British Chinese food, and more specifically Chinese takeaway food, has recently become a focal point on TikTok among Americans with #britishchinesefood amassing 36.9 million views, spurring a flurry of controversy and debate.
One TikToker, American Asian Soogia, expressed confusion over the meals shared by Brits on the social media platform, as they bore little resemblance to the Chinese cuisine (including American Chinese dishes) she is familiar with. The conversation quickly descended into a general smearing of British Chinese takeaway food, with another TikToker asking: “Do Brits eat out of a bin?”
What seems to make these Americans cringe are the meals, which consist almost entirely of fried food with the inclusion of chips and curry sauce, two traditionally non-Chinese staples in the UK. But what’s missing from the debate (apart from the fact that American Chinese food is itself an immigrant cuisine adapted to local tastes) is the nuance of British Chinese cuisine and its history, effectively sidelining the ingenuity of immigrant Chinese chefs who have adapted. their dishes to meet a British palate. And while menu items – like curry sauce or chicken balls or sweet and sour chicken – may look the same from one store to another, each takeaway has its own recipes that reflect the tastes of the local neighborhood.
This begs the question, what is British Chinese food?
It is impossible to understand Chinese food – as well as many food cultures – in Britain without the context of colonialism. Hong Kong and the New Territories was the last colonial outpost of the British Empire (from 1841 to 1997) and became part of an established trade route, which meant that many European shipping companies would employ southern Chinese men as sailors who then left and migrated to Britain. Although citizenship or access to full rights was not granted to these sailors (or future generations of Chinese migrants), many of them, often poor and in search of a better life, settled in Britain. As a means of survival, to feed the growing Chinese communities and the sailors passing through, they started casual noodle shops; this reached a peak between the First and Second World Wars.
In the mid-1900s, due to changes in British immigration laws that allowed greater migration to meet a post-war need for labour, there was a Chinese “restaurant boom”. Between 1957 and 1964, the number of food establishments doubled, with many catering to non-Chinese palates.