Food Culture in China

Before leaving for China, nearly every one of my friends took me out for Chinese food. However, many of them were curious if food in China actually bore resemblance to what Americans view as “Chinese food.” As was illustrated by our first lecture, food in China is not simply rice and chopsticks, but is the center of much of the local culture. Since coming to China, I have seen this firsthand and had a variety of experiences that both met my expectations and changed my views on Chinese food culture.

In the lecture given by Professor Jia Huixuan, I learned that food is the foundation of Chinese culture. Commonly, people greet each other with “Have you eaten?” rather than “How are you?” The food culture here in China is not the result of chance, but rather by a determined Imperial interest in food and drink. Real Chinese food is varied beyond belief, as is emphasized by the saying that Chinese people will eat anything that flies except airplanes, anything that has legs except for a table, and anything that swims except for ships. Furthermore, methods of preparation are quite varied and sometimes cruel to the animals being cooked. For example, in one Imperial dish, a duck is roasted alive in a cage with a dish of sauces. As the fire increases in temperature, the duck drinks the sauces and is cooked and flavored inside and out. All in all, some 32 different cooking methods exist in China.

In the lecture, I also learned about the connection between food, luck, and health. The temperature of food is very important, with hot food being prevalent. Hot food is easier to digest and better for one’s health. The same is true for drinks: hot tea is common even on the hottest of days. After drinking a cup of hot tea, the first nine minutes might not be pleasant, but after that the tea drinker will feel much better than someone who has imbibed a cold drink. The connection between food and luck frequently has practical roots. For example, shrimp are considered healthful because they have the posture of an old man (indicating that one will grow to old age). The Chinese words for deer and prosperity sound very similar. Carp are connected with career success because of the manner in which they jump up, like a businessperson climbing the corporate ladder. Noodles and peaches are considered longevity foods; noodles are long and a Chinese legend claims that a peach tree takes 3000 years to give fruit.

What I learned in the classroom pales in comparison to what I have learned in practice. Primarily, I have noticed that the food, though differently prepared, is often served similarly: communal dishes with bite sized pieces. The use of chopsticks accounts for this similarity. I have found great variety in the types of food, however. Sea cucumber, shrimp and fish, all types of meat, as well as some very unique dishes such as lotus root and bitter melon. Excepting the Imperial Restaurant in Bei-Hai Park, I have not encountered much sweet food or dessert of any type. Something else I have learned outside the classroom involves the drinking culture. Toasting another person in rooted in social status. For example, if I were toasting someone older than myself, I would raise my glass lower to show respect.

I expected to eat a lot of rice here, but that is the only expectation regarding food that China has met. I also expected to encounter more noodle based dishes, but I have not found this to be the case. The communal nature of meals as well as the variety of tastes is very new to me. Some foods, including lotus root, were completely foreign to me. While some dishes in China are similar to those found in the United States, I have found that that real Chinese food exists in much greater variety and includes tastes that do not exist in mainstream American culture. In addition, culture in China is build around food. At meals given to guests, portions are large and the guest is not expected to eat everything. To run out of food is a great embarrassment. However, in the United States this sentiment does not exist…in fact, to not finish a meal may sometimes be taken as an insult to the chef.

It is difficult to balance views on food culture in China, as it is not at all a controversial issue. As I mentioned, in preparing for this trip I ate a considerable amount of American-Chinese food. I think that many Americans realize that food is different in China, but do not have any idea the extent of the difference. I honestly did not know what to expect. In addition, I do not think that most Americans realize how widely food culture varies in China from area to area. I have not experimented with Western food in China and do not have any comments regarding local views on the matter.

Facts supporting my views on Chinese food culture are easy to come by, but impossible to cite. The simple experience of eating in a Chinese restaurant as a guest of a local person is enough to confirm much of what I have said. Food culture in China is fundamental to society and enters into many aspects of daily life. I hope that by visiting various areas of the country I will encounter more exotic and interesting bits of Chinese food culture.

Food and Drinking Culture in China
Philip Magistro
2001.07.01
Pitt in China

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