Chinese food has become a staple in the world, with many giving it top billing when it comes to a favourite cuisine type; yet surprisingly this hasn't always been the case. It's hard now to imagine a world without delicious Chinese food being readily available, be it through takeaway deliveries, fine dining restaurants or home cooked experiments. Similarly, many Britons would now find it impossible to remember a time when authentic sauces weren't readily available in all supermarkets, yet there was a time where all this delicious food choice was completely alien.
It's thought that the first Chinese immigrants came to the shores of the UK in the early 19th century, which is around the time the first ever Chinese restaurant opened (1908). This establishment was very creatively called 'The Chinese Restaurant' and was located in Piccadilly Circus, London. Although this was a massive breakthrough for the cuisine, it didn't pick up popularity for years.
Back in the 1950's the idea of Chinese food in the UK and America was simplistic; tinned Chinese curries, processed foods and confused flavours, like Chinese food on pizza. Take out venues were few and far between and other cuisines with less experimental flavours were favoured by Western palates.
It wasn't until the 60's and 70's that Chinese food began getting the recognition it deserved. More citizens began arriving on Western soil from Hong Kong and Chinatown started development in the 70's, when chefs began talking about exotic flavours. One pivotal figure during this period was Kenneth Lo, who is credited as being an ambassador of Chinese cuisine to the West. He wrote more than 30 books on Chinese cooking from the 1950's to the 1990's, with over one million copies sold in Britain. One of his most popular books, simply titles "Chinese Food" was released in the 1970's, a time which was significant for the growth in interest of Chinese cuisine.
Lo also opened a cooking school in London during the 1980's, which was hailed as Europe's first Chinese cooking school. Alongside this, people began opening up to the idea of varied flavours but dishes had to make the most of ingredients available in the West. Chinese Chefs began to adapt dishes to use readily available ingredients and also appeal more to western palates. This ended up creating dishes that a Western audience perceive as Chinese that you wouldn't even find in China. For example, Chop Suey is used to be one of the most popular dishes found in the West but you wouldn't be able to find this dish with ease in China. Same goes for Egg Foo Young and even the beloved fortune cookies.
Even though attitudes had begun to change, the West still had a stereotypical view of Chinese food with many just assuming it was all sweet and sour. It took time and alteration of traditional dishes for it to truly pick up traction. Education on the region and the foods that originated here, taught by high profile chefs, such as Ken Hom, Andrew Wong and Ching He-Huang, and new celebrity chefs of Chinese origin helped change the public's opinion on the seemingly exotic dishes.
More frequent travel of British to the Far East for business or leisure has exposed consumers to more varieties and both authentic and modern Chinese flavours.
The West's perception of Chinese food has gone from merely eating a Chinese takeaway dish each week to consumers experimenting themselves by using Oriental flavours in their kitchens. The highest quality food has become sought after by modern day diners, meaning home cooked meals and even those purchased at fine dining establishments are now often preferred over takeaways. No longer do those living in the west fear complex, unfamiliar and unaccustomed flavours, instead they embrace the contrast and try to incorporate them into their diet.
There are healthier options available for those ordering a Chinese to their house which has helped these establishments maintain their popularity in a society that has started caring more about what it is they put in their bodies. Steaming is one of the healthiest and most common cooking methods found in Chinese cuisine. Many chefs choose to steam their ingredients, like tofu, to retain the health benefits of the food without compromising on flavour. And there are plenty of cooking methods under the Chinese umbrella yet to be explored by the West.
With better and in-depth understanding of what Chinese cooking and diet offer will put this healthy culinary style into perspective.
The modern world is now well wired; the media has generated curiosity of cross cultural understanding and food is obviously one of the most used mediums to communicate.
Chinese food has continuously adapted to the tastes of the west which has led to a steady increase in its popularity; it shows no signs of stopping and it never will.