How cheap is food in China?

Chinese restaurants : 143, please

Half an hour and the artist had had enough of the art: Ai Weiwei fled to the China restaurant before the documenta. Only he felt just as strange and lost there, the food didn't seem Chinese at all to the Chinese. “It tasted like it was from space,” he said in an interview. That is why the 50-year-old not only invited 1001 compatriots to Kassel - the most spectacular, perhaps also the most exciting action of this year's documenta - but also a few cooks. Occasionally the master wants to put himself at the stove too.

What Ai Weiwei couldn't have foreseen when he was looking for a piece of home there: that the Chinese restaurant is practically a German invention. The name alone is strange, who has ever heard of a French restaurant? But that's practical, thinks Dagmar Yu-Dembski, the Berlin daughter of a German and a Chinese: This is how all Chinese restaurants are listed together in the yellow pages. Who can remember names like Hua Li Du and Hua Li Fu? In case of doubt not even the Chinese themselves, the words are just more or less arbitrary transcriptions of the characters.

400 Chinese restaurants in Berlin

In Berlin alone there should be a good 400 restaurants. You can hardly tell them apart. Even the furnishings usually consist of the same ingredients, red lanterns, China lions, China bows, everything can be ordered from wholesalers via catalog. The guest does not have to embark on an adventure, which is described in detail on the menu, that is exactly what is included in the dish: Chicken with peppers and bamboo shoots, dumplings with minced pork and Chinese cabbage. It doesn't matter whether you order number 63 in Gelsenkirchen in January or 143 in Kassel in June, the menus, shrink-wrapped in plastic, are mostly the same. Fried noodles with beef, fried noodles with duck, fried noodles with prawns, variations of a theme are served, flavored with glutamate, the flavor enhancer and meat tenderizer that can trigger the dreaded "China restaurant syndrome": headache, body aches, nausea, drier Mouth.

Gone are the days when people still believed the food's promise of happiness, the “melody of the sea”, the “duck in happiness”, and the Chinese restaurant brought a new exotic touch to the German pea stew. In the 1960s, when the bars experienced their first boom, even eating with chopsticks was a great adventure. At that time, her in-laws from Spandau had never been to a Chinese restaurant, says Dagmar Yu-Dembski, who is currently preparing a book and an exhibition about Chinese in Berlin. "That was scary to them."

Chinese restaurants are the last refuge of German cuisine, only with folklore

As if such a thing even existed: Chinese cuisine. One could just as well speak of a European one. In a country that covers nine and a half million square kilometers, has 1.3 billion inhabitants and all sorts of different climatic zones, there are also countless culinary regions: Hunan, Canton, Szechuan ... You can get anything there, just not necessarily sweet and sour, it seems more like a German specialty to be. When Helmut Kohl traveled to Canton and ordered sweet and sour beef, he had to explain to the cook how to do it. Since then it has been said to be on the menu under his name.

In order to survive in Germany, the Chinese restaurants had to adapt to local tastes. “If they were Chinese,” believes Gunther Hirschfelder from the University of Bonn, “nobody would go there.” Any German who likes tiger penis or hedgehog ragout, enjoys burping and blowing his nose at the table, messing with each other, shoveling rice into his mouth ? No, their success - even in the deepest provinces - is, according to the cultural scientist, justified in their being German: "The China-eatery is the last refuge of middle-class German cuisine, only packed with folklore." Parents liked to eat, and something that is becoming increasingly rare, first a soup and then the main course, a lot of meat with a lot of sauce, plenty of side dishes and all kinds of vegetables. Crispy roast duck with bamboo shoots and pineapple and water chestnuts and apples, there would never be anything like that in China, where you are satisfied with one ingredient. While the German cuisine is becoming more and more Mediterranean, the Italian is getting leaner, and the Greeks and Yugoslavs (who, like the Chinese, fulfilled the basic German need: lots of food for little money) are threatened with extinction, the Chinese restaurant alone shows, according to Hirschfelder, "Strangely rigid tendencies to persevere".

