It is a Sunday afternoon and as I begin this essay, I suppose I might want to relate what I’ve had for lunch today. As Sunday is lately my one day off, I like to keep it quite simple. So today after an hour of grading, I treated myself to a tuna salad sandwich with some celery and carrot sticks on the side.
Not quite the feast I would have had on a Sunday afternoon back at home. I can just imagine my mother setting the table for a three course affair that is lunch at my parents’ house. The cutlery, the decorative candle, the soup ladle coming out. Here in Guangzhou I don’t dream of such things. Well, maybe that wording is wrong. But suffice to say, I haven’t had a three course meal for longer than I can remember. And my lunch from today? A tuna salad is not even a Croatian specialty, it is a small recipe I stole from my American friends while living in New York; yet another cultural appropriation.
Ah, Guangzhou and its Cantonese cuisine. I feel I have been bitterly fooled by many friends and acquaintances, who upon hearing I was going to China all jealously uhhed and ahhhed at the prospect of how “well I would eat there”. I laugh and roll my eyes when I remember this now. They were so enthusiastic and I got excited myself, thinking the Chinese food I’ve had around Europe and the US would be a good measuring stick of the deliciousness that awaited me. Such as sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, spring rolls, the works! Sounds delicious, right? Not quite.
I haven’t found anything resembling these simple dishes in all the 8 months I’ve been here. From what I’m told, this is the foreign version of Chinese food and it is as foreign to the Chinese as it is to me. General Who’s Chicken? And what’s a Fortune Cookie again?
Not to say you cannot find some version of fried rice in Guangzhou, but in my experience there is always something in it, bits of mysterious sausage or a distinct aroma I cannot quite decipher. Cantonese cooking is specific, and proudly so they would tell you: the food is steamed, all parts of the animals are used, the insides and the gritty bits and the bone all chopped together and served to chew through and spit out the parts you cannot quite stomach. The Chinese eat this way and see no problem with it, but to me it still feels unappetizing and alien. When I get a plate of food with such meat at the school cafeteria, I stare at it, pick around it, dab some rice into the sauce to fill me up and then, for the most part…I give up.
So, what do I like then? Tender, white pieces of meat, well cleaned and coated in any variety of delicious sauces. I like fresh bread, nice cheese, olive oil, some fine pasta, thin crust pizza, cheeseburgers and salads. I have found so few of these things around here and when rarely I do stumble upon them, they are expensive and invariably disappointing. But isn’t it to be expected? I’ve come to a culture thousands of years old, with its own history and traditions; they call it the East for a reason. What is more, my favorite foods listed above would be perceived as suspicious by most of my Chinese friends. They’d call it Western food, perhaps take a bite and then declare it unhealthy and strange. I was recently in the presence of my colleague as she tasted her first Big Mac; granted it’s not like I took her to a 4 star restaurant, but I found it telling that she first carefully took out the cheese, then had another bite and in the end found the whole thing unpalatable. Culture is a hard nut to crack, no matter from which side of the shell you look at it.
In any case, I am pleased to report that there have been a few dishes I’ve grown to appreciate. They are the simple ones, dumplings and noodles, versions of pasta which are really present in each culture in its own way. But the Chinese do them well in various soups and eating them with chopsticks gives one a sensation akin to handling a work of art. Food should be a pleasurable event indeed, and to the Chinese it really is special. The greeting goes “chī fàn le ma?”, meaning have you eaten yet? and it is a Chinese version of “Hi, how are you?” The food becomes the measure of well-being and you should wish a full stomach on anyone you care about. I recognize the kindness of the people around me who ask me this question and I am so very grateful to the many Chinese who have taken me out for full dinners after my reluctant admittance that I have not in fact had food yet.
About a month ago, an employer, let’s call him Mr. T., took me out for dinner at a proper Cantonese tea house. It is imprinted in my memory not only for his kindness, but for the dim sum we were given that evening. I must admit, it was a wonderful surprise to see the things he ticked off on the menu sheet starting to appear in front of us on tiny plates, as he kept pouring me more and more jasmine tea into the tiny cup. Many of the things were bite-sized and delicious. Some were slightly odd tasting, but in the same way, they were gone in an instant. The desert dishes with peaches and sweet rice, then some salty snacks, then more sweet stuff—and it just kept arriving! The best part was when Mr. T. taught me to say thank you after the tea being poured: it is supposed to be done by rapping one’s right hand knuckles on the table.
I rapped my fingers once, then did it again in earnest, and I will keep doing it despite all my complaints.