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 5:35
  • They may be from SA, but the peri-peri sauce they use on everything is very Portuguese in origin.
    – delliottg
    Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 21:13

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