We’re at a church lunch in Taipei. It’s Thanksgiving in America so Jessica’s baked an apple pie. They aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving but we figure an apple pie would be fun to share. Mrs. Xie’s around 50 years old and the first to take a bite. She chews twice, then suddenly yells, “Ròu guì！” as she reflexively spits out her mouthful of our quintessentially American potluck contribution into her hand.
I remember it clearly; she sort of jumps back a bit when she yells and catches the mouthful of pie. Heads turn. Everyone laughs, including us once we understand what’s just happened. Mrs. Xie was genuinely surprised and had reacted on reflex. We had no clue and never would have guessed that Chinese use cinnamon in traditional medicine but not sweets. And Mrs. Xie apparently never expected to find one of TCM‘s 50 fundamental herbs in a foreign dessert on the church potluck table. “We eat this in lots of stuff in North America, it’s really common…” You can imagine the impression this is making. So much for iconic American cuisine!
That wasn’t the first or the last time we’ve accidentally grossed-out Chinese acquaintances with our Western food. There’re more stories below, but first here’s an idea. Between any two cultures is a shared category called FOOD where individuals’ feelings range range from Yum! to Ok to No thanks to Yuck!. The preferences within one culture tend toward relative similarity. But the more different two cultures are, the greater the chance that each culture will also have stuff in their FOOD category that the other culture doesn’t — people from the other side categorize it as NOT FOOD and so have never considered eating it. Sometimes presenting NOT FOOD as FOOD triggers such visceral disgust that the very thought of eating it makes them physically uncomfortable. It’s not just NOT FOOD, it’s literally sickening.
This especially applies to China and Euro-America because of the extremes. It’d be a mistake to assume an even divide, though; I suspect that in China “culturally edible” (things considered edible by a culture) encompasses much more than it does in North America. But even still, not only is there plenty of common food in each culture that people from the other culture typically find unappetizing, there’s quite a bit that’s entirely outside the other’s FOOD category. I think that’s funny. And interesting. It illustrates how strong and arbitrary our culturally-conditioned, visceral reactions and preferences can be.
Think about it: Barbaric accurately expresses what the average Anglo-American feels inside when they think about Chinese eating dogs, even if they won’t say it out loud. But why should dog meat be any more disgusting than pig meat? Can you think of any even partially-objective reason? Are shrimp any cleaner than water roaches? Think about eating a crab: actually cracking open a shell, pulling legs off… Why are we unwilling to eat insects but pay big bucks to eat crustaceans — the relatively huge, exoskeletonned garbage-suckers of the ocean? We call one disgusting and the other delicacy.
But it doesn’t have to be “gross” to simply not be considered food. What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you see this:
Most North Americans, I’d wager, at first glance would think “souvenirs” (or “beach”, “tide pool”, etc.). We’ve seen starfish just like those in buckets just like that at seaside souvenir shops in Canada and the U.S. But (and you knew this was coming) it’s actually a seafood restaurant in Qingdao, waiting for you to order so they can do this:
Turns out that Chinese and Anglo-Americans tend to populate their respective FOOD / NOT FOOD categories with slightly (ha!) different things. And that’s where the fun comes in.
Fringe vs. Mainstream Food
One last thing before the examples: It’s easy to go to another country, search out the most exotic food you can find, something that most locals won’t even touch, and then go, “Holy cow! Look what they eat!” But it’s just not that interesting; it doesn’t well represent that culture or human diversity because it’s comparing one culture’s novelty food with another culture’s mainstream. For example, we could use prairie oysters and say,
Technically that’s true, I guess, though it’s a safe bet that 99% of the Canadians I know think that’s sick and wrong. For China I’d call 3-squeak mice, urine eggs, and Taipei’s “snake alley” novelty food, along with exotic traditional Chinese medicine ingredients like tiger penis. So for our purposes here that stuff doesn’t count.
The novelty and shock value of fringe food wears off quickly. What’s more interesting, I think, is stuff that’s normal to most locals but not even within the category of “food” to most outsiders. So here’s some examples (finally!) from our own experiences that go both ways between China and North America.
1. Pig feet 猪蹄 vs. perogies & sour cream 酸奶油
We lived with a Taiwanese family for two weeks while volunteering at a Hurricane Katrina shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Their favourite dish was pig feet 猪蹄, so that’s what we had our first night. And for lunch the next day. And several more times while we were there. Microwaved pig feet at work. I remember sucking the gelatinous flesh off bones and spitting out what I guess were the knuckles. It wasn’t anywhere near appetizing for us, though that wasn’t a problem because our education had drilled into us that when you’re someone’s guest, you eat it — period (our rural East Africa internships offered much greater mealtime challenges than some sticky pig feet). Plus, we got revenge.
