Monday, January 16, 2012

The Transparency of Food

Inspired by Chinese pumpkin soup

I just learned something that brings together a lot of things I’ve been theorizing on, and I immediately thought, now, see, this is why one has a blog – to be able to share such truth-inspiring moments. I was having lunch with the Museum staff in honor of an Israeli architect who is working on a project with the Museum (news on that to come soon). We were at a very nice restaurant, having really food (steak and sesame chicken and pan-fried fish, and shanghai-style noodles, sans the pork), when a bowl of orange soup appeared on the lazy suzie.

It turned out to be this incredible pumpkin soup. It was probably one of the yummiest things I’ve had in China so far. This is why at the end of the day I do love Chinese food – if only because it truly never ceases to surprise you. Which is totally case in point to what happened next.

I’m tasting the soup, trying to discern what is in it. I got chicken broth base, pine nuts, green and red pepper chunks, pumpkin, both blended into the soup and in big sautéed chunks, and perhaps some spice that could have been turmeric , when K, one of my colleagues, says:

“You know what they say, about Chinese food and Western food, right? That in Chinese food you cannot see all the ingredients when you look in the dish, but in Western food you can.”

“Oh really?”

“Yes. It comes from Kongzi…you know Kongzi?” This word, for those who don’t read Pinyin, is pronounced Cone-dz.


“Yes! Exactly. He said that it is not good to show everything. Imagine a rich man, who shows that he is rich…it is not good for him in the end, you see?”

“Ahh yes. Yes, I understand.”

Here is the thing. Just last night I was once again talking with someone about the opacity of Chinese food, because I recently found out that a noodle dish that I really love has shredded pork in it, and consequently every time I’ve had that dish, it might have had shredded pork in it (I found this out because I ordered Chinese food online for the first time and looked at a detailed menu. Even more shocking is that when you’re in a restaurant and you say “no pork” they don’t extend that to mean “no shredded pork”). I finished the conversation yesterday wondering, once again, who in their right mind would shred pork and for what purpose. What can it possibly add?

Well, doesn’t this just explain it all. The emphasis on texture in Chinese cuisine – because texture is hidden, subtle, you discover it only after you have committed to eating it, the complicated chunk-less sauces, which can and often do include things like shredded pork and shrimp, using spices to cover up scents and tastes (including MSG, because it augments certain tastes over others), and the fact that Chinese people are just not that picky about what meat they’re eating.

But more than that, it’s the learning of the lesson that is important. This girl knows that I’m a curious one, she and I went to a tea shop a few weeks ago, where she translated the tasting procedure of about five kinds of tea, including all the rituals, before we bought a nice bag of oolong for me to take as a gift. It was a nice bonding experience. With that as a precedent, it is so nice of her to instruct me in cornerstones of Chinese culture. You shouldn’t let everything show…I asked if this extended to people’s behavior, which I think is a question that requires a level of introspection that the Chinese rarely possess, as they simply haven’t had much exposure to other cultures, and thus don’t have much to compare their own culture with (most other cultures at least are subject to American cultural imperialism, which I think ultimately makes them wiser about themselves, among other things). She said that in the olden days people were more like that, but Shanghai people are modern nowadays.

I guess that’s true. Probably compared to how people used to be, modern shanghainese are veritable transparent people, open-minded and just letting it all show (realistically, I think they’re somewhere in the middle, between Indians – super reserved about personal stuff, and Americans – open about everything). Nonetheless, it says so much about so many aspects of Chinese culture – not wanting, ever, to lose face, or even the plenitude of rituals and traditions that accompany any meal, which are easy to understand, follow, and hide behind. Indeed, the rigidness of the culture could be construed as simply a way of not showing feelings and emotions.

What’s ironic is that part of the reason why I enjoyed that soup so much was precisely because I thought I could tell what was in it. It was simple, straightforward, a lot more like Indian or Mexican food than Chinese. It had no complicated tastes or tricks to the tongue. But I guess maybe it did, because that’s when K chose to share with me this little cultural anecdote.

Update: since then, I’ve found out that Confucius has a whole lot of laws about food, but also that he was from northern China, and thus his teachings apply to life there. Food in southern China is a whole other matter. Hopefully more on this soon. 

1 comment:

  1. I just had a French meal where all of the ingredients were really separate and clear, thought of this and had to reread it. It's so true about Chinese food never ceasing to surprise. Separately, don't you think the kongzi sayings are so talmudic? And the way it's delivered too - where a saying is quoted and applied to something totally different in life in a way that feels totally rational and meaningful in the end...