Chinese Food Love

photo courtesy of Wootang01

photo courtesy of Wootang01

“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.

lobster photo courtesy of Garry Knight

lobster photo courtesy of Garry Knight

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.

* Appreciation

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.

 

* Family Styledinner in China 001

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

IMG_0651

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.

* Non-allergenic

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

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen
Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She’s working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early ’90s.

Culture , , , , , , ,

26 comments


  1. The Chinese love their food and so do I (well, mostly). I also realized that a western person might have some problems in some of the basics of eating out. I guess this is because western people normally try to eat everything which is offered to them (I did so and learned from that).
    It is just a huge mistake for any stomach to try to eat everything offered to you, there is just too much on the table.




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    • My Chinese father-in-law went to many banquets, but he never gained any weight. He seemed to be eating everything, but really I think he spent more time putting food on everyone else’s plate.

      When Richard Nixon visited China for the first time (so the story goes), he was served a large number of appetizers at the official banquet. He thought that was the entire meal and ate too much. Imagine his surprise when the main courses arrived.




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      • Your father-in-law reminds me just of my mother-in-law. Whenever we are at some dinner with friends and family she gets all the food she can gather just to give to to others (mainly me if I sit too close to her).

        I remember my first real dinner in China and I started eating and eating and after some time my wife asked me to slow down as the main courses would be arriving soon. Oh, I felt so bad later that day




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    • @ No Thanks:

      You mentioned that western people normally try to eat everything which is offered to them. It reminds me of a classic advert by the HSBC a few years ago about a westerner eating eels in a Chinese restaurant, and the major cultural differences.

      ▶ HSBC ‘Eels’ Ad – YouTube




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  2. I love Chinese food. My granddaughter and i found a new Chinese place in Pike Place last Friday. Yum! My grandson and are are in search of a new Dim Sum place next week. We’re always on the look out for good Chinese. Have you been to Lotus in the International district? Good Dim Sum. Okay, now I’m hungry for shrimp dumplings.




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  3. Although I agree with you that Chinese food should be appealing to the eye and be healthy theoretically, what you find on many restaurant tables in China today isn’t healthy at all. They put sugar into many dishes, MSG, food colors to make it look nicer, use too much (often bad quality or re-used) oil and what not. I like Chinese food in theory, but my stomach has told me more often than not that I should probably stick to eating at home in real life. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t like this in the past and of course, if it’s been cooked at home, people do care about the ingredients. In restaurants in mainland China though, it’s often just about how the dishes look and not what they put in there. Also, I’ve found that Chinese today are often way too fond of eating meat without appreciating that this has been a living being once.

    Since there is a culture of treating others to restaurants, in order to save face people will usually order much more than could possibly be eaten, making it a big waste. Sorry for my negative comment which is in total contrast to the positive things you list about Chinese food, but I do think that some of the things you’ve written might be true in theory or are true for Chinese restaurants in the US or in Indonesia (?), but are unfortunately not true for many parts of today’s mainland China.

    That is not to say that all Chinese waste food or appreciate of what those restaurants do. I’ve found that the young generation often doesn’t want to waste food as much and will take away the food that hasn’t been eaten to eat at a later time. While for my grandparent’s generation who have experienced war and a scarcity of food it is important not to waste food, in China the decades’ long hunger seems to have created a mindset of now that we have food, we should enjoy it as much as we can (which is fine, but not, if food is being wasted without end).




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    • It’s interesting that you bring up the Chinese tendency to waste food or order too much. That was one of the disagreements my husband and I had (and learned to live with). Although I’ve never experienced starvation, I don’t like to waste food. I like to order just enough or maybe a little extra to take home. I don’t like to have too much food in the refrigerator because it might go bad. My husband, who experienced malnutrition and starvation during the Japanese occupation, had a tendency to order too many dishes and wanted our shelves and refrigerator to be very well stocked. Our daughters have both tendencies–one buying too much food at the market, another preparing too much food for guests, and the third one sometimes having too little food in her refrigerator even for my taste.

      I agree that many Chinese restaurants use too much sugar, MSG and food coloring. But you can always get enough vegetables, and I still like to eat family style around a lazy Susan.




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  4. When I first arrived in Taiwan, I was a little surprised that everyone here will have fruit for dessert. However, it was a great opportunity for me to sample some fruits which were ‘foreign’ to me! As for my favorite dish, I love san bei ji (three cup chicken)!!!




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  5. I love this post and totally agree with you about Chinese banquets! I never feel stuffed even though I eat from the 12 dishes. I also love fruit for dessert and the warm feeling of the round tables. Rectangular tables are not conducive to group discussions. And the Lazy Susans are brilliant. Everyone can eat and not worry about reaching over a neighbor to grab a choice dish.




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    • I haven’t been to a Chinese banquet in a while. That’s the best way to eat Chinese food. Maybe this Christmas when all my kids and grandkids are here, we’ll find a round table big enough for all of us and have a feast.




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  6. You just made me realized that we do talk about food all the time, even when we are not eating! LOL!
    Once, my aunt and I talked about the eight traditional cooking styles the whole day. I ended up dreaming about food later when I sleep. LOL!!!

    I wonder why you did not mention “tea” in the article. Isn’t it one of our “secrets” of not gaining any (or much) weight after eating so many delicious things? Ha ha ha




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    • Hari, I think you know more about food than most people. What are the eight traditional cooking styles?

      I didn’t think about tea as a secret for not gaining weight. Is that true?




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      • Well, we Chinese people do have lots of herbal tea.
        We have tea for longevity, “yang” teas for people with “cold bodies”, “yin” tea for people who have too many nutrition in their bodies, anti aging tea, beauty tea, poison cleansing tea… it’s a very long list! 😀

        We got lots of weight lost tea here. Some of Chinese origins, some of local recipes. I’ll put it in my “to blog list”. 😀

        By the way, the eight traditional cooking styles are the eight “main region styles”. Here is a link to the Wikipedia page which explains it very well:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_cuisine




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        • I used to like coffee a lot. I still like it, but not to drink every day. Now I prefer tea. There are so many varieties of tea, and it serves so many different purposes. Coffee stimulates–that’s all it does. We have a wonderful tea shop in town, Bai Cha. I go there about once a week to write and drink a pot of tea. Usually I drink green or white tea or oolong. I’ll have to try some of the medicinal varieties Hari mentioned.




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      • If I understand Hari correctly — many people drink Chinese tea with a rich Chinese meal because they believe that the tea can cleanse your body, as it could ‘absorb’ the oil. If the oil is absorbed, then you are not actually taking in too much fat/oil with the food, and your body is cleansed with the tea.




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  7. Liz

    Thanks for sharing about Chinese banquets I have never had one before. I enjoyed reading your post and the comments too!




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    • I really enjoyed visiting your blog, Liz, and seeing all the beautiful photos of food and the accompanying recipes. “Spicy coconut rice with peanut butter” sounds tasty. Thanks for stopping by.




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  8. I so enjoy your writing and the addition of photos. Makes a complete ‘picture’.




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  9. Amy

    That is one contradiction I never understood. In Chinese culture finishing everything on the plate means you want more….but my husband’s grandmother always told him that whatever food he didn’t eat would be waiting on the other side for him in a trough, rotten and bad, so he better eat all his dinner. So which one to follow?




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  10. Hi, Amy. Here’s another contradiction: When my husband visited his parents’ apartment in Singapore, his mother always cooked many dishes and encouraged him to eat everything and even have second helpings. Then, on the same visit, she complained that he was overweight.




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