In the east, Chinese restaurants are often run by the Vietnamese

In case of doubt, it is not run by the Chinese at all, but by the Vietnamese. Especially if it's in the east. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall - and shortly before it - there was only one Chinese bar in the whole of the GDR: “Peking”, planned as a jewel on the new Friedrichstrasse. It was expensive and mostly empty, a temple for the leaders of socialism. After the fall of the Wall, the Chinese restaurants shot up across the board, and many Vietnamese contract workers gained a new livelihood. The self-proclaimed inventor of the China pan, who discovered the “FAZ” in East Berlin, also comes from Vietnam. Such cheap versions displace the already cheap eateries, the snack bar now appears in global form: “Chinese, Thai and kebab specialties” for 2.50 euros.

As a serious gastronomic institution, the restaurant is practically a Chinese invention. The Romans already had a lot of bars, but these were mostly pubs and fast food establishments. Home-style restaurants did not establish themselves in Europe until the French Revolution. The Chinese already had a few centuries of experience behind them. In Linan of the 13th century, as Gert von Paczensky and Anna Dünnebier write in their cultural history of eating and drinking, there were inns, tea rooms, wine bars, snack bars, noodle stands, soup kitchens and pastry shops as well as a wide range of restaurants: “Some cooked in style of the north, a hearty cuisine with offal and thick soups, some in the slightly finer and lighter style of the south with game and poultry, some offered the spicy Szechwan cuisine and some the noodle and fish cuisine from the Kiuzhou area. There were restaurants for breakfast and those that were open all night, vegetarian restaurants in which mainly Buddhists ate, and those for Muslim merchants where they were sure they would not be served with pork or snails. "

Tai-Tung, Berlin's oldest Chinese restaurant

The first bars in Berlin were also more upscale. When Chinese sons from a good family came to study at the Technical University - "word got around that you could live here for a third of the money compared to London and Paris," says Yu-Dembski - restaurants soon opened in Charlottenburg opened. In 1923 the first opened on Kantstrasse, the newspapers were enthusiastic about the dignified restaurant, the white tablecloths, the (German) waiters in tails, the elegant young guests. The food, prepared by a real Chinese chef, is a bit strange, said one critic - “but also suitable for Europeans in digestive and aesthetic terms”. A small culinary center quickly developed around Kantstrasse, and in 1931 there were already eight restaurants.

The first restaurants that opened after the war were also dignified. Yu-Dembski's father was one of a number of academics who stayed in Germany after completing their studies and became innkeepers for lack of professional alternatives. On Kurfürstendamm, the engineer and a friend opened a Hong Kong bar and restaurant on the first floor, "that was a sensation back then," Hildegard Knef stopped by. On the other side of the Memorial Church, at the same time, exactly 50 years ago, two other academics opened Tai-Tung, which is now probably the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city. And the most famous internationally. On Budapester Straße, Harald Juhnke and Peking duck still refer to the restaurant to this day. Susanne Juhnke is the daughter of the founder and sister of the current operator, Tien-Wen Hsiao. The advertisement is the first thing Daniel Brühl sees in the film “Goodbye Lenin” when he arrives at the Zoo station: Riddles of the West.

German Chinese restaurants in Italy

The Tai-Tung was once a home-style eatery with a cloakroom and famous guests, Peter Zadek is still one of them today, Willy Brandt and his advisors came here regularly. The 60s and 70s, according to Hsiao, were the prime. Today it has become quieter in the huge restaurant, which also houses remnants of the old "Hong Kong". Sour hot soup, sweet and sour pork, crispy duck roasted, spring rolls: the classics, says Hsiao, shouldn't be crossed off the menu. But the modern competition has long been on the doorstep. The new Asians have settled along Kantstrasse (and lots of Chinese furniture stores): Vietnamese sushi bars, Mr. Hai, Good Friends, Kuchi, Tai Ji, the Selig with its northwest Chinese noodle kitchen. Most of them are decorated in a minimalist way and serve food as the Germans have come to know on their travels through Asia.

But maybe the traditional Chinese restaurants are also about to experience a renaissance: due to the growing number of Chinese package tour groups. The Chinese prefer to eat Chinese, just the thought of a cold German breakfast scares them, and they cannot understand why everyone here eats from their own plate. In Tai-Tung, they are automatically placed at the large round tables and served with steamed eel and the spicy tofu dish with minced meat.

The German Chinese restaurant may also emigrate to Italy. If you can find a foreign restaurant there - Italians prefer to eat Italian - then it is guaranteed to be Chinese. At the beginning of the 1980s, according to a recent report, there were 100 Chinese restaurants all over Italy; today there are said to be more than 400 in Milan alone.

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