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Eating Chinese


     People in the U.S. often ask why I keep coming back to China. I tell them, for one thing, I eat better here than I do in the States. If they were brought up on "starving kids in China" stories, their usual reaction is disbelief, so I go on to explain that the food is better here in two ways:
     First, freshness. The Chinese seldom eat canned or frozen foods. Most of their traditional diet is grown locally and eaten within a couple of days at most after harvest. (This may be changing, in large part because of the increasing popularity of foreign-style supermarkets and fast-food restaurants.)
     Second, variety. Chinese markets carry just about every kind of fruit and vegetable available in the States, plus a large number of things that most Americans have never even heard of. (See Liuzhou Laowai's
Friday Food posts for examples.) An astonishing variety of seafood and meats is also available, most of which Americans will have heard of but probably never dreamed of eating.
     Northern Chinese will jokingly tell you that the people in south China eat anything with four legs except a table, and anything that flies except an airplane. Truth is, though, the Northerners are no more squeamish in their diets than the Southerners are. I went to a banquet once in north China where the main course was stir-fried cicadas. I felt compelled to try one, and even pretended to enjoy it.
     For the first few years after China opened up to the West, the most common complaint from foreign tourists was the food – not that they didn't like it, but that there was too much of it. Most tours included set meals where the menu had been chosen in advance by the tour companies. They knew that Westerners are picky eaters, so they didn't serve anything "exotic". Still, they wanted to treat the tourists like "honored guests", so they served copious amounts of gourmet dishes at every meal. The tourists were appalled at being served so much more than they could possibly finish. By the mid-1980s, the tour companies had realized that treating Westerners like gourmands was just a waste of money, so they toned it down several notches.
     Conspicuous consumption in China often takes the form of excess food at banquets and other meals. I once watched a young man seated alone in the dining area of a tour boat. He ordered one serving of every dish on the menu – over twenty dishes all told – and took only one or two bites from each dish. (I don't think he was a reporter because he wasn't taking notes.) The Chinese Communist Party has recently endorsed an "
empty plate campaign" in an attempt to put an end to this kind of behavior. Good luck!
     Although I like Chinese food, I do have a couple of complaints – not about the food itself, but how it's prepared and eaten. First, Chinese butchers and cooks use cleavers to chop the food into those nice little bite-sized pieces. This works fine for veggies, but chopping meat this way leaves behind tiny pieces of broken bones. If you eat anywhere outside the expensive tourist hotels, you need to chew very carefully if you value your teeth. (Pebbles in the rice can also be a problem, if you buy cheap rice.)
     I once asked a Chinese cook if he broke the bones on purpose, on the theory that releasing the marrow might have health benefits or improve the flavor of the dish. He said no, bones get broken only because you have to use a cleaver to cut the meat. I suggested that using a saw would do the job without leaving bone chips, and he looked at me like I was crazy. "Don't you have anything better to worry about?"
     My other complaint is going to seem like sacrilege: I think chopsticks are ridiculous. Anything that can be eaten conveniently with chopsticks can be eaten just as conveniently with Western cutlery. On the other hand, there are many things that can't be eaten conveniently with chopsticks – things like peas, or fried eggs, or even rice that isn't sticky. In short, Western cutlery is more versatile and therefore better. The only reason the Chinese continue using chopsticks is blind tradition. Well, maybe there's another reason, too – chopsticks are cheaper.


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