Before coming to Beijing for the first time, I must say my Chinese food options in France were bleak. A lot of it was frozen, heated up in a blinking three minutes.
I was ecstatic to find out that the real thing was, millions, millions of miles away from my previous experience, especially for a palate maniac such as myself. In the span of the last three years, I’ve taken a huge interest in how food culture has evolved here, considering a multiplicity of factors, both old and new.
So here it is, my 2017 portrait of food consumption in China, laden with hints of wisdom and potential challenges ahead.
Nowadays, what does a Chinese meal look like?
Traditionally, people will be sitting at a lazy Susan (a round table with a large rotating glass disk in the middle) to pass along at least six or so dishes, but it can go as far as twenty, to share. Choice is the name of the game.
Meat usually features merely as a garnish, except for Beijing duck or pork belly classics, along with seafood. Singular additions such as loaves of toast filled with ice-cream or durian pizza have appeared in the last years.
A single person will generally settle for a plate of fried rice or a bowl of noodles with pickles, green onions and meat sprinkled on top, gobbled in a mere ten minutes.
Breakfast is even quicker, since working days start very early (sometimes before 8) and people have little time to sit down at home. Instead they settle for hearty options from the street: stuffed buns (包子, baozi), rice rolls (饭团, fantuan), or folded pancakes (手抓饼, shouzhuabing). In some offices, colleagues will take turns in treating the team and expedite this simple feast together.
The cold might kill you.
If you’re ever going to taste a cold dish in China, it’ll probably be pickled or pre-cooked. This habit can be traced back to the fact that, around a century ago, human waste was used to fertilize fields, sometimes without waiting a fortnight for the potential pathogens to die. Cooking dishes at high temperature or fermenting minimized risks of poisoning.
Water is always boiled or warm for the same reason, but also because drinking hot liquids is perceived as healthier. People believe that cold water causes sickness and stomach aches; once a student even told me off repeatedly for munching on ice cubes. According to my research, cold water is not poisonous by any means, but it does require a bit more energy for your body to warm it up.
Interestingly, at least in Ningbo, many people don’t trust the water in huge bottles, alleging they might be part of a scam: some companies do fill their bottles up directly from the tap unfortunately. They consequently settle for boiling up their own water. Though they are getting rid of the germs, heavy metals, which linger in old pipe systems, won’t budge.
Tea still is a must, though soda has already crawled its way onto the tables. You can absorb alcohol either via weak beer or baijiu, a volcanic 40% ABV rice liquor. After some trial and error, you’ll be able to find your safe spots for wine and spirits.
Rice, o rice, where art thou?
Served at the end, its purpose is to fill you up and to soak in the spices -definitely don’t embark on the Sichuan pepper endeavor without preemptively ordering a bowl of rice. Most people enjoy the flavor by itself and might give you the eye if you pick from all the dishes and mix it all into a sloppy mass.
The optimal satiety level is around 80 to 90%, which partially explains why obesity isn’t more rampant (except for children and young adults in urban areas, who are consuming more processed foods than they ever had and exercising less, fueling a growing diabetes epidemic), despite the towers of food on the table: “吃饱了” (“Chi bao le”) is the satisfied sigh of the stomach that translates to “I’ve eaten my fill”.
The health factor
If you don’t follow the rules of harmony in a Chinese meal and feast exclusively on fried dumplings, pork belly and braised eggplant, then you’ll definitely turn into a skeptic on this one.
Meals should strike a balance between hot, cold, steamed, fried, spicy and neutral; it’s up to you to find that equilibrium and dig for the lighter stuff. China offers an outstanding variety of vegetables with various health properties: mustard greens, spinach, bamboo stems, celtuce, flat beans, fava beans, red, black and mungo beans, celery, green onions, lettuces, red cabbage, green cabbage, napa cabbage and on it goes… Provided they’re not saturated with mercury and lead, these will guarantee you an (almost) eternal life. Article coming soon on food safety and agriculture.
No waste equals more waste?
As mentioned previously, a lot of stuff can end up uneaten on the table. An example I regularly see is of two people ordering three dishes (for the sake of variety); unable to finish, they usually leave around one third of it. Most prone to waste are the small restaurants which will give you huge, dirt-cheap dishes. You can do naught but watch in despair as couples ask for four formidable platters of carbs… and leave them half full.
Fortunately, the take-away culture is huge here. However, it involves millions of single-use polyethylene containers, wrapped-up chopsticks and plastic bags which are consumed and disposed of every day. Ideally, customers would be aware of the sheer scale of the problem (officially, no more than 25% of the plastic is recycled nationwide, but I think this is a very optimistic estimate) and bring their own containers, but we’re not quite there yet.
Plastic wrapping on cutlery kits are also a growing source of litter: because some restaurants cannot afford a dishwasher or do not have the time to hand-wash plates, bowls, cups, spoons and chopsticks, they outsource it to a cleaning firm that will send everything back, wrapped up and ready for use.
The meat craze
Animals have significantly become more present on the table. For centuries, families used to keep a sow in their backyard, mostly for fertilizing purposes, but on special occasions a piglet would be slaughtered. Meat was added parsimoniously as a flavorful topping and rarely constituted a dish in itself. People were used to this scarcity until the advent of post-1960s agriculture, when the introduction of fertilizers and pesticides ten-folded grain productivity, thereby making more feedstock available.
Today meat has become commonplace to the extent that everyone can snack on sausages, chicken feet, KFC, duck neck or deep-fried octopus for example. Once, my students even ordered a huge dish of deep-fried chicken wings during a break between classes.
Meat also echoes your social status: the more you order, the more face you gain. On a more patriotic level, it reflects how much road the country has covered since the great famine of 1957, which caused between 10 and 30 million deaths.
To meet this demand, the state heavily subsidizes industrial farming and is resorting to higher imports, which are expected to reach 2.5 million metric tons by 2020.
You’re a vegetarian?! Why?
Except for a solid 5% of Buddhists, reducing meat consumption doesn’t trend among most Chinese citizens.
The idea is slowly gaining ground in some urban areas however, as information circulates on the health benefits of lower meat consumption (the most popular argument) on the ethics of animal treatment and on the environmental cost of industrial farming. When people have more time to care, they eat more consciously.
Food security, a tortuous affair
Leaders are fully conscious of the challenges that stand ahead to provide a stable and satisfying supply of food in the upcoming decades: declining soil fertility, erosion (which precedes desertification), soil and water pollution and increasing dependence on imports.
Though most citizens are enjoying the current boon, a growing number of them are also becoming aware of those problems. Solutions are sprouting in in all directions and forms, whether through strategies to intensify agriculture, in rural as well as in urban areas, through the development of GMOs (which are not authorized for consumption yet), through strategic food reserves, or through the appropriation of foreign firms such as Smithfield in the USA. Grain imports are also expected to sky-rocket, reaching a whopping 30% share of global food imports by 2030 if demand continues to grow at the current rate.
Whatever choices the 1.3 billion Chinese will make, they will heavily impact our own plates.