On the Culture of Chinese Food

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My life right now is a swirl of different ways that I am getting ready to move to China.  One of the things I am doing right now is entering the world of China through reading a variety of books related to China.  Some of them I have had on my “to read” list for awhile and some I have recently discovered.   

One of Our Favorite Xi’an Restaurants, 2008

I recently finished The Last Chinese Chef, a novel about Maggie, an American food writer who goes to Beijing to investigate a paternity claim against her late husband’s estate.  Her editor gives her an assignment to profile an up and coming Chinese-American chef.  In the process Maggie discovers a lot about Chinese cuisine, modern Chinese culture, love, and herself.  Author Nicole Mones, who also wrote Lost in Translation, helps the reader enter into the world of Chinese cuisine

When Maggie sits down to write her article, she thinks about what she has learned about Chinese food.  She realizes that “From the family on out, food was at the heart of China’s human relationships. It was the basic fulcrum of interaction. All meals were shared. Nothing was ever plated for the individual. She realized this was exactly the opposite from the direction in which Eurocentric cuisine seemed to be moving—toward the small, the stacked, the precious, above all the individual presentation.  The very concept of individual presentation was alien here.  And that made everything about eating different” (The Last Chinese Chef, chapter 10).

Her (fictional) observation fits with what I observed and experienced in China.  Everything about eating is different.  All food is served family style—whether at home or in a restaurant.  No one dish can stand as its own meal.  When you go out to eat in a restaurant, you order for the table, not each individual person.  If you order well you get a good combination of dishes, dishes with different meats and vegetables with different flavors and textures.  If everyone tries to order what they want to eat, you usually end up with a poor mix (I have been with groups of foreigners who have tried).  I have also had wonderful meals where I didn’t order anything, my Chinese host picked all the dishes.  At one of the schools where I worked, one of our administrators was especially talented in ordering food so our dinners with him were always a treat.  He picked interesting and delicious dishes (he also tended to know what sort of foods foreigners tend to be less excited about and avoided them). 

When the dishes come, they are placed in the center of the table (on a big lazy susan, if it is a big table) so everyone can share them.  It is a great way to share food with a group and build community, because it is so communal.  This communal way of eating reflects Chinese culture, which is much more focused on what is best for the group as opposed to the individual.  These sort of cultural observations fascinate me—how even our eating habits reflect the values of the culture.

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An Elaborate Banquet, 2006

What was newer to me from The Last Chinese Chef was the complexity of ways that meals can reflect themes and be inspired by poetry, for instance.  The chef in the novel is in a cooking competition and his final meal is inspired by a poem, so all of the various dishes had to reflect just the right feeling.  The way that he decorated and presented the dishes also had to point toward the theme.  It makes wonder if I have ever eaten a meal inspired by something like that.  If I have, my lack of knowledge of Chinese history, culture, and language made me totally oblivious to the fact that something that subtle could be going on. 

China has a rich and complex literary culture and a long and fascinating history.  This novel explores ways that “In addition to connecting people to one another, food was the mediator between the Chinese and their culture. By its references to art and the achievements of civilization, it bound the diner to his or her own soul.  Okay, she admitted, it was clubby, and maybe possible only in a closed society of long history, but she had never been in a place where the web was so rich” (chapter 14).  I think Maggie is right—we just don’t have anything like this in American culture, probably in part because we have such a short history and are a rather porous society.  It is one of the things I love about China, the rich history and culture.  I am really looking forward to having years to experience it and learn more about it.  I am sure that for however long I am in China I will continue to learn more and more about the nuances of history and culture.


P.S. I promise to work on my food photography so I can show you better photos of delicious Chinese food!



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