Chifanle meiyou? -- "Have you eaten?"

Jonathan Lipman, Department of History, Mount Holyoke College

Anyone who has ever studied the Chinese language knows that Chinese folks talk about food more than any other topic, to the point that in some parts of northern China, people greet one another with "Have you eaten?" (chifanle meiyou) rather than "Are you well?" (ni hao?). An old Chinese proverb says, "The common people regard food as Heaven." (min yi shi wei tian) Whatever ordinary people may eat, there are only a few truly great haute cuisines in the world, and China’s is invariably listed close to the top. The dishes created by Chinese chefs are rivaled in subtlety, variety, and imagination perhaps only in France, and gourmets have been arguing their respective merits for centuries.

China has the world’s largest population, now approaching 1.3 billion, but its land area (much of it high mountains or desert) is about the same as that of the United States, which has only one-fifth as many people. So Chinese farmers have learned to use every inch of their fertile land intensively, and the cooks of China have learned to use every available ingredient wisely. Among the great human civilizations, only China’s has virtually no food taboos--religious, aesthetic, or intellectual--so that everything that can be conceived as edible can in fact be eaten, and nothing nutritious is wasted.

In addition to this frugality, food is also closely associated with good health, so some medically-minded restaurateurs in China will prescribe your dinner for you, depending on how you’re feeling. The expert manager will observe your appearance and physical condition, then ask you how you are--are you sad? joyful? pregnant? tired? feverish?--and tell you whether the steamed whole duck with star anise or the seafood soup would be better for you tonight. When they eat at home, Chinese people carefully consider what they eat in relation to their state of health, state of mind, the time of year, the weather, and more. Nowadays, influenced by Western trends in healthy eating, some Chinese urbanites are choosing lighter, less caloric foods, but this has not diminished their delight in appreciating the tastes, colors, and textures of what they eat. Over two thousand years ago, the great sage whom we call Confucius opined that the superior person likes grain finely cleaned and meat finely chopped. Nowhere has humankind developed a more highly refined art of preparing food and eating.

Whatever experience you have had with "Chinese food" outside of China, it does not much resemble what people eat inside China. In China you will find no fortune cookies, no gloppy brown sauce on "egg foo yung," no bright red "sweet-and-sour" goo with pineapple or maraschino cherries, no "chop suey and chips," no soysauce-tinged "fried rice" with occasional green peas. Though finding more authentic Chinese food in the United States is not easy, it can be done. If you make the effort, you can gain a much greater appreciation for Chinese cuisine and culture and (not coincidentally) avoid some pretty awful American-style "Chinese" food. Whether downing a quick bowl of anise-and-chili-flavored beef noodles at a Chinatown snack stand or tasting roast duck in one of the many styles that Chinese gourmets love, you will feel as if you have come much closer to China through your taste buds.

Fan and Cai

Strangely enough, all of the dishes (cai, pronounced tsai) in a Chinese meal are intended (originally, at least) as flavorings or sauces for the real food, which consists invariably of cooked grain (fan). About two-thirds of Chinese people eat rice as their main food (zhushi), and they will usually eat it at every meal in one form or another. The rest of the Chinese people eat wheat, millet, sorghum, maize (corn), oats, or barley as fan--boiled into porridge or ground into flour then griddle-baked into flat cakes, deep fried, steamed, wrapped around fillings as dumplings or buns, and (most commonly) rolled flat and cut into noodles. Chinese people are shocked and puzzled by the fact that Europeans and Americans don’t have a "main food" (meaning grain), and they often ask if we eat bread as our zhushi (as the ancient Romans did). The idea that Americans eat meat as our zhushi could not be more baffling, since zhushi is always grain.

