Posts tagged Food
Food is a great way to experience culture, but when you put yourself in the hands of others, you are often at the mercy of what they throw on top of your bowl of rice. On previous trips to China, I’ve eaten anything from cattle tendon to sea cucumber to pig brain, but this time I was hoping to spare my stomach and eat more selectively while still being culturally sensitive.
I have a lot of admiration for the use of food in my village, from their fresh produce and meat, to their natural no-waste policy. My first night in the village, my arrival was honored by killing a chicken for dinner. I was grateful for the gesture, but I venture to say that most people don’t see the chicken being carried away to be killed and then have it in your chopsticks just a short while later. There are no refrigerators, no grocery store packaging, just a chicken from the backyard that until being selected for dinner, had lived out its days frolicking around the village. There are no cramped cages, no inhumane slaughter, no chemicals, just chicken.
When the chicken was prepared, the whole chicken, and I mean the WHOLE chicken, was made into a soup. As the chicken’s comb crested the top of the broth like a shark fin, I silently hoped it would steer clear of my white rice. It’s also really easy to identify the chicken feet, a common snack that I’ve tried before, but again, once was enough for that cultural experience. At a later meal, they prepared a cow similarly. Everything from the meat, to the fat, to the tendons to the intestines were all prepared in various dishes. This is where my previous knowledge came in handy, as I knew early how to identify and avoid the intestines (they’re the ones in the small bowl in the middle with round circles).
I love meals in China because they are served family style. All dishes are prepared in the center of the table, and everyone sits around with their own bowl of rice and chopsticks and you eat bite by bite, selecting what you want from the middle and eating it with your rice. The mother of the table might honor you by picking things up with her chopsticks and putting them in your bowl, and that’s when you might end up with a chicken head (the piece reserved for the honored guest). That situation is how I once ended up eating Thousand Year Eggs, which are buried underground until the inside turns a translucent green. Again, once was enough with that dish.
It’s not that I’ve walked away from every food experience with a smile on my face, but there is value in trying something new for the cultural experience of it. It’s not that I would go out of my way to eat pig lung or cattle vertebrae cartilage again, but I’ve at least tried all these foods and was culturally respectful, while getting a chance to eat things most people won’t. Most of it is actually isn’t that bad– so long as you can get over thinking about what you’re eating or can let go of your own cultural biases.
I still came up with a few tips to keep your stomach intact if you lack a sense of culinary adventurousness. I generally follow these rules every meal of every day.
1) don’t eat when no one is watching: Your hosts want to feed you and will notice if your not actively eating, so make sure they see every time you take a bite so you get “credit” for it.
2) fill up on the dishes you like and comment on how good they are: chances are they’ll make those dishes again!
3) if you see a bowl of animal, try to spot a piece you could eat and pick it up when people are watching: this can avoid people thinking your not eating and putting a piece you don’t want on your rice
4) if you’re pretty sure you are going to have to eat something questionable, don’t ask what it is until after the meal (or maybe never): it’s always harder to eat something when you know what it is
5) if called out on not liking something, try “im not used to eating this type of dish” rather than saying it’s not delicious: people can be receptive to cultural differences, and this way you won’t offend anyone.
And if you’re still hungry, you can always go much on some fish skin
Chinese people have a way of turning things that otherwise would never been considered food into high class delicacies. Don’t get me wrong, I love Chinese food, but for whatever reason, the fancier the occasion, the weirder the food. At a lunch banquet this afternoon for Chinese teachers, we were treated to a series of “delicacies” such as:
Pig skin jelly and sea cucumber! YUM! YUM! YUM!
YIKES! Apart from the rather bizarre dishes, we feasted on roasted pork fat, dried tofu, entire shrimp (eyes, head, legs, etc), and a few other dishes better left unidentified. I couldn’t bring myself to eat the pork skin jelly, but I did manage to stomach a bite of the sea cucumber (good story right?). Needless to say it was a difficult meal to get through, and apart from the one relatively normal chicken dish, I didn’t eat too much.
When it comes to food, Chinese people are very resourceful. In impoverished areas where food is harder to come by, this is a remarkable skill. However, when it comes to me having my lunch, I prefer the veggies/tofu/meat that don’t make me guess what I’m eating!