A Bite of Chinese Food Culture
Like many cultures, food is central to Chinese heritage and identity. After living in China for 14 years, I gradually shifted from enjoying the variety of food and fascinating flavors to tracing the origins of globally popular Chinese food and how Chinese eating habits so often lead to healthy lifestyles.
Chinese cuisine is considered one of the richest and most diverse culinary heritages in the world. Alongside the variety of Chinese food and its colorful and artistic presentation, Chinese people have very specific rituals related to food.
Warming Up to Hot Water
I’m lucky to work for Sinolingua Publishing Company, which specializes in books about Chinese language and culture, giving me wide access to a variety of books to help me discover China. One book that helped me a lot to learn Chinese home cooking was Easy Recipes, Easy Chinese, which covers many of the most popular Chinese dishes. Preparing vinegar and chili paste for dumpling dipping and mixing noodles with chili sauce and minced garlic are images that paint a distinct picture of China and its profound food culture.
Watching Chinese people drink hot water even in summer made me laugh when I first arrived in China. In my culture, it is uncommon to drink hot water, especially on hot days. But my laughs quickly subsided when I started researching the unusual habit and found that ingesting hot water is healthy. Drinking hot water helps break down food faster than cold water. It reduces the risk of constipation by supporting regular bowel movements and helps the body detoxify.
If you look closely at Chinese dishes, you will notice that many consider health more than you might think. For example, many Chinese dishes contain all three core food groups to complete a meal: grain, protein and vegetable.
Chopsticks: Friend or Foe?
One of the most interesting features of Chinese culture is chopsticks. At first, I wasn’t comfortable with chopsticks and carried a spoon in my pocket to dinner which made my Chinese friends laugh and encourage me to use chopsticks.
But I felt like eating with chopsticks was annoying until I had spent enough time in China to dig deeper into the culture. Eventually I realized that unlike eating with a spoon and piling all types of food together, eating with chopsticks enables you to really highlight the food you like.
Using chopsticks forces you to slow down, eat deliberately, and take smaller mouthfuls of food, resting longer between bites which gives your stomach time to tell your brain when it gets full.
You can hit three birds with one stone when eating with chopsticks: Enjoying the taste of every piece of food, eating healthier because you eat less food, and exercising your hand muscles because using chopsticks involves over 30 joints and 50 muscles in the fingers, wrist, arm and shoulder as well as thousands of nerves. Other birds may exist, waiting to be discovered.
Tapping into Chinese Values
China is rich in values reflected in the simple, meaningful and mysterious acts performed in daily life.
While dining with Chinese friends, I observed that as tea is poured, someone may tap the table with two fingers each time his or her cup is refilled, which made me curious. Chinese friends told me it is a gesture of gratitude. I researched the custom and found that it can date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when Emperor Qianlong would travel among the citizens in disguise to get a feel of how ordinary people were living. Once the emperor went to a restaurant with one of his companions, and when he poured his companion a cup of tea, and to show his gratitude without blowing the emperor’s cover, the companion tapped his fingers on the table to let the emperor know that he was grateful. It also symbolizes kneeling because the two fingers could represent the companion’s knees touching the floor for the emperor.
I didn’t really dig deep enough to understand how the custom became so ingrained. It’s a sign of politeness without interrupting the conversation with verbal gratitude.
As I found more answers to my many questions about Chinese food and eating customs, I became even more eager to discover the deepest roots to develop a deeper picture about Chinese culture. I fear my curiosity may never be satisfied because more mysterious Chinese culture always awaits around every corner.