Eating cooked food, in Chinese culture, marks the civilized human being. Chinese cuisine includes almost no raw foods, which relieves foreign tourists from the anxiety of uncooked ingredients. Another old proverb informs us that barbarians "eat birds and animals raw" (rumao yinxue). In China, even lettuce and tomatoes are cooked, the former as braised greens and the latter often in a dish of scrambled eggs and tomatoes (fanqie chaodan). The exception is fruit, often provided as a last course in China. The American-style substitute--chunks of pineapple in heavy syrup with a toothpick--hardly counts in comparison to fresh lychees, sweet tangerines (appropriately called "mandarins" in England), or juicy watermelon.

Breakfast in China does not resemble Euro-American breakfast at all. First thing in the morning, southern Chinese people usually eat last night’s leftover rice boiled into gruel with water (xifan or zhou), with some salted vegetables or peanuts, preserved or dried meat or eggs, and perhaps a light flavoring of soy. Northerners might have steamed bread made of wheat (mantou) or corn (wotou) with their own local versions of pickled and salted vegetables, eggs, or meats. In the north, the hot pepper sauce is usually close to hand as well. Almost anywhere on a Chinese morning you can find street vendors selling long crullers of fried, unsweetened, wheat dough (youtiao), which can be folded and stuffed inside sesame-flavored buns (shaobing)--a sort of doughnut sandwich--and eaten with a bowl of (extremely nutritious) hot soybean milk (doujiang), which children like with sugar but adults prefer salty.

A conventional lunch or dinner in China consists of fan in fairly large quantities (an adult male will eat 2-3 full bowls of rice at each meal), flavored with cai made of vegetables, meat, bean curd (doufu in China, tofu in Japan), fish, or other proteins. Condiments such as pickled vegetables, hot pepper sauce, or dipping sauces appropriate to the cai will be served on the side. Do not expect to see sweet, gluey "duck sauce" or hot yellow mustard on the table, for these are much more common outside China. Only at banquet time will fan give way entirely to cai. Though rice, noodles, or steamed bread will always be served at the end of a banquet, it is poor manners to eat more than a few bites of fan, for the host will then feel that insufficient cai have been placed on the table. (Given the excess which prevails at Chinese banquets, this is extremely unlikely.)

When people are eating together at an ordinary meal, each receives an individual serving of fan--a small bowl of rice (which can be refilled without limit), a large bowl of noodles or dumplings with or without soup, porridge, or some pieces of steamed bread--and the cai (if any) are shared equally by all from common plates in the center of the table. Compared to a Euro-American meal, in which every person gets his or her own plate of food, this Chinese style of eating requires a very different mind-set and very different table manners. Using either her/his own chopsticks or a serving spoon, each person places small portions of cai on a small plate, or on top of her/his bowl of fan. It is considered rude to take large portions of your favorite cai, and a common proverb praises the person whose table companions cannot tell which dishes s/he prefers. If everyone is having soup noodles (which usually contain protein foods and vegetables as well), then no cai will appear, and everyone has an individual bowl.

If you are eating rice, keep it in the small bowl--do not dump it in the middle of a plate. Place pieces of the cai on top of the rice and let the sauce(s) from the cai flavor the grain while you are eating. If you are eating at someone else’s home or expense, always leave some food on your plate (or on the plates of cai) when you finish the meal, to indicate that your host has presented you with more food than you can possibly eat. Try not to leave any grains of rice in your bowl, on your plate, or on the table near you, since wasting fan is considered unnecessarily extravagant.

Etiquette requires that the host deny that s/he has taken any trouble, or indeed that there is anything worth eating on the table. The conventional Chinese phrase is meiyou shemma cai, which means "I have prepared no dishes [worth eating]." The guests must respond that they are awed and overwhelmed by the quality and quantity of food. As for using chopsticks, just follow the manners of Chinese people around you and ask them to help you if you need advice. It is essential that you never stab your chopsticks into a bowl of rice and leave them there, or ever leave chopsticks point-down in a bowl, since this position for the sticks is reserved strictly for funerals and brings very bad luck at any other time. As in Euro-American cultures, you should eat with your mouth closed, take small bites, and be respectful of your tablemates. Unlike Euro-American manners, however, you may make noise while slurping soup or noodles from a bowl, and it is perfectly all right to lift your rice bowl, hold it under your lower lip, and push small bites of food into your mouth with your chopsticks.

