Weird Cooking in China: Food for Thought
An ancient Cantonese saying goes, 'Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies is edible'. I'm sure that a lot of us would, in theory, agree with this mantra. But all too frequently 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... These are all dishes that we, as foreigners, may have stumbled upon in China. We often dismiss them as too bizarre or even fantastical, and rarely stop to understand how and why Chinese cuisine has evolved into the way it is today.
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. Shark's fin soup, jellyfish, and bird's nest soup are popular dishes in China. However, they are seen as delicacies for acquired tastes, rather than staples in the average Chinese diet. In a similar way that caviar, pate, frogs, and lobster are considered rare and not to every Westerner's taste, the same can be applied to these more unusual Chinese dishes.
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. Westerners' re-tellings of these myths often paint the Chinese very negatively: as inhumane, primitive, and mindless barbarians. In this way, they're neglecting the pragmatic and logical principles upon which the diverse Chinese diet has been shaped.
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures?
Throughout China's 6000-year history, tragedy has struck time and time again: whether the country was in civil war or at war with foreign forces, it has faced times of extreme poverty and famine. Between 1958-1961, Mao's catastrophically misguided Great Leap Forward caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people. During those years, peasants were forced to abandon farming and other rural practices in favor of producing steel. They were required to melt all of their pots and cooking utensils to produce metal to export, in the name of 'industrialization'. In doing so, they had no choice but to abandon their most fundamental human need: the need to eat. The resourceful behavior that resulted from this tragically troubled time provides insight into what the Chinese eat to this day.
For thousands of years 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. They had learned to survive off of as little as leaves and tree bark. 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, unappetizing parts. They invented methods of cooking to make the most of what little they had.
Of course, nowadays the average well-off Chinese does not have to resort to eating mud or tree bark, 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 see 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. Obviously, 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 like high-quality cuts of meat 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 dismiss Chinese dishes as strange or unpalatable, but rather, appreciate them for what they represent: the resourcefulness and creativity of generations of Chinese.