The Difference Between British And American Chinese Takeout

Lately, videos of British TikTokers unboxing food from Chinese takeout restaurants — called "takeaways" in England — have been trending online. But the trend sparked controversy when an American TikToker posted a video expressing discomfort at the way they referred to their food as "a Chinese."

"I know it's not intended to be racist but it just feels like it is a little bit," they explained. "Do British people also say 'I'm going out for a Greek' or is it exclusively just when they talk about Chinese food?" They also noted that the food looked nothing like the Chinese food they were familiar with. Common items included curry sauce, a dish referred to as "chicken balls," and french fries or "chips."

Their concerns were valid. Referring to Chinese food as "a Chinese" certainly does sound strange — and suspect — to American ears. In a following video, the TikToker clarified that is simply the result of a linguistic quirk between British and American English. They cited an explanation from an American TikToker living in England.

In American English, "Chinese takeout" is shortened from "Chinese takeout food." The British practice of saying "a Chinese," meanwhile, stems from the phrase "a Chinese takeaway meal." Brits use "a Chinese" since they're referring to the singular, countable "meal" rather than the uncountable "food." As British TikTokers were quick to point out, they do indeed refer to Greek takeout as "a Greek."

Linguistic controversy aside, internet denizens still have questions: why does British Chinese food look so different?

Why is British Chinese food unique?

Writer Angela Hui was quick to comment on the controversy, pointing out that British Chinese food — while bearing little resemblance to the food found in China — was the result of the hard work and innovation of Chinese immigrants.

"[Takeaways] were the grassroots of many Chinese families including my own who came to this country with nothing," Hui tweeted. She should know: her upcoming memoir, "Takeaway: Stories from a Childhood Behind the Counter," chronicles her life growing up in her family's restaurant. Hui maintains that British Chinese food should be considered an important cuisine in its own right. She added, "I will fight anyone who thinks chicken balls are bad."

After all, many of the foods that Americans associate with Chinese takeout would seem out of place in China, too. There's a reason for that — in both Britain and America, Chinese immigrants were forced to adapt to fit regional tastes.

Take salt and pepper chips, a takeaway staple, which features British chips tossed with Chinese five-spice seasoning and sauteed vegetables. Originating in the 1900s, it's an ingenious combination of classic British street food and Chinese cuisine. Chips doused in "Chinese curry" are also popular. Though curry isn't traditionally Chinese, takeaway shops likely adapted it from Indian cuisine to create something entirely new.

What makes American Chinese food unique?

In the 1800s, when Chinese restaurants first began to appear in the United States, they largely catered to immigrants looking for a taste of home. Slandered in American newspapers as "unhygienic," these restaurants often struggled to stay afloat in a hostile environment.

Over time, Chinese-American cuisine began to adapt. Chop suey was one of the first dishes to go mainstream. In the 1920s, it took off among the broader American public. "Americanized" dishes followed, developed for customers eager for something new and different — but not too different.

Things started to shift in the latter part of the 20th century. After President Nixon visited China in 1972, Americans became interested in "authentic" Chinese food. With increased familiarity came increased demand, but American inventions like General Tso's chicken, fortune cookies, and crab rangoon still remain popular to this day.

Even among those who recognize its unique cultural contributions, the Chinese takeout found in America and Britain is often labeled "inauthentic." The complicated history — one closely tied to racism — can elicit mixed emotions. However, for some children of immigrant families, it represents a different kind of authenticity. If not authentic to China, it is authentic to the immigrant experience.