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Cross-cultural food: the feeling’s mutual

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!

It’s Mutual

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.

It’s Arbitrary

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,

Canadians eat bull testicles!

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 alleynovelty 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.

Examples!

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.

Turns out that blood, in various forms, is not uncommon in Chinese food.

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, 3penis 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

Mexican food 墨西哥 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.

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.S. — Every image here is ours except for the American pie, the perogies and the prairie oysters (click for sources).

P.P.P.S — About cross-cultural negativity:

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!”

15 thoughts on “Cross-cultural food: the feeling’s mutual”

  1. “And Mrs. Xie apparently never expected to find one of TCM‘s 50 fundamental herbs in a foreign dessert” So she spits it out as if she’s afraid it’ll poison her huh. That says a lot more about the nature of TCM (it’ll kill you. Stay away!) than it does about American food.

      1. If she had eaten Chinese apple pie before, the most un-like pie creations known to man, I can imagine her surprise.

        As far as Chinese food, I like the overseas varity more than the mainland variety.

  2. Maraschino Cherries: tastes like very strong medicine to my Chinese friends! I served a few at a party, just for fun. Nobody could bear eating them, they all made tortured faces and spit them out immediately! Then they went to wash their mouths out vigorously for several minutes. Hey, more for me, love those things!

  3. Great article! I totally agree about the breakfast challenge. I have been living in China for over six years now and still can’t bring myself to have a Chinese breakfast. But the good news is there’s a way around that.- order scrambled eggs with tomato (番茄炒鸡蛋), smacked cucumber salad (拍黄瓜), steamed bun (馒头), red tea and voila! You got yourself a continental breakfast.

  4. Not sure why pigs feet in the South is portrayed as “foreign.” Jars of pickled pigs feet (and pickled eggs) are as common a sight at your local gas station or convenience store counter as cigarette papers and lottery tickets.

      1. Right. I think I mentioned how this can work between subcultures in a single country, or between generations in the same society (liver and onions? — or maybe I deleted that paragraph to save space). Sure, the line between “fringe” and “mainstream” is fuzzy, and you can get pig’s feet easily in the southern U.S. You can also find North Americans who like to eat bull testicles, or all kinds of other things that the majority of Americans have never eaten and wouldn’t find the idea appetizing. “The preferences within one culture tend toward relative similarity” doesn’t mean everyone’s the same.

        1. The jars of pigs feet weren’t just common in the South though–I remember seeing them here in Calfiornia while growing up. Maybe it was a 70s taste that’s died off. The mass-marketed jars of pigs feet are still easily obtained at large mainstream supermarket chains here though (I haven’t seen them at gas station counters in years).

          When I lived in San Francisco there was a butcher shop nearby that sold alligator, ostrich, kangaroo, bull testicles, and other exotic meats. Mainly for the novelty aspect I’d assume.

          1. Does anyone know if it’s *illegal* to sell/serve/purchase certain kinds of meat in North America? If you wanted to open a dog or horse or cat restaurant, could you?

  5. So, when the locals are grimacing, spitting, etc, do they consider that rude? Would it be rude for an american to do the same in China, or is that a false assumption we make based on western values?

  6. False assumption on a lot of these. Foreigners think eating testicles is gross, too. Sour cream is disgusting, it’s rotted milk. No, really, it is. As long as you grow up eating it, you’ll think whatever it is is delicious.

    Moreover eating dogs is disgusting because dogs are man’s best friend. If you want to pretend all animals are the same and livestock are the same as pets, go right ahead.

  7. This idea of “naturally” finding something appealing or unappealing is an interesting one. And it is appropriate that Joel puts it in scare quotes, because, as he points out, it is mostly cultural/personal and not especially *natural* at all.

    I hope my own situation won’t bore people too much! I chose to become vegetarian about 10 years ago. Not out of taste — I loved chicken, bacon, and so on. It was entirely for ethical reasons — I could no longer justify the death of sentient beings purely for my own personal taste. At the time it was hard to change, and I backtracked on occasion. But as I got used to a new diet, it stopped bothering me so much. I never told myself meat was yuk. I just stopped craving it. And slowly over time I stopped liking the smell of it. Now if I eat it I really don’t like the taste of it at all. The other day my wife bought me takeaway noodles with a bit of bacon in. I took the bacon out, and ate the noodles. But the noodles still had a bacon flavour and to me it now tasted awful; I was almost sick as I ate it. (I still got it all down, though.)

    But what I think is interesting is that at no time in my transition did I tell myself that it was about taste. Yet nonetheless my taste changed. Taste is very much a creation of one’s own personal eating history.

    As to a story about Western food weirding out Chinese, I think the “funniest” was my Taiwanese home-stay sister struggling to eat Weetbix for breakfast. (This was about 15 years ago.) But she had her own back because when I stayed with her in Taiwan she supplied me with McDs for breakfast (and a few other Chinese foods, too!).

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