For me, this is as important if not more important than breathing. I have the appetite of a lumberjack coming home from a day of felling trees, wrestling with a bear and trudging across miles of rough mountainous terrain. To put it simply: I can eat. Before I came to China, I was rather partial to a Chinese meal from my local eatery , the oh so exotically named ‘Magic Wok’. However to my complete surprise, my usual dishes of salt and chilli chips, chicken curry with fried rice and battered chicken balls are not considered traditional Chinese cuisine. Needless to say I have had my eyes opened to what true Chinese food is all about. One thing that many people commented on when I announced I was moving here was that I would probably unsuspectingly eat some dog nuggets, maybe a rat burger or two? Or possibly a cat carbonara? The general opinion that many people seem to have is that Chinese people will eat pretty much animal they can get their hands on and they might not always make guests (paying or otherwise) aware of all of the ingredients in each dish. I would like to try to clear up this common misconception by sharing my own experiences and what I have learned by being here.
So let’s talk weird and wonderful as that will probably be one of the first things I am asked when I return home, ‘What was the food like?’ ‘Did you eat anything really crazy?’ My honest answer to that latter question is: Not really, I have been a bit of a wimp! The most extreme dish I have tried is probably bull frog. It tasted a bit like chicken but with a similar texture to fish. Is there more adventurous stuff to try here, well yeah! There is octopus, chicken feet, chicken neck, insects,snake, crocodile and something called ‘stinky’ tofu which smells like what I can only imagine an old sock marinated in the accumulative sweat of a rugby team, would smell like. Despite the pong, many people here enjoy this delicacy but I must say I don’t think I will join them any time soon. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t turn my nose up at all foods if they are a bit smelly. I would happily stink up my whole house with a room full of blue cheese if it meant I could eat it everyday without A. clogging my arteries and B. never being able to invite friends round either because they hate blue cheese or for fear that the buggers might steal my stash. However cheese is something that is not commonly eaten here unless you go to a Western restaurant that is. It’s something I had never really thought about before coming to China but now I think about ole Magic Wok and any other Chinese restaurants or takeaways I have been to in the past, my beloved Cheddar was never on the menu. In the beginning of my Asian adventure I struggled through my cheese deprivation, I sought counsel from friends and family, I gazed longily at pictures of Brie online (in between cat videos) until finally I said ENOUGH! I made a trip to the imported goods supermarket and I paid the higher price for some much needed pasteurised bliss. It was worth it for those moments of sheer happiness and since then I have overcome my deprivation by occasionally (perhaps more) allowing myself to eat a Western meal or buy a block or three of cheese. Everyone is fighting a battle, this is mine.
OK, let’s move back to the topic at hand: Chinese food. Something that became clear to me very quickly after eating just a few meals with Chinese people is the sense of community that is instilled in the dining experience. Sharing is a big factor and a meal will usually consist of 10 or more different dishes to pick and choose from. Lazy Susan usually makes an appearance and despite her name she is never late. That’s because she is a spinning device that sits on top of the table which allows you to pass food without actually having to get up or awkwardly reach over someone. It’s refreshing to have so much variety in one meal. There is always a huge choice of meat, fish, vegetables and a lovely fruit plate. In my experience, it is not often clear what is in each dish and it is a bit of a guessing game which sometimes pays off and sometimes doesn’t. Chinese people like to order food for the table and this can make many people feel uncomfortable. I say embrace it, at least a few times so that you try things you never would have otherwise. As I say sometimes it works out and you have a new favourite dish. Part of the culture is also that if a Chinese person invites you to dinner they will normally not expect you to pay for the meal and if you try to they might get a little peeved. I believe it’s always polite to at least offer and I haven’t been smacked in the face for it yet!
Once you have the meal it’s good etiquette to return the invitation within the following couple of weeks or so. The thing that I like about Chinese people is that when they make a plan, they stick to it. No half arsed ‘Oh yes we should do lunch sometime’, they will think about when they are free, ask when you are too and set a date and time. I think it’s so common and granted, very easy to get stuck in your ways and regular routine so a change to the normal schedule might seem like a pain or an inconvenience. However as I’ve said before, getting out of your comfort zone and expanding your social circle is a great way to learn about the world, the other people in it and most significantly learn about yourself.
The cost of food here is generally much cheaper than the UK in terms of fruit, vegetables and eating out at local restaurants. There are greengrocers and fresh markets galore and they do not come with a marked up price and an air of pretention because people have decided that eating local produce is now the ‘in thing’. It’s just the way of life here. The hustle and bustle of the markets can be intimidating at first but it’s not without its charm. You can buy a whole range of meat, fruit, vegetables, steamed buns, dumplings and more. The businesses are family run and you can see Grandparents babysitting toddlers while managing the shop for the day or find the owners adorably scruffy puppy asleep in a basket of vegetable cuttings (this actually happened to me once). It’s completely different from the typical supermarket conglomerates I am used to which neatly showcase shiny produce from various parts of the world in perfect colour coordination. Like my bedroom as a teenager: It’s a bit messy but I like it.
I want to end by referring to one of my initial aims of this post: to show that Chinese people are not all thoughtless eaters, eating any and every animal for enjoyment. 30 years ago the majority of this nation lived in poverty. I have heard stories of Grandparents who ate tree bark and grass when they were children because they had nothing else to eat. There are some parts of China where dogs are still eaten today and the more I learn about this country the slower I am to judge these customs. Think about if you had nothing to eat or very little. You would do what you need to do to survive and to ensure that your family do the same. The situation today looks a little different but many habits are carried through. The country is becoming much more conscious of it’s responsibility to animals and also to the environment, something I think the Western ‘superpowers’ could do more to help with (but let’s not get too political today.) Since arriving here my relationship with food has also changed. I feel that I have an opportunity as a consumer to impact the kind of food that is sold. So when I leave China, I have decided to try being a Vegetarian. I won’t judge others around me who will continue to eat meat, I see no point. My reason is that I have always been an ‘animal lover’ and I have now questioned how accurate this statement can be if I continue choosing to eat them. So it’s something that I want to try and I have no doubt that I will find it tremendously difficult (Goodbye pate, beef quarter pounders and Chicken pesto penne!). However what we eat plays a vital role in our lives: it affects our mood, our energy and most importantly our health so I’m hoping that this change will improve all three.
Being in China has taught me a great deal about the family values here, the culture and what it means to share a meal with someone, to invite a person to your home and feed them. There is a lot to be learned from the Chinese food culture and a lot that the country itself is trying to learn as it develops and grows.
So today I encourage you to try to understand before you judge, ask questions if you do not understand and aim to show respect even if you aren’t sure whether it’s a delicious kidney bean on your dinner plate or in fact one of Kermits’ (the frog) vitals.
Photo credit: Duncan Errington