I am thrilled to have been asked to write a guest article for Justin’s blog. He knows how much I love food culture. It’s where my areas of interest intersect. For those of you who don’t know me, my undergraduate degree is in Sociology, then I continued on in the field of Education. Later, I went on to open my own restaurant, devoted to eating healthy and nutrition education. My specialty there is not the cooking, but the menu creation, flavor combination, and nutritional quality. That’s why the study of food culture is something I can write a blog about.
To be honest, I also just love to eat. It balances perfectly with Justin’s love of cooking. How lucky am I that he not only enjoys being in the kitchen, but he also keeps it strictly vegetarian for me? He’s definitely the fortune to my cookie.
On to business. You know the expression, “eat to live or live to eat”? Well, I believe that Americans mostly engage in the latter, while the Chinese seem to adhere to the former. Justin and I teach together in a rural boarding school. We eat most lunches in the cafeteria. Because they are delicious? No! Few cafeterias across the world meet that standard. But because there’s nothing else for miles around and this option is cheap. Really cheap. Both of us can eat for a combined 9 RMB, or $1.50. If we wanted to, we could eat dinner there too, but we stick to weekday lunches because it’s about all we can handle.
I knew before coming here that rice is the staple food, but I didn’t realize that it’s served with every single meal. That’s right, according to my students, it’s eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week. Fortunately, the chef is very generous and makes sure there is always a vegetarian option. However, it’s typically either potatoes (yep…the meal consists of just rice and potatoes) or an unnamed Chinese vegetable cooked in the same sauce as yesterday’s unnamed Chinese vegetable. Sometimes it’s even the same vegetable multiple days in a row.
Simply getting accustomed to only having chopsticks available is a feat unto itself (especially when you’re the only foreigners for miles around and everyone watches you to assess your skill). Once that’s mastered, it’s easier to take the time to observe the surroundings. Hundreds of people, yet not many talking to each other. They tend to have their faces very close to the lunch tray, while scooping food in with the chopsticks. It doesn’t look like anyone is enjoying the meal or the company. It’s a shame to me, but it’s the eat to live mentality.
So the cafeteria is subpar, but what about restaurants? Obviously there are more choices on what to order, but honestly, for me, the taste is relatively the same. The chefs could benefit from a lesson in spice variation. It’s pretty much MSG and that’s it. Apparently no one here got the memo on this deadly seasoning. Most restaurants have the same menu, and it’s communal dining. So if you’re going with a local, they are going to order and you have to eat whatever comes. Oh, and be prepared to double dip with your chopsticks. When fish is ordered, chances are it will be the entire fish that’s brought to the table, eyeball staring right up from the plate. I don’t eat it, but it certainly looks interesting.
When I visited China in 2010, I was taken to a restaurant specializing in Peking Duck. The duck was wheeled out by the chef and a proclamation, complete with identification number, was read to the group. The chef then proceeded to carve the duck in our room and serve every single edible piece to the family. I’m not sure why China lacks a food culture that is exciting for a foreign palate, but the majority of locals and tourists alike agree that China does seem to excel in duck.
The meat is always fresh, as people buy it from vendors that hang the carcasses out for inspection in markets. I have been told that the American way of buying meat isn’t comfortable for the Chinese. They prefer to know exactly what they are getting. In theory this seems like a smart idea, but in practice it’s not much fun to walk down the street to see dust and flies swirling among dead pig heads!
One aspect I like about restaurant dining here is the individual rooms. Not all restaurants, but many have separate rooms for each party. This privacy makes the dining experience more enjoyable for me.
We had the amazing opportunity to spend a weekend with my extended family. My uncle married a Chinese woman, whose parents, seven sisters, and their children all live about 6 hours from us. When we visited, they made a few, extravagant home cooked meals. These were Justin’s favorite meals here in China. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, we had about 25 family members eating the dinner that Grandma spent all day preparing. The familial bond around that table was completely worth the weekend. I can’t say I forgot the germ aspect of all those chopsticks going into the same dishes, but at least I was able to relax and enjoy.
During that weekend, we also had a private lesson from a few of my “aunts” in dumpling making. That was filled with laughs as Justin and I embarrassed ourselves by over stuffing the dumplings and having them explode. We eventually got the hang of it and they even made special vegetarian dumplings just for me!!
There is one more food adventure I would like to share. Last month Justin and I traveled to Beijing. If you haven’t read those blog posts, please scroll back and enjoy them (when you’re finished reading mine). One night we started talking to a group of American tourists. When they found out we live in China, they asked for a dinner recommendation. Assuming they wanted Chinese food, as they only had a short time here, I began trying to narrow down their preferences. We certainly had a chuckle when it turned out they had been here for two days and already wanted to eat anything except Chinese food! I completely understood how they felt.
Personally, however, I was on a mission to accomplish my food goal for the year. While I have been a vegetarian for ten years, I broke it once in Korea to try eating dog for the cultural experience and wanted again to have a weird, odd, and disgusting cultural experience in China. I mean…it’s Asia. You can’t get stuff this bizarre in New Jersey! I finally found what I was looking for from a street vendor. There is a famous snack food street in Beijing. Most tourists eat there, although it’s probably not the norm to try something exceptionally unusual.
Case in point: Despite my urging to eat something gross, since the choices included spider, centipede, bumblebee, starfish, or a full, coiled-up snake, Justin opted for a marinated lamb wrap and some fried pumpkin. My goal, however, was to try scorpion. I was assured that it wasn’t poisonous and that the whole thing could be ingested. It came on a skewer, which was then thrown into the fryer and sprinkled with spices. I took it back to the hotel room so I could have a fun photo shoot with my food and then try it without having to alarm people if I couldn’t keep it down.
I tried the claw first but I just kept chewing without getting to anything inside and without it compacting enough to comfortably swallow. Eventually I just tried to get it down, but to Justin’s amusement I started gagging and spitting. Next, I tried the legs. I got a couple of those down, but it was just a crunchy texture. No taste, no meat. Finally, we cracked open the body to see what it looked like. The meat was black mush. The look of utter repulsion on my fiancé’s face didn’t stop me from tasting some. Honestly, it just tasted like the spices. Probably the best case scenario for me!
Needless to say, I wasn’t kidding when I said how lucky I am that Justin enjoys cooking. The meals he creates on our single hot plate and toaster oven (it is very unusual in a Chinese household to even have an oven) are delicious. Especially since we can rarely find good bread or any cheese in the grocery stores here.
Until next time (if I’m asked to do a guest spot again)…