Many Chinese meals, especially in the south, consist entirely of soup, with noodles or dumplings or rice in the broth (like the more famous, but less varied, Japanese ramen). These soups can be delicious and filling, so when a large bowl of soup arrives in front of you, it might be the meal rather than an appetizer. In northern China, a light soup often serves as dessert in place of fruit or sweets. Soup in large bowls is usually eaten with a spoon, though you may use your chopsticks for noodles, meat, and vegetables which flavor the broth. If soup is served in small bowls, you may pick them up and drink the soup directly. The more formal the occasion (as in Europe or America), the more you will rely on utensils for eating.

The ingredients put into cai vary a great deal across China’s huge area. Pork reigns supreme among the meats; in Chinese, the word meat (rou), used alone, always means pork. Chinese Muslims live almost everywhere in the country, and their restaurants, signposted as "pure and true" (qingzhen) to indicate conformity with Islamic dietary laws, serve the best non-pork meats. Specializing in lamb, mutton, and beef, they are extremely popular among non-Muslim Chinese as well as their coreligionists. Poultry includes the ubiquitous chicken and duck (the latter especially fine), as well as more exotic birds such as quail, pigeon (or squab), and larks. Fish, both fresh- and saltwater, and shellfish contribute much of the protein to the Chinese diet, especially in the watery south and along the coast. The hardy prolific, and nutritious soy bean is processed into beancurd, bean paste, bean noodles, beancurd skin, and much more.

And the vegetables! Any Chinese street market, even in poor areas (during the growing season), will boast an incredible variety of roots, peppers, eggplants, cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, and more. No Chinese meal would be complete without at least one dish of greens, usually stir-fried with oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, and a touch of garlic--the type of greens will vary by region and by season. For this reason, calcium and vitamin D deficiencies are rare in China.

Inventing "Chinese food"

Until the twentieth century, there was no such thing as "Chinese food" (Zhongguo fan). Rather, each part of China had its own unique ingredients, flavors, and techniques, so Chinese people associated particular tastes and smells with particular places. Some methods (like steaming or stir-frying in oil) and some ingredients (like cabbage, ginger, soy sauce, and green onions) were used everywhere, and very few places had traditions of baking (to this day, most restaurants and homes do not possess ovens). But most dishes remained closely associated with one or two of China’s four basic cuisines--north, south, east, and west--and many with particular cities, towns, or provinces. China’s climates range from Siberia to the tropics, and we should expect that such diverse ecologies would produce a great diversity of cuisines. They do.

What we call "Chinese food" outside of China usually means some variant of Cantonese cuisine, one tailored to the tastes of foreigners and using ingredients very different from those used in China (those tiny canned ears of corn, for example, or American mushrooms, neither of which I have ever seen in China). The most obvious characteristic of "Chinese food in America," is the inescapable sugar, added to virtually every dish, in the (probably correct) belief that Americans like all foods sweetened. In the past century, as rapid river communication and then convenient railroad shipping have become available in China, some ingredients and some dishes have become "national"--that is, they have lost their Hunanese or Shanghainese or Cantonese association and become "Chinese." Sweet and sour whole fish, for example, originally came from Henan province, in north central China, but nowadays you can find it everywhere, in local versions, some of them far from the Henanese original, and many places claim it for their own, or claim that their style is the best. (Visitors often remark insightfully upon the local food chauvinism of Chinese folks, comparing it to similar emotional attachments in France and Italy.) Since the 1980s, fast food, including MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken, has come to China, further homogenizing Chinese foodways. Predictably, many of today’s young Chinese urbanites prefer this "American-style" food to their parents’ and grandparents’ more old-fashioned tastes.