One night while we were with them we planned to share our own cultural food. My heritage is Ukrainian; every Christmas mom makes perogies and cabbage rolls. Since perogies (we figured) were more or less Western 饺子 they ought to go down well with our Taiwanese hosts. Now I don’t know about in Ukraine, but Canadians cover their perogies in tons of sour cream (or maybe that’s just my family). Anyway, I remember the mom as we opened the sour cream container in the middle of the table and plopped a huge shiny white blob on top of our perogies — her face said something like: “Wow. They can’t be serious…” It’s the exact same face I made countless times during our first two years in Taipei and Tianjin. They took a couple token licks before eating their perogies plain. I was like, hey, more sour cream for me!
2. Pig blood cake 猪血糕
Probably the best example from our own lives of how taste in food is in your head more than your tongue comes from our first week in Taipei. We’d arrived right in time for the start of Chinese New Year. That meant almost everything was closed. Every night for dinner we would just wander outside and eat whatever we could find, which usually came from random lonely street vendors. Some nights we had to search for several blocks.
On one such night we found a push cart vendor selling these rectangular things on sticks, which he coated in… crushed peanuts? With some cilantro? We had no clue what it was and not enough language to ask, but it was our only option so we ate some for dinner. And honestly, it tasted alright. A day or two later we found out what it was when we asked our English-speaking employers during a work dinner: “pig blood cake” 猪血糕. Then I felt sick to my stomach. Holy cow. Part of me didn’t believe them; I’d never imagined pig blood cake was in the realm of possible dinner options.
- Random Dinner Adventures – Episode 1 (written before we knew what it was)
- A nasty surprise (written after we knew what it was)
3. Our Qingdao
Literally down the street and around the corner from our place in Qingdao there’s a guy with buckets of live scorpions 蝎子, sorted by size, and a little pot to fry them in. He sits directly across from the “pig head meat” 猪头肉 seller (which means pig parts, not just head pieces). Within a 20 minute walk from our place I can get: dog meat 狗肉 (at over a dozen places), duck blood soup 鸭血汤, “hair eggs“ 毛蛋, silk worm chrysalis 蚕蛹, starfish 海星, more scorpions, sheep heads 羊头, 3–penis liquor 三鞭酒, sea cucumber 海参, bullfrogs 牛蛙… Click the words for a picture! :)
This isn’t a list of all the most-gross-to-the-average-Anglo-American Chinese food that I’ve ever seen in China. It’s a representative sampling of a long list of edibles outside the typical Anglo-American’s “food” category that I routinely stumble upon within a half-hour walking radius of our apartment in Qingdao. None of it is considered terribly exotic and it’s not connected to tourism. It’s at regular, daily markets and average restaurants. Sure, it’d be easy to find some Chinese who don’t like to eat this stuff, but most of the locals around here don’t think anything of it.
And if we remove the “routinely” clause: donkey heads 驴头, donkey penis 驴鞭, cow penis soup 牛鞭汤, dog penis 狗鞭 (hot pot) — yes, I’m going with a theme here — and snake penis 蛇鞭 (liquor tonic 补酒 ingredient) represent a long list of things I come across around here but don’t see every week.
4. Cheese 奶酪
Chinese people not liking cheese 奶酪 is a cliché food anecdote, especially (but not only) for Chinese 50 years and older, but we still see it. It makes sense: think of all the Chinese food you like to eat, and then imagine melting cheese on it. Ew. When our daughter’s all-Chinese preschool has “pizza” for “Western food day”, it’s cheese-less. I forget which memoir it was, but one Chinese author I’ve read wrote of moving to New Zealand and her mom coming to visit. They had dinner at some local Kiwi’s where a fancy cheese plate was served. Her very polite mom dutifully at some… and barfed afterward.
5. Mexican food 墨西哥餐
Mexican food 墨西哥餐 is, according to our fully-bilingual, internationally-traveling former boss in Taipei, the strangest-tasting-to-him of all the foreign food he’s tried, on account of the spices. And as every American expat in Mainland China knows, the lack of Mexican food is at emergency levels. We’ve never lived in Beijing but we know the one place to get decent Tex-Mex — it’s practically a religious pilgrimage every time we have to visit the Capitol.
