How do you explain the allure of North American Chinese food to a non-American?
It’s sweet and sour. It’s saucy. It’s just the right amount of greasy. It wouldn’t be recognised in Beijing, Shanghai or Chengdu. It was born out of the resourcefulness of immigrant chefs facing a lack of traditional ingredients and a xenophobic clientele. It’s exactly like the Europeanised food at your local China Wok or Asia Box, except… well, it just isn’t, okay?
In the States, the resurgent popularity of Chinese-American cuisine involves some gatekeep-y class shenanigans. It’s only cool to proclaim your love for Panda Express’ orange chicken if you’re aware it’s not a “real” Chinese dish like hand-pulled Xi’an noodles or ma la rabbit head, in the same way that it’s gauche to enjoy watching Vin Diesel drive cars in space unless you’re also an Ingmar Bergman fan. Things get even trickier here in Berlin, where, having spent years turning up their noses at the “inauthenticity” of the city’s Chinese restaurants, entitled US transplants are now crashing Wolt with their demand for a proudly inauthentic new Chinese delivery service from the Israeli-Japanese-American team at House of Small Wonder.
At the same time, Leute, I am a Jew from the US Northeast. I have duck sauce running through my veins. And so I won’t deny that when I heard about Babba Chu, the “New York-style” takeout operation run out of HOSW’s temporary home on Augustraße, I was on the way to Mitte before you could say “Shut up and take my money.”
The biggest difference between this stuff and Euro-Chinese food is, of course, an imperial fuckton of sugar. But the US version also makes more liberal use of cornstarch, whether as a sauce thickener, a meat marinade or a fry batter ingredient. Exhibit A: the General Tso’s chicken at Babba Chu, glossy and candy-sweet with only the slightest hint of spice, velvet-soft on the inside with a rugged coating that maintains its crunch even when you eat cold leftovers for lunch the next day, as you absolutely should.
If you’re also from the US, it’s that dish, or any of the other fried, sauced chicken, beef or tofu options, that’ll most scratch your nostalgia itch, along with the soups – hot and sour was my favourite back home, and Babba Chu’s thick, mushroomy version is spot-on. The fried rice and spring rolls basically resemble their European counterparts, but are worth tacking on as sides. I was less enamoured of the vegan Yu Xiang eggplant, delicious on its own but buried in a damp, unappealing mountain of soymeat. A veggie-only stir-fry or two would be a much-appreciated addition to the menu (along with those little bags of crispy wonton strips… you know the ones I mean).
While I lost myself in memories of mall food court visits and Chinatown field trips, my Dutch dining companion came away thoroughly unimpressed, labelling the €34 meal “a step above Asia Box” and underlining the niche appeal of this culinary genre. Are there enough Amis (and Germans eager to demonstrate that they’ve been to NYC) to keep Babba Chu in business? I’m guessing yes. But they shouldn’t forget to explore Berlin’s actual Chinese restaurant scene while they’re at it. More on that next week.
Babba Chu Auguststr. 11, takeout or delivery via Wolt (Mitte only), Wed-Sun 17:30-21:30