Each week, we’re crowning the main character of the past seven days, dissecting the drama, unpacking the debate and championing the heroes. First up: the Great British Chinese takeaway. She is the moment.
It’s OK to say Britain is crap if you’re British. In the nebulous rulebook of shitting on something, taking the piss out of your home country falls into the same category as calling a sibling a dickhead: fine for family members, off limits for everyone else. Sure, the UK isn’t exactly one big happy family at the moment and, yes, there is a long list of legitimate reasons for the rest of the world to have a dig at us, but some things are off limits. Some things, in fact, are so outrageously offensive they have the power to unite our divided nation, all in the name of defending our precious traditions against venomous hate speech.
Top of that list: the British Chinese takeaway – “a Chinese”, we should say. As anyone online will know, the great British tradition of scoffing enough Chinese food to feed four families come Friday night has come under international scrutiny over the past week. It started innocently enough, when a couple of top lads and huns uploaded their Chinese hauls to TikTok.
As a Brit, these videos were a glorious sight, no-holds-barred unboxings of the kind of meal that makes you feel a bit dizzy after inhaling it in front of the TV. Chicken balls, fried rice, chow mein, salt and pepper chips, fluorescent red sweet and sour prawns, crispy chilli beef, spring rolls, prawn crackers and, of course, curry sauce, all fighting to stay on the same plate. An impeccably curated heart attack.
But then the TikTok algorithm decided to start a war. As soon as these videos ended up on America’s For You Pages, critics across the pond burst into outrage. They took issue with our curry sauce, our chicken balls, our predilection for pairing black bean sauce with “French fries”. They even came for our slang, claiming that the very phrase “getting a Chinese” is, as one user put it, “not intended to be racist, but it feels like it is a little bit.”
Naturally, Brits quickly set the record straight, explaining that, as a nation, we simply cannot be bothered to add “food” or “takeaway” into our sentences, no matter the cuisine’s cultural origins: an Indian, a Mexican, a full English. We’re too busy complaining about the weather for unnecessary words. Yet still the debate rages on. “Why is everything brown?” Americans ask, dumbfounded. “Why is it all on one plate?” they rage in disgust. “It’s not even real Chinese food!”
Back off, yeah? Firstly, there is not a single person in the UK who is under the illusion that chips (yes, chips) with chicken balls is an authentic Chinese delicacy. We are well aware that the nation’s favourite dishes are an anglicised version of Chinese cuisine, adapted by takeaway owners to cater for our painfully beige palettes. Besides, it’s not like American Chinese food can claim authenticity: one of the most popular dishes in the US is orange chicken, an innovation from American fast food chain Panda Express.
And that’s fine. The evolution of both British and American Chinese food was born out of necessity, as Chinese immigrants set up shop and altered traditional recipes according to the available ingredients and, crucially, what customers wanted to eat. As food writer Angela Hui, who grew up in a Chinese takeaway and literally wrote the book on them, puts it, British Chinese takeaways “were the grassroots of many Chinese families including my own who came to this country with nothing.”
There has been one upside to this silly little food war, though. On the eve of King Charles III’s coronation, a week when Brits are even further divided into royalists and abolitionists, our shared rage over attacks on our beloved curry sauce has brought people together. The Royal Family could only dream of inspiring the amount of patriotism that the Great British Chinese debate has riled up. How embarrassing to be upstaged by a chicken ball.