“What’s going on over there?” one baffled watcher from the United States demanded after watching videos on the platform of Brits drizzling curry sauce out of a tub and onto their Chinese dinners. “Are the British eating out of a dumpster?” she asked, noting incredulously that all the British Chinese takeout featured french fries and “not one ounce of greenery … Where’s the broccoli beef? Where’s the string beans?”
The debate on TikTok has been swirling for days, with the hashtag #britishchinesefood generating more than 36 million views. Brits are uploading videos defending their cherished Chinese takeaways, while Americans are questioning if the commonly used British phrase for ordering takeout, “having a Chinese,” is racist.
The trans-Atlantic rift has also revealed an unexpected truth — it turns out that British Chinese takeout looks very different from American Chinese takeout.
In the United States, Chinese food is usually picked up or delivered from a sit-down restaurant, whereas in Britain, Chinese takeaways often come from establishments created solely for takeout food — many of which do not even have seating. British Chinese food comes in plastic containers, and American Chinese food is usually delivered in wax-paper boxes with little metal handles, though some establishments do use plastic.
And the foods takeout customers pick can also be sharply different — while broccoli and beef or chicken with orange sauce are common staples in American Chinese takeout orders, Britons are far more likely to have sweet-and-sour sauce — and the controversial curry sauce and fries (or, as Brits say, “chips”) — adorning their dishes.
The fierce debate also reflects how, while neither British or American Chinese takeout dishes are considered particularly authentic, they’ve nonetheless become popular enough that, for many British and American TikTokers, defending them is a matter of national honor.
British broadcaster ITV reported that the videos had sparked a “global racism debate” and described the American reaction as unfair, while London-based food journalist Kate Ng was one of many condemning the “harsh” American reaction to “the glorious mess of beige that is British Chinese takeaway food.”
“The British Chinese takeaway deserves respect, not sneering by ignorant Americans,” she wrote for the Independent, while acknowledging that she herself wasn’t a fan of British Chinese takeout.
Suzie Lee Arbuthnot, a chef in Northern Ireland, where her family runs a Chinese takeaway, argued there was no reason to feel ashamed about British Chinese food.
“It’s a very Westernized takeaway menu for the Western pallet,” Arbuthnot, who has written a cookbook titled “Simply Chinese,” and served as a judge on “Takeaway Titans” — a TV series dedicated to finding and crowning the best takeaway in Ireland, explained in an interview. “We don’t need to be embarrassed. It is everybody’s own take on the dishes we use,” she said.
The skill for many small businesses trying to make a living would be adapting their recipes based on ingredients available, knowing their audience and giving them what they want, Arbuthnot said, adding that her parents slowly introduced more authentic Chinese dishes to the local community over time — although curry sauce also remains on the menu.
The gloopy brown sauce, which is found in popular British fish and chip shops, derived from the Indian influence in the culinary world, Arbuthnot said, though she added she was just as baffled as the Americans about Britain’s “chicken ball situation,” admitting she too did not know where the fried ball stuffed with chicken came from.
Chinese American chef Anita Lo — the first female guest chef to cook for a state dinner at the White House, apologized for the reaction of her compatriots. “Food is culture and food is identity,” she said in an interview, adding that it is “at best rude when someone demeans another person’s dinner.”
Lo, who prepared a meal for the Obamas and visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015, noted that “cuisine naturally evolves over time, with migration and with colonization … China is such a vast country with many cuisines inside its borders — it’s really hard to know it all.”
In the United States, Chinese food has also been adapted to appeal to the American palate, Lo noted. Among the list of American Chinese food items she grew up eating and loving are moo shu pork, fried pork dumplings, beef and broccoli and fried egg rolls.
“I think you can find these on every American Chinese menu in the country … along with things like cream cheese wontons,” Lo said — an item she said she would personally never order.
“I hate the word ‘authentic,’” Lo added. “I’d argue it has no meaning. Authentic to who?”
And what of the other sticking point in the debate — over the common British phrases used in the takeout unboxing videos such as: “having a Chinese” or “ordering a Chinese?”
“I don’t know if it is intended to be racist but it kind of feels like it is a little,” Asian American TikToker user Soogia, who goes by the handle @soogia1, said in a video viewed more than 3 million times on the platform. “They all call it ‘a Chinese,’ but here in the United States we call it Chinese food.”
Many Asians in the United Kingdom, however, defended the term “a Chinese” as just a shortening of “a Chinese takeaway.”
Ng, writing in the Independent, argued that it was “categorically not” racist to say “getting a Chinese,” while Arbuthnot said: “I don’t see it as an insult per se because I know exactly what people are trying to say,” though she added she understood why the phrasing would sound off to Americans but that nobody means it in a “derogatory way.”
The debate even sparked a TikTok video from an American living in the United Kingdom, who went into explaining the grammatical intricacies of counting nouns to try to explain why Britons use “a Chinese” as shorthand for “Chinese food.”
Hayley Phillips noted that Americans usually include the word “takeout” or “food” in their phrasing — both mass nouns that do not need “a” in front of them, while Brits say “takeaway,” a count noun that requires “a” or “an” in front of it, such as “an Indian takeaway or a Chinese takeaway,” though the word takeaway is often removed to shorten the sentence.
Britons also pointed out that they use the same slang to describe getting other types of takeout — and that it is similar to how they describe having “a full English” breakfast — another fried dish that is considered part of Britain’s cultural fabric.