Why Is Everyone On TikTok Talking About British Chinese Takeaway?

chinese takeaways in uk
What Is TikTok's Beef With British Chinese Food?Getty Images / Shuttershock

Most of us are familiar with American Chinese takeout food – the iconic white square cardboard box with a red pagoda logo and wonton font displaying ‘Thank You’ and ‘Enjoy’. When unfolded, it reveals steaming noodles, beef and broccoli and orange chicken, which has become an ubiquitous image in American pop culture. But it appears that many Americans may not be as familiar with the British version.

In recent TikTok posts, American users are expressing their confusion for British influencers sharing images of their Chinese takeaway orders plated high with chicken balls, chow mein, chips and curry sauce and some even go so far to question if ‘the British are eating out of a dumpster?’

open containers of chinese take away food ready for serving
JohnnyGreig - Getty Images

Besides the dispute over British Chinese takeaway dishes, Tiktoker Soogia debates in her video whether ‘getting a Chinese’ is something of an offensive phrase. As TikTok user hezzieeee, whose parents own a Chinese takeaway in Britain explains in her video, “it’s just very lazy British slang shortened from ‘let’s get a Chinese takeaway’ to ‘let’s get a Chinese’, which applies to all types of cuisines.” She goes to to say she considers it on the same wavelength as ‘getting an Indian’ or even ‘getting a cheeky Nando's’.

In the US, Chinese takeout is often ordered from sit-down restaurants, where customers have the option to order takeout or dine-in, which allows for space to cook more complex dishes such as egg rolls, broccoli beef and General Tso's chicken. Across the pond, British Chinese takeaways are strictly food-to-go establishments, with no on-site dining option available. Meaning that freshly cooked British Chinese food has to be something that travels well and is meant to be consumed at home or on the move.

Aside from different dishes and dining experiences, Chinese food in the UK has a long history of an immigrant community adapting food to local tastes in order to survive. In the 1950s and 60s, there was a huge influx of Hong Kong immigrants from the New Territories over to the UK. The majority of these Chinese families worked at launderettes, takeaways and restaurants. Many took over former fish and chip shops after the war, which is why you’ll find that British Chinese takeaways often serve fish and chips, chicken balls, curry sauce, sausages, and pies alongside egg fried rice, chow mein and spring rolls.

At the time, fresh ingredients weren’t as readily available as they are now. There was a heavy reliance on tinned foodstuff such as bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, hardier vegetables like green peppers and onions and many grew bean sprouts at home from mung beans.

a woman with a small child passes a restaurant in londons chinatown, 21st october 1992 photo by steve easongetty images
Steve Eason

“If anything, it’s really started a conversation and an interest in the history of the British Chinese community,” explains London-based content creator Shu Lin, who is second generation, British born Chinese, and whose family also used to own a Chinese takeaway.

“An example of just some of our contributions and the engagement from it means more people outside of our communities in the UK and into the US are more aware about learning British Chinese history and current life, which is more than I’ve ever seen growing up.”

I grew up and worked in my parents’ Chinese takeaway in the South Wales valleys throughout most of my childhood until I was 26. And it’s interesting to see that the American or the British equivalent is neither better nor worse just slightly different and the differences are jarring if you’re used to one or the other.

Chinese food in the UK is often seen as quick, exotic, cheap and it’s often looked down upon, but Chinese takeaways have helped shape the UK’s economy and food culture and it has become one of the nation’s favourite foods. British Chinese food came from struggle and is beautiful in its own right and it took a lot of blood, sweat, tears and chicken balls to get to where it is today.

Angela's book Takeaway: Stories from a childhood behind the counter is available to order in hardback now, and in paperback from 20th July.