6. Stinky Tofu 臭豆腐
People can have pretty strong feelings about their favourite food, of course, especially if it’s connected to their heritage. Our Taipei friends love stinky tofu 臭豆腐 and they joked about it being their national food. One of them told us how angry it made her when she saw a foreigner on a TV show say, “It tastes like sh–!” Their feelings are understandable but so are that foreigner’s, even if he was rude about it. The first time we encountered stinky tofu, we were far enough down the street from the vendor that we didn’t even know he was there. My throat was suddenly seized by this pungent cloud; I literally thought something must be dead nearby, some juicy and exceptionally spicy roadkill in the hot, humid Taiwan sun. A resident foreigner had told us about stinky tofu, but what I smelled was so strong I’d assumed it was something else. I couldn’t believe it when we eventually walked past the push cart. (Not all varieties of stinky tofu are this powerful.)
6. Silkworm chrysalis蚕蛹
I used to think silk worm chrysalis 蚕蛹 were just for tourists and adventure eaters until I started seeing them in local restaurants and markets. Our friend Rob in Tianjin had dinner with a classmates’ family, and they served a big plate of them. He said their young daughter chowed down on them like nobody’s business. We’ve had them at local sidewalk BBQs (though I opted out of the sheep penis). The picture above is from a market I pass through twice a week.
- In case you ever wondered what it’s like to eat BBQ’d silk worm larvae (蚕蛹)
- Know your edible northern Chinese insects
7. Duck tongues 鸭舌
During our first month in Taipei our new friends took us to the Shilin nightmarket. We made a deal: we’d eat everything they picked out so long as they didn’t tell us what it was first. Yay duck tongues 鸭舌! Maybe that counts as adventure eating, but they ate them just like any occasional snack.
8. Breakfast 早餐
Whether you’re Chinese or Anglo-American, breakfast is one of the hardest adjustments to make when crossing these two cultures. Maybe because people are cranky in the morning, I don’t know. In our home in China we eat with chopsticks at least one meal a day and often two (not intentionally, that’s just how it happens). But breakfast is always Western; no trace of China on table. We even have a cinnamon shaker for oatmeal and coffee. And we have Chinese friends who feel the same in reverse.
One Chinese friend from Tianjin married a Michigan girl and they recently moved to the States. In the past when he was just visiting, he made his own breakfasts (instant noodles) every morning. This time, realizing it was a move and not just a visit, he was psychologically preparing himself before they left, trying to work up the right attitude toward adjusting to, rather than avoiding, American-style breakfast. He knew what he was getting into and needed to psych himself up.
With Chinese breakfast there’s no mercifully gentle easing into the warm embrace of a consoling cup of coffee that says, “There there, I know getting out of bed is hard…” Our first Chinese breakfast surprise was when staying a weekend with friends in Beijing. We had hot, spicy noodles and pickled shredded vegetables. I promise it sounds a lot worse when you’ve just woken up. But a bowl of cereal is at least as unappetizing to the average Mainlander. If you’ve ever stayed at a Chinese hotel, you’ve maybe been surprised at how there can be so little you want to eat in such a big breakfast spread.
Adventure eating is for amateurs
I’ve done my share of made-for-clueless-tourists adventure eating — there’s a certain time in every almost-man’s life when you want to challenge yourself just for fun, to see what you can handle. But more interesting to me is the food that locals think is normal, or a special treat, that I wouldn’t even think of as food if they hadn’t identified it as such.
If there’s a point to this, I guess it’s that we can and should be honest about cultural differences, not just because it builds healthy communication and mutual understanding, but it’s also interesting and funny in its own right. Of course we should be sensitive about how we communicate — different levels of bluntness are appropriate to different contexts. At dinner in someone’s home we smile and nod and eat whatever we’re served (octopus heads, recently). But with friends out in the street, or on the blog? That’s different. Gagging on one another’s food can be fun and enlightening among cross-cultural friends.
P.S. — I’m sure there’s a better list to be made of common Western food that weirds out the average Mainlander. If you’ve got stories please share!
P.P.P.S — About cross-cultural negativity:
- “Bad China Days” [or] How I will eventually LOSE IT and end up on the Chinese evening news
- Judging China
- About sharing the uglier sides of our China experience
- To Understand China
P.P.P.P.S – Was just walking to the school and found this huge caterpillar(?) on the way, so I brought it and asked the gate guard what it was and if it would bite my kids (they like to play with bugs). One of the teachers, my coworker, was leaving out the gate, glanced at it as she passed and said, “Oh, you can eat those!”