An ancient Cantonese saying goes, ‘Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies is edible‘. Even if we could, in theory, agree with this mantra, all too often we’re told tales of Chinese eating habits that strike us as downright freaky, at least by our Western standards. Silkworms, duck feet, fish eyes, soft-shell turtles, scorpions: all kinds of weird Chinese foods that we, as foreigners, may have stumbled upon in China. We often dismiss them as too bizarre, and rarely stop to understand how and why Chinese food cuisine has evolved into the way it is today.
‘Anything that walks, swims, crawls or flies is edible.’ Cantonese food culture. [Tweet this]
Let’s try to understand the source of these curious eating habits!
Fact vs. Fiction
While it’s true that a lot of unusual dishes can be found in the most ordinary restaurants in China, there are also many, many misconceptions about what the Chinese eat. As foreigners, we are often too quick to gullibly believe every sensational myth we are told about Chinese cooking. For example, it’s true that shark’s fin soup, jellyfish and bird’s nest soup are popular dishes in China but they are seen as delicacies for acquired tastes, rather than staples in the average Chinese diet. Just to make a comparison, also caviar, pate, frogs, and lobster are considered to be rare in the West and we are not used to eat them every day: the same can be applied to these more refined Chinese dishes.
Fact vs Fiction: it’s true that shark fin soup and bird’s nests are popular dishes in China but they are seen as delicacies [Tweet this]
Likewise, the stereotype of Chinese people eating dog meat is vastly over-exaggerated: while dog meat is available at a few restaurants in Taipei, it is not sought out or relished by the general population. Similarly, eating monkey brains is much more of a popular folktale in China, than an actual practice. Very often, Westerners’ re-tellings of these myths paint Chinese as mindless barbarians, without taking into consideration the pragmatic and logical principles upon which Chinese diet has been shaped.
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures?
Throughout its 6000-years old history, China has faced times of extreme poverty and famine again and again. With Mao’s catastrophically misguided Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) around 40 million people dead. During those years, peasants were forced to abandon rural activities in favour of industrial ones, such as the production of steel. They were obliged to melt all of their pots and cooking utensils to produce metal, in the name of “industrialization”. As a consequence, Chinese farmers had to abandon the most fundamental human need: the need to eat.
Even before the relatively recent Great Leap Forward, the Chinese had been learning how to survive in times of huge adversity. They had discovered that eating mud, although unappetizing, was unexpectedly nutritious, containing essential minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. When, on occasion, they’d be lucky enough to hunt an entire animal, they’d take care not to waste a single ounce – even if that meant eating the more, er, not tasteful parts. They invented methods of cooking to make the most of what little they had in order to survive.
Of course, nowadays the average wealthy Chinese doesn’t eat mud and can enjoy more than just the bare necessities. However, thousands of interesting recipes and cooking techniques were born out of this premise of ‘waste not want not‘, and continued success in modern Chinese towns.
It is undeniable that some of the more exotic Chinese dishes are not to everyone’s taste. Furthermore, Chinese cuisine is frequently the subject of controversies regarding animal cruelty or endangerment. No doubt, China still has a long way to go in these regards, but the Chinese are not known to be sadistic in mentality or behavior: where cruel practices have emerged it has been out of desperation rather than greed, and tend to be the exception, not the rule. Considering every implication of Chinese eating habits is beyond the scope of this article, but there is something we can take away from delving just a little bit deeper into the Chinese’s attitudes towards cooking.
Lessons to Take Away
China is home to more than 1.3 billion people, and therefore, 1.3 billion different sets of tastes and preferences. However, these 1.3 billion different tastes are founded upon largely the same values. The Chinese have learned to adapt to times of immense turmoil, during which luxuries were completely inaccessible, much less expected. Most of us in the West have never faced that kind of circumstance, and have always been lucky enough to choose from a vast range of dishes.
Next time we pause and make a face at a seemingly ‘gross’ menu item, we should stop and think for a moment or two. Maybe we shouldn’t point at Chinese dishes as strange and repugnant, but rather, appreciate them for what they represent: the resourcefulness and creativity of generations of Chinese.
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