Has Chinese Cuisine Survived Six Tumultuous Decades of
Can celebrations about China omit altogether the global recognition of the greatness of Chinese cuisine? Of course they can, but they shouldn't. Surely no serious discussion of world eating could leave out China and its foods, and the spread of the Chinese people worldwide has always been linked, one way or another, to what they cook and eat. Whether we have in mind the chifas of Peru, the food stalls of Singapore, or the Chinatowns of Australian cities, nearly everywhere in the world the imprint of Chinese food culture is unmistakable.
It is Chinese custom to be served — or to serve oneself — from large platters set down at the center of the table; to eat nearly all of the food with chopsticks; to accompany most food with unsweetened hot tea; to banish knives from the dining ceremony (a coefficient of the small pieces into which most solid food is divided); to yield — only grudgingly — to the Western idea of a concluding sweet; to eat soup often together with, rather than before, solid food; to send to table rice or noodles or wheaten steamed breads with most courses, unless the meal is a banquet; and of course to eat many ingredients, unfamiliar both in appearance and in taste, and often prepared in unfamiliar ways, to the Western palate. This last stands out in foreign experience of Chinese food, even if left unspoken: How can I eat it if I do not know what it is?
And yet, at least as nearly everyone knows, the food itself — ah, the food! Its colors — the bright greens and reds, the snowy rice, the pillow-like steamed buns, the shimmering bok choy and gai lan, the glistening packages of red pork, the steamed squares of bean curd, cushioned against thin slices of Yunnan ham; and the shapes — curly, spirals, tiny bundles, cubes and shreds and long strips — and the shimmering sauces, the steaming bowls . . . Need more be said?
It is all quite different from what used to be familiar to us all: bread, meat, mashed potatoes, and some (usually tired) veggie. Nowadays such a formula has been supplanted in this country by artistic little heaps of food, lentils hugging bean sprouts smooching tortilla flakes, and including many substances that were once exotics. Nonetheless, the central role played by meat or fish has not yet been surrendered by most of us. No matter how many shreds of jícama or celeriac, no matter the olive oil and coriander, the North American centerpiece is usually still a slab of animal protein, even if it is scanted, and artistically presented.
Chinese cuisine does it otherwise. Except at banquets, the core of the meal is starch and veggie, usually with a meaningful nod toward legumes (beans, peas, peanuts, bean curd), whether in the hors d'oeuvres, the main courses, or the bean soup "desserts." Of course different regions of China do it differently, but that's a far larger subject. Uniformities of Chinese cuisine, such as they are, arise from the basic agrarian uniformities and differences — historic, environmental, climatic, soil-determined. But the seriousness with which people regard food and eating is a cultural matter. Like the French, the Chinese think that food is too important to be eaten quickly; too important to be eaten when one is alone; too important to be eaten when riding on an exercise bike, or watching TV. Of course they also define "important" in their own way. They are capable of doing two things at once, but when they do so, they have some practical reason beyond virtuoso exhibitionism.
Among the joys of eating food in China is the variety of restaurants, and the role of family in how the Chinese eat. It is at table that children learn to become adults; at table that babies meet their grandparents; at table that people display their civilization and communicate it. To watch the giver of a restaurant banquet — some paterfamilias welcoming the family of a son's fiancée, celebrating a grandchild's birth, or just treating friends — is to get a sober lesson in etiquette, self discipline, and joy. The etiquette is also often self discipline. It includes his helping himself last, and of course eating last; helping everyone else beforehand to the choicest morsels from each grand serving plate; in seeing that all guests have what they choose to drink (as the lone gwai lo at many banquets, I was usually one of the only guests who chose alcohol); in making sure that there is hot tea, throughout the meal; and so on. If you have a chance, watch when the host takes his first bite; some people will be on their third helping by then. Yet the host does also eat (often little); he does continue conversation as his guests stuff themselves; being host, he becomes host; and he accepts the responsibility of host with iron will. Or so it always seemed to me — for everything before me always seemed so utterly beautiful, so perfumed, so irresistible — how could he possibly resist helping himself? But he never did, being civilized.
Maoist excesses nearly destroyed completely the glories of Chinese cuisine, and there was fear that when they ended, there would be nothing left of what had been. But in characteristically Chinese fashion, once those excesses did come to an end, the marvelous food was soon back. Part of it, of course, was that the Chinese have been around a very long time. I look forward hopefully to when we, too, will have a great cuisine. But I think that it may not be until we, too, have been around a very long time. And probably it will also have to wait until we come to the view that food is simply too important to be treated in the endlessly mechanical and "scientific" manner in which we treat it.
Sid Mintz, professor emeritus of anthropology, joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 1975. He is author of Sweetness and Power and Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom.
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