In the Western world, there are often two ways to look at Chinese food. For some, a typical takeout combo—think chow mein, General Tso’s chicken, spring rolls and the traditional fortune cookie—is cheap and tasty food that hits the spot. For others, Chinese restaurants have dubious food-safety records, the food is weird and full of MSG and also, Mrs. Smith’s dog probably went missing after venturing into Chinatown.
Over the years, I heard crazy comments after mentioning I often shop in Chinatown. “It smells weird there!” “Did you see the article about the latest health inspection report?” “They sell live fish!” “I saw an octopus… it was still moving!”
Here is the paradox with Chinese food—it’s not as weird as you think and it’s probably not what you imagine.
First of all, let’s agree on the fact that your nearest “Number One Chinese Takeout” or “Lucky Dragon Takeout” does not sell Chinese food. Pretty much any “Chinese” restaurant with a long takeout menu that includes a “combo for two” caters to Westerners and offers Canadian-Chinese cuisine (or [insert-name-of-your-country]-Chinese cuisine). You won’t eat sesame chicken, chop suey, Mongolian beef or crab Rangoon in China. French readers shouldn’t try to order riz cantonais or nems either—based on my first trip to Beijing in 1999, you’ll ended up with a bowl of white rice because the cook had no idea what you’re talking about.
Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with American-Chinese cuisine. It’s a cuisine in its own right. Just don’t blame China for unhealthy takeout options loaded with fat, sugar and sodium—if the meat is deep-fried and coated in colourful, oily and sugary sauce, it’s because the dish was developed with the local palate in mind.
The “Eeew, Chinese food is weird!” attitude is just another misunderstanding. Dog meat, silk worms, birds’ nests, century eggs or stinky tofu are considered a delicacy and these foods aren’t even popular everywhere in China. Chinese don’t usually eat live animals during their lunch break. Case in point, I ate dog and snake meat a couple of times but it’s not like I read “ah ah, it was not chicken!” when I cracked my fortune cookie open—I ordered it, much like an American in Paris may order snails or frog legs for a new cultural experience. As for Feng, to the best of my knowledge, the weirdest food he had was a scorpion in Wángfǔjǐng—just for bragging rights.
The rice of the time… sorry, the rest of the time, a typical Chinese meal is rice or noodles with pork or chicken and veggies like Chinese eggplants, broccoli, cucumbers, bell peppers, mushrooms or one of the many types of Chinese cabbages (bok choy, choy sum, etc.) seasoned with soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice vinegar garlic, chili, ginger, sesame, scallion, cilantro or star anise. The only thing I pay attention to when I order food in Chinese restaurants is the meat. There’s often a wonderland of organ meats I won’t eat, but that doesn’t make me any less Chinese.
Oh, wait. I am not Chinese. Never mind.
Yet, after six trips to China, a university degree in Chinese studies and 15 years as a Westerner in a Chinese family, I can’t think of a time when I looked at Chinese food and though “Oh, my God… those people!” A typical complaint is that the food is too oily and the worst experiences I had with Chinese food were in those American-Chinese restaurants. I remember a place in Albany, New York, where we ordered stir-fried noodles. When we opened the container at the hotel, we realized we had one bag of cold, crispy, deep-fried noodles and two bags of cabbage!
By the way, many Chinese find Western food is weird. For instance, my in-laws think it’s really lazy to serve a piece of steak without cutting it first into bite-sized pieces. They are suspicious of fish fillets because, well, if you don’t have the whole fish in your plate, how can you tell it’s the one you ordered? Many Chinese also find “uncooked” food super gross—think soft boiled eggs or smoked salmon.
Well, I’m telling you all this and then, there are days when you come home to find a bag of zòngzi in your kitchen.
“Wow… impressive, you had the time to make those and watch all three World Cup games today!” I joked.
“Nah, my mum dropped them off.”
I went to check the Chinese calendar in the living room. My in-laws were right on time—it was “端午节”, the Dragon Boat Festival.
The festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC) of the state of Chu, during the Zhou Dynasty. When the king decided to ally with the state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance and even accused of treason. When 28 years later, Qin captured the Chu capital, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River. The local people, who admired him, raced out in their boats to save him, or at least retrieve his body. Since his body couldn’t be found, they dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu Yuan’s body.
And this, my friends, is the origin of zòngzi.
Those sticky rice dumplings are made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves. They are steamed or boiled and please, don’t eat the leaf. The most popular fillings include beans, red bean paste, mushrooms, eggs, chicken, veggies or peanuts. Not that it’s written on the zòngzi—most of the time, the filling is a complete surprise to me!
So, there you go—one of these “weird” Chinese foods, something you won’t find in your local takeout place. Looks pretty good, doesn’t it?