HANGZHOU, China-"Try this," I am told often. "It is very delicious."
China is a country that takes great pride in its national cuisine, and it is considered good hospitality to share your favorite dishes with others, especially guests. As a result, I've been presented with turtle, hairy crab, chicken's feet, and duck's tongue. I've learned how to eat fish (with chopsticks, even!) that has not been deboned - the answer: very carefully - and I've gained a deeper understanding of animal biology as a result of being served a variety of animal parts (often with the head still attached).
The first thing that a visitor quickly learns upon arrival to China is that Chinese-American food is its own distinct style of food. My Chinese coworker had never heard of lo mein, and I certainly hadn't heard of - or smelled - stinky tofu (chu dufu) before. And in China, "Chinese food" is actually divided into eight regional cuisines. If "Chinese food" makes you think of dim sum, you are familiar with Guangdong cuisine. If spicy food comes to mind, you'd probably like Sichuan food best. If you think of Peking duck, you'll be happiest in Beijing, which specializes in the dish. And if you're like me and enjoy soup dumplings, then Shanghai is the city for you.
It is possible to eat food from different regions in any city in China, but you have to seek out a restaurant specializing in that cuisine. Different restaurants will serve different regional styles - one restaurant will specialize in hot pot (Sichuan), another in hand-pulled noodles (northern China). And if you go to a Uighur restaurant - named for the predominately-Muslim minority group in northwest China - you can have a meal of lamb kebabs and plate-shaped nan bread. And everything goes down well with a glass of Tsingtao, a national beer that usually is as inexpensive as water.
There are almost as many ways to eat in China as there are regional specialties. Street vendors frying egg pancakes or serving roasted sweet potatoes or chestnuts are easily found on the sidewalks of major cities. In working class neighborhoods, vendors prepare meals of fried meat kebabs and vegetables from the back of bicycle carts. Restaurants range from small rooms furnished with plastic tables and chairs open to the street to vast banquet halls. I've gone to eat at hotels where the entire restaurant consisted of small rooms for private groups, each room furnished with its own large table and a private bathroom and television set.
Group dinners are usually shared family style in China, meaning that most hosted meals involve a wide variety of dishes served on a lazy susan in the middle of a round table. Cold dishes are served first, followed by hot dishes. Soup is usually one of the last main dishes, followed by servings of rice. (Most Chinese do not eat rice with their meals - at banquets, it's usually served last as a way to top off any remaining hunger.) Dessert comes as a plate of watermelon slices and cherry tomatoes.
A successful banquet is one in which a great quantity of food is left over, as it shows that the host had the means to offer more food than was needed. (For Westerners taught to clean their plate, this can be one of the more uncomfortable aspects of eating out in China. Restaurants that serve dog meat are another.) For some corporate or political banquets, a successful meal may also hinge on the extent of drunkenness that comes from after-dinner rice alcohol (biji?) toasts.
Chinese people often ask me if I like Chinese food. It is a loaded question, in a way - given the amount of pride Chinese take in the cultural traditions of their food, expressing too much criticism of Chinese food can seem a bit rude. I usually shrug and say yes but admit that I eat mostly Western food on my own. My Chinese friends seem to understand, perhaps because most Chinese choose to cook or eat Chinese food for themselves whenever they are abroad.
Certainly, food can be an important part of a country and culture. In the U.S., we eat turkey at Thanksgiving and have sayings such as "as American as apple pie." I can get cranky if I cannot find good bread, and I regularly pay as much as $15 for a box of my favorite cereal at import grocery stores in Shanghai. Food can mean a lot to us as individuals: it can remind us of home in foreign environments, it brings us together with others around a shared table, and it is a way of finding sustenance deeper than sating physical hunger.
In my own way, I do like Chinese food. I like the hustle-and-bustle of snack streets and experience of discovering tastes and textures I had never known before in America. I like the camaraderie of communal dining, even if the practice might make catching a cold a bit easier. I like the idea of going to a teahouse with a friend and spending an afternoon drinking green tea in tall clear glasses and eating salted peanuts. I like being complimented for my use of chopsticks or giggling when I invariably drop a noodle or vegetable en route from my plate to my mouth.
Unfortunately, however, people living in China cannot always rest assured that their food is safe. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of children have been sickened by poisoned milk, and this year, concerns arose that chemical additives in pork were giving people heart palpitations. People are unable to drink tap water without boiling it first, and there is growing concern that up to 10 percent of China's rice - a staple food in the country - is contaminated with heavy metals. As expats, my friends and I joke about "rotating our poisons" when it comes to eating fruits, vegetables, and meat in China. But the sadder truth is that everyday Chinese rely on food supplies that lack the safety controls and regulations that reformers in the U.S. began developing in the early 20th century (and that Americans, if we are wise, will continue to maintain).
But to focus entirely on food safety would make for a very hungry stay in China. So I eat in China, using common sense as best as I can. Sometimes that means avoiding street food or buying organic vegetables, other times that means indulging. And the extra pounds eating sticky rice and meat dumplings in China have added? Those, I hope, will come off in America - a land, as I am now grateful for, of salads, potable water, and nutrition labels.
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Brittney Moraski, daughter of Robert and Bethany Moraski of Bark River, graduated from Bark River-Harris High School in 2005. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in American history and literature in 2009. In February 2010, Brittney moved to Shenzhen, China, to work with Chinese students applying to U.S. universities. In July 2010, she moved to Hangzhou, China, to work as a program coordinator and to continue working with Chinese students. She plans to return to the U.S. this summer. You can follow her blog at www.brittneymoraski.com.