Food is a very funny thing; few items in the world consist of such a wide array of ingredients or cause such a wide array of reactions. If you think about it, food is quite an anomaly. On one hand, it can be as simple as grabbing a few bugs for survival, on the other, it can be complex art that requires years of study and experience to master. Food can remind us of the sweetest of memories; it can also make us heave up our stomachs in disgust.
I have traveled extensively in both China and the United States and the amount of gastronomic ignorance that exists always amazes me.
Even after living in China for more than five years, I still get the question.
"Do you know how to use chopsticks?"
From the bottom of my heart all I want to do is unleash a barrage of sarcasm.
"No I just eat with my fingers" or "Are these giant toothpicks?" But for politeness sake, I refrain.
Even before I came to China, I was well practiced in the art of chopstick use. After all, there is a Chinese restaurant in practically every town in the US. Just to give you an idea, according to statistics there are upward of 47,000 Chinese restaurants in the US ... that is more than McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's combined.
Yet, as much as the plethora of Chinese restaurants spread across the US contributes to chopstick dexterity, they do little in serving as a representative of what real Chinese food is like.
To Americans, Chinese food is egg rolls, fried rice, or General Tso's Chicken that you pick up in cool little boxes on your way home from work when you are too lazy to cook something for yourself and don't want to spend a lot of money. This is about the biggest disservice that could ever be given to the wide variety of dishes that exist in the Middle Kingdom.
Anyone worth their salt knows that, to the Chinese people, food is an art. Not an art of expression like French food, but an art of character and identity. In the northeast, there are hearty grains for a hearty people, along the coast there is fresh fish for people that for millennium have looked to the sea for their survival, the south boasts fiery spices that give life to an ever active people, and in the west, there is lamb infused with exotic tastes not common to other areas, reflecting the diversity of the inhabitants there. Throughout China, many dishes are prepared with age-old recipes passed down through generations; often their tastes are so good they are beyond description.
That is if you go to a worthy restaurant. Sadly, in Beijing today, there are many filthy hole-in-the-wall restaurants giving Chinese food a bad name in the eyes of visiting foreigners. Even with the problems that some Chinese restaurants have with cleanliness, it is contemptible that some foreign residents and visitors to Beijing openly shun Chinese food in the very place where they can experience it in all of its glory.
I once had a friend visit me from the US. I thought that he had come to experience what China was really like so I was planning on taking him to some of the wide variety of restaurants that Beijing offers. Instead, all he wanted was Western fast food and hotel buffets. When he turned down the opportunity to enjoy a fresh plate of steamed dumplings for a moldy and crusty day-old peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I was breathless.
As much as Chinese food is misunderstood by my fellow Americans, they aren't the only ones engaging in gastronomic prejudice.
I am equally shocked when I come across Chinese that think an American's diet consists solely of hamburgers, French fries, and copious amounts of ice cream.
"Your food is so unhealthy!" I had one Chinese friend declare to me.
"Why would you say that?" I asked him.
"Because you eat too much fast food ... its rubbish!" he said with confidence.
He is right that fast food is unhealthy but it is not the only food in the US and it is plain silly to pass judgment on a country's entire food culture just because McDonald's is the only American food you are familiar with.
There are great foods to be enjoyed everywhere and there is no better place to get a true feeling of a country's food than with a nice homemade meal straight from one of the millions of kitchens that dot the landscape in both China and the US.