s someone who grew up oscillating between dishing out insults about and fervently defending the honor of my home country’s allegedly “awful cuisine” and “lack of food culture” (I’ll leave the where to your imagination), I don’t think I truly started to appreciate the power of food until I moved to China. So much more than the prawn crackers and sticky scarlet-colored sauces I’d experienced from countless takeaways, China’s cuisine is enriched by thousands of years of history and as diverse as the land it comes from.
I think it’s fair to say few cultures can match the influence of Chinese cuisine. Eating feeds into every aspect of society, from shaping the way friends and family greet each other - “Ni chi le ma?”, “Have you eaten?” -to symbolizing support for a city in crisis. A tangle of sesame sauce-coated noodles topped with pickled vegetables, scallions and chili, pictures of Wuhan’s signature dish regan mian (hot dry noodles), flooded the Chinese internet earlier this year as a show of solidarity for people living at the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that - much to the expense of my waistline - most of my favorite moments in China have revolved around the dinner table, Lazy Susan in full spin.
My arrival in Beijing coincided with one of the most important holiday meals of the year, akin to Christmas dinner in the West: nian yefan or New Year’s Eve dinner. Largely friendless and with nowhere to be, I was all set for a big night of tuning in and out of the Chinese New Year Gala my compound security had recommended; living vicariously through the sounds of neighbors celebrating and getting a taste of the festivities by catching quick glimpses of the (then legal) fireworks displays through a haze of smoke from my apartment window. However, a quick chat with a new Chinese colleague later, my boyfriend and I were set to be guests of honor at a traditional family-style feast.
After my fifth (or sixth?) toast of strong liquor accompanied by a chorus of “ganbei”, meaning “dry glass” but loosely translated to cheers, I realized a couple of things. First, I really shouldn’t have been literally “drying my glass” as I’d only been there about two hours and was already verging on the drunk side of tipsy. Secondly, as three generations of my colleague’s family urged me to eat while I stared out at a table piled high with some of the best-looking food I’d ever seen - most of it completely new to my untrained eye - I had no idea where to start.
Admittedly, I was stuck at the soup course, intimidated by my first encounter with a sea cucumber. An expensive and leathery delicacy saved exclusively for special occasions, “We bought it especially for you,” beamed my colleague. Not wanting to disappoint my gracious hosts, to a sea of encouraging nods, I took a bite and nervously swallowed a chunk urging it not to return. Shamefully and with a pang of guilt, I slipped the rest of the creature into my boyfriend’s soup bowl when everyone’s attention was diverted. Later I would learn about the appreciation and exploration of textures or kougan (which literally translates to “mouth feel”) in Chinese gastronomy - a box that sea cucumber comfortably ticked as a complex combination of sinewy and slimy.
It wasn’t for me, but successfully beyond it, in a flurry of chopsticks and with several alcohol-fueled toasts directed at everyone around the table, we worked our way through a veritable feast. Each carefully prepared dish carried with it its own meaning and opened my mind to a world of new flavors, textures and superstitions: fragrant steamed fish for prosperity in the coming year; boiled dumplings to see out the old and see in the new; pulled noodles for longevity.
Despite the language and occasional cultural barriers – we’d inadvertently brought a bunch of cut flowers traditionally associated with funerals as a token of our gratitude - and the unexpected hangover, what really stuck with me from my first Chinese banquet was the unrelenting generosity. A family we barely knew had endured and entertained our limited Chinese (at this point I gave myself a pat on the back for mastering “My name is”) and welcomed us into their home on the most important holiday of the year without so much as a grumble.
Gathered together outside to watch the fireworks, I realized it’s true that the best way to explore a culture is through eating, and nowhere does that ring truer than my experience in China: It’s generosity through and through.