But even with the gradual homogenization of "Chinese food," local and regional cuisines still retain their importance and individuality. Most obviously, fan varies from the dry-field grains of the north to southern paddy rice, though tourists are usually served rice wherever they go because it is luxurious by Chinese standards, and they are believed to expect it. One of the great pleasures of traveling in China lies in tasting the local foods, the dishes that local people are proud of and consider their very own. Dipping into a lamb firepot in Beijing (north), selecting dim sum from a rolling cart in Guangzhou (south), savoring the translucent tiny shrimp of Hangzhou (east), or braving the fire of spicy bean curd in Sichuan (west), a visitor can discover how Chinese people actually eat without relying on the homogenized "Chinese" menu that foreigners are believed to desire. The real local cuisines will always emphasize those ingredients for which their area is well-known, the vegetables, grains, meats, or flavorings which are most suited to the local climate and taste. The wild game and forest mushrooms of the northeast, for example, would seem strange and exotic in the south, while the overwhelming brown pepper taste of many Sichuanese dishes would offend the palate of a gourmet from Suzhou, in the lower Yangzi valley, where bland dishes are the rule.

Chinese food theory specifies that there are five tastes--salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and hot. Most cai are dominated by one of these tastes, with a second and perhaps a third in the background. These flavors are produced by the condiments and sauces which are cooked with the basic ingredients. Soy sauce, for example, is "salty," so a dish of fish braised in soy sauce (hongshao yu) would be "salty," with the "hot" of ginger as a secondary flavor. Shrimp with chilies in tomato sauce (ganshao xiaren) is "hot" because of the chilies, with a "sweet" secondary taste from the tomatoes and a bit of sugar, while a very similar dish, shrimp with vinegar sauce (culiu xiaren), is dominated by the "sour" of vinegar, with secondary "sweet" and "hot" tastes. When selecting your cai at a restaurant, try ordering dishes with contrasting flavors--it’s an enjoyable challenge. If the restaurant is a good one, they will respond with wonderful variety, but an ordinary Chinese restaurant in the USA will serve you only two or three variations on the same two sauces, one brown, one white. As with any cuisine, the chef’s ability may be measured by the extent to which the preparation brings out, rather than conceals, the original, fresh flavors of the ingredients.

Some Examples of Tasting Chinesely

In every part of China, a traveler will find the balance of flavors, the overall "taste" of the local cuisine, to be unique and different. Northern dishes tend to be strong-flavored, with onions or garlic in charge, while eastern food is more delicate and lightly spiced, with a hint of onion or ginger, except in the city of Wuxi, where sweetness can overwhelm the other flavors, or Shanghai, where dishes can be very oily. Western (Sichuan or Hunan) meals can be entirely dominated by the strong tastes of brown peppercorn (huajiao) and chilies (lajiao), while southerners prefer complex and subtle sauces which accentuate the fresh flavors of the ingredients. Even the same ingredient can differ widely across the Chinese landscape; in olden times, traveling merchants from Shanxi province, in the north, would carry their personal jugs of Shanxi vinegar with them wherever they went rather than tolerate the inferior sourness of other vinegars.

With some exceptions, dishes are named by the main ingredient(s) and the cooking method or sauce. Douban liyu, for example, is precisely what it says--a whole carp (liyu) braised and sauced with hot bean paste (douban jiang). Pork shreds (rousi) stir-fried with "fish flavor" sauce (yuxiang jiang) is called yuxiang rousi. Just to be contrary, "fish flavor" sauce contains no fish but is made with hot bean paste, green onion, ginger, and garlic, and is delicious with meat, fish, or vegetables, especially the sweet, thin-skinned Chinese eggplant. Ordinary Chinese restaurants in the USA create what they call yuxiang sauce ("garlic-flavor" or "garlic sauce" on the English menu) by adding a little chili oil to their standard brown sauce. This is not yuxiang sauce!

