In Japan, most “Chinese” restaurants are only as authentic as most Chinese food in western countries: which is not very much. No matter if they are labeled “Hong Kong cuisines”, “Shang-hai cuisine” or “Taiwan cuisine”, most of these restaurants are selling the same kind of thing called Chuuka cuisine.
Personally, I’m a fan of Chuuka restaurants. They are cheap, delicious, and they offer a huge menu to choose from. They just aren’t the authentic Chinese restaurants that many believe them to be, despite the shops being run by Chinese staffs. It’s not an issue; it’s just different.
There are many reasons as to why the tastes have been altered. The 3 major ones are tastes, ingredients, and image.
The taste of the food has been adjusted for Japanese eaters’ preferences. Chinese food often lands on the polar ends of flavour scales, and some just aren’t suitable for the general audience here. For example, Japan in general isn’t too keen on spicy food, so the numerous extremely-spicy dishes of the Szechuan region would be way above most of Japan’s tolerance. Japanese also tend to use solely cayenne pepper for hotness, so most Japanese people wouldn’t be accustomed to the various chilli peppers used in Chinese cooking. As a result, the mapo tofu that you find in Chuuka restaurants taste quite different and much simpler than ones you’d find in China.
Related to the point above, the ingredients available are also different between the two countries. Peppers and spices, for instance, completely change how a dish’s aroma and tastes are. Choy sum is a very common green used in Chinese cuisines, but it is extraordinarily rare in Japan so other vegetables are used to replace it. Since different vegetables and sections of meat are also priced differently, certain ingredients are switched out for budget reasons.
One more major point is Japan’s impression of Chinese food. Throughout centuries of Chuuka cuisine in Japan, there are certain staples that everyone expects to find in any “Chinese” restaurant here. Grilled gyoza (餃子), mapo-tofu (マーポ豆腐), fried rice (チャーハン), soy-sauce ramen (醤油ラーメン), fried chicken (から揚げ), sweet and sour pork (酢豚), just to name a few. Since they are popular and simple enough, all Chuuka restaurants have them on the menu so customers’ expectations wouldn’t be met with disappointments.
Hideya HAMANO on Flickr
However, as I mentioned above, I am a fan of these Chuuka restaurants. The tastes may have been altered for Japan’s preferences, but the foods are still undoubtedly delicious. Restaurants also have a huge selection from their menu to mix and match dishes for your dinner, or better yet, share with everyone at the table as Chinese often do. The chefs also make the food upon order, so you can expect your gyoza or fried chicken to be very crispy and hot.
Toshiyuki IMAI on Flickr
Naotake Murayama on Flickr
My favourite reason to visit a Chuuka restaurant is for the price. Noodles and rice dishes often range from ¥500 to ¥700 each, and they come in huge volumes, perfect for filling and sharing. The best of all are their set meal (定食) offers. At Fukutei, the Chuuka restaurant nearby that I often visit, a set meal is around ¥1000. It includes a main dish (ex. mabo-eggplants, pork and cabbage stir-fry, a stack of freshly fried chicken), a deep-fried side-dish, pickled vegetables, a bowl of noodles with choices of soup flavours, rice (which I can get extra for free), and a small dessert. The quantity is so impressive that I can barely finish. If have it for lunch, dinner can be skipped. To get so full for only ¥1000 is both a treat to my stomach and my wallet.
While Chuuka restaurants aren’t the authentic Chinese cuisines some might think, the offering is definitely nothing to complain about. Once in a while, I might want to dish out extra money for some genuine Chinese food to fulfil the craving, but for the average weekday evenings, Chuuka restaurants have exactly what I always want to order: a cheap and delicious meal.