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Eating in China

May 21, 2012

We get asked quite a lot by Chinese people whether we like Chinese food, and I always say yes, despite losing about 5 pounds since my arrival in February (I chalk this up to more exercise from walking everywhere).  Chinese folks are very proud of their rich cuisine and its not hard to see why, even though it’s taken me several months to hone my chopsticks chops so that I’m not spilling food all the time.  This is not to say that every dish suits the novice palate but that the whole experience is completely different than the typical Western dining scene.  It’s about the food, but it’s even more about being with other people, sharing an important daily event.  Food is not at all taken for granted here, and this is understandable given China’s having to deal fairly recently with famine — notably during grain shortages brought on by China’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward” economic campaign of 1958-1961  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Leap_Forward).  Perhaps this helps explain the reverence for good, hearty food that we see everywhere we travel in China.

Menu for home-cooked dinner

For one thing, and especially at more elaborate dinners (we’ve had a few of these since I’ve been a guest speaker at various universities), there are a tremendous number of dishes served: anywhere from 15 to 25 different dishes on the giant lazy susan and round table that nearly all restaurants use.  All of this food served up for a group of maybe 8 to 15 people.  This would include the following: tea, beer, several kinds of soup, several kinds of greens (typically special, local ones), several meat dishes, one or more tofu dishes, whole fishes, various vegetable dishes, and sometimes more exotic (to me) plates of jellyfish, bullfrog, quail eggs, etc.  The variety of food served here is just dizzying and hard to keep track of, especially since it varies so much by region and is for the most part entirely unlike the Chinese food served at USA restaurants.  Curiously, at most of these dinners, there’s usually no rice served.  I’m told that at dinners for honored guests, one would typically not serve humble white rice.

Cooking lesson in Nanjing

But the most important and wonderful aspect of Chinese eating is the spirit of enjoyment that Chinese people express while at the table.  Lots of toasting, lots of raucous conversation, plenty of exuberant filling of one another’s glasses and plates, elbows flying, lighting of cigarettes (for the men only), and scraps of bone and shell tossed casually aside after savoring the good bits.  A truly messy table at the end of the meal signifies great success for the cook.  Eating is an unapologetic celebration here, whether it be a simple snack with friends or an elaborate formal dinner.

We were most honored to have been invited lately to join some friends at their apartment for family dinner.   And even better to have been given a turn at the wok to learn something about Chinese cooking firsthand.  Truly a pleasure and privilege to enjoy this kind of hospitality.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Terence permalink
    May 21, 2012 11:50 pm

    Streeeeeeeeeeeeeet food!! =)

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