“How do you say ‘hi’ in Chinese?” I asked my husband one day.
“Ni hao,” he said.
“No no. Isn’t there something else?” I was trying to learn Chinese, and as far as I could tell, Ni hao, was closer to How are you? What I was looking for was a plain simple hello. “I mean,” I persisted, “what’s the common ordinary way to greet people?”
“Have you eaten rice?” he said without missing a beat. “That’s about as close to hi as I can get.”
What could I say? Nothing could be more Chinese.
To quote Lin Yutang, a famous writer from my husband’s home province of Fujian: “If there’s anything we (Chinese) are serious about, it is neither religion nor learning, but food.”
Food. Eating and cooking it, shopping for the best ingredients, choosing the best restaurants and stalls. Talking about it. The Chinese absolutely love to talk about food.
At dinner parties and banquets, food is often the main topic of conversation. It goes something like this: The lobster is served. The diners turn the lazy Susan, choose a few choice bites for each other, pick up their chopsticks and taste the sweet white meat. “Mm,” someone says. “Fresh,” his neighbor adds.
And then the conversation picks up steam. Everyone seems to have an opinion about a market somewhere in the world that sells the best lobsters or a restaurant across town or in Bangkok or Hong Kong that serves a particularly good lobster dish. Even as they raise bites of lobster to their lips, they smile and savor pleasant memories of lobsters past.
I’m not a Chinese foodie—not even Chinese. But there are many things about the Chinese attitude toward food that I like.
When I leave a 12-course Chinese banquet, I may be full, but I’m not stuffed. A banquet is about appreciation of good food and cooking, not about gluttony. Each dish is meant to be attractive and delicious. You only need a few bites to enjoy it. Besides, any minute another dish will be coming.
Everyone eats the same thing when the food is served family style. They eat jellyfish and bok choy, lotus root and bean curd. And they like it all. The Chinese have a widely varied diet. A good thing, I think.
* Round Tables and Lazy Susans
Big round tables give you a chance to talk to 10 or 12 people at once. And lazy Susans spin the food to everyone without the necessity of passing hot heavy serving dishes. The friendly round seating arrangement encourages the Chinese courtesy of serving your neighbor first—picking out a choice morsel to place on his plate before dishing up your own.
* Fruit for Dessert
You don’t need pie or cake after a Chinese meal. Just slice up an orange or an apple and share it. The rest of the meal was so good, you’re already satisfied. Even though baked goods are a weak point in the Chinese cuisine, that’s probably for the best. We eat way too much sugar.
In the past few years, I’ve developed some food sensitivities: to eggs, dairy and wheat. In some restaurants, most items on the menu are off-limits for me, especially for breakfast. In a Chinese restaurant, from early morning to late at night. I can eat almost everything on the menu.
Do you like Chinese food? What’s your favorite dish?
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Next week’s post: Live-in Maids