Some sauces or preparations have names from their place of origin, such as the spicy Chengdu chicken (chengdu ziji) from the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan, and West Lake fish (xihu yu) from Hangzhou in eastern China, where the beautiful West Lake is located. Others are more descriptive--"red cooked" (hongshao) means braised or stewed in soy sauce, and "home style" (jiachang) usually includes bamboo shoots and mushrooms or wood ear, a fungus that grows on the sides of trees. Some whimsical names have found their way into the menu, too, like "ants climbing a tree" (mayi shangshu), a dish of transparent bean-flour vermicelli with ground pork (no ants!), or "Pockmark Granny’s beancurd" (mapo doufu), a Sichuanese preparation of beancurd cubes with chopped pork, a thick spicy sauce, and lots of ground brown pepper sprinkled on top.

Chinese chefs prepare their ingredients somewhat differently than their Euro-American counterparts. Working with a variety of cleavers, they often cut every component of a dish into bite-size (or smaller) chunks, slices, or shreds. Scholars believe that this resulted from the general use of dried grass or grain stalks as stove fuel, for they burn very quickly, and small pieces of food cook faster. In a dish of Kung Pao chicken and cashews (gongbao ji), for example, boneless chicken and charred dried chilies are cut into small pieces only slightly larger than the cashews, so that no one component dominates the appearance of the dish. Other dishes require that one main ingredient dominate, and the rest be minced into the sauce--in dry-fried string beans (ganbian sijidou), for example, the chef adds tiny bits of garlic and zhacai (a pickled Sichuanese vegetable) to the pot, but the string beans are the dish. Some preparations require that poultry or fish be cooked whole, but much more commonly, they will be cut into chunks.

Both for flavor and for texture, meat and fish bones are often retained rather than removed before cooking. It’s best to chew the meat off of the bone while holding the food with chopsticks, then the bones may be placed on a side-plate or on the table (if it is covered with plastic). Fish, shrimp, lobsters, and poultry are sometimes presented whole, with heads and tails, a sight which can be discouraging for fastidious non-Chinese who prefer that their food not look as it did when alive. Do not be surprised if the head of the duck is placed on the platter with the meat and skin when you order Peking roast duck (kao yazi), or if a whole fish, with head and tail, turns up as a pièce de resistance. Indeed, braised fish heads (hongshao yutou) is a conventional and popular dish in China, both tasty and economical. If confronted with a possibly unpleasant-looking whole animal on a platter, just remember that part of the Chinese chef’s aesthetic involves making the cooked dish look just like the original.

Taste each dish you eat in a Chinese restaurant with "five flavor theory" questions in mind--what flavors dominate the dish? What are the secondary tastes? You can also concentrate on colors and textures, especially at a large meal. Watch the progression of dishes from appetizers to simple stir-fried preparations to more elaborate centerpieces then back to light soup and fruit at the end. The light-to-heavy-to-light progression is also part of the chef’s plan. Except when banqueting or entertaining foreigners, Chinese folks do not favor sweet desserts, preferring instead to have some fresh fruit or, in the north, a light broth to finish a meal. As an experiment, instead of ordering your own dishes, try asking your waiter or even the chef to create a meal for you. Tell them how much you want to spend per person and what limitations you would like to place on the ingredients (no fish heads?), then ask them to choose the best and freshest they have and let them do their thing. It is considered polite to arrange such a meal in advance, a whole day if possible, to allow for extra time and special ingredients. Then ask yourself, has the chef varied the colors and textures from dish to dish, never unnecessarily repeating the ingredients or cooking techniques? Has he combined these elements carefully with the "five flavors" to create a complete meal? This "Chinese-style" attention to the food will add a great deal to your appreciation of a meal.

Food has many roles in Chinese culture, some of them going far beyond nutrition. In religious life, food plays an important part in ceremonies to honor (and feed) a family’s ancestors. Cooked food is usually presented to the ancestors inside the house, at the family altar, and raw food, mostly grain, is offered at the family gravesite. In social life, people entertain one another with food at every opportunity, and it is very rare to escape from a visit to a Chinese home without being stuffed. In Chinese medicine, diet plays a crucial part in any treatment program; indeed, the Chinese verbs for "to eat" and "to take medicine" are the same. All food is believed to have medicinal value. Festivals, of course, center around huge meals, as do weddings and funerals, occasions for emotional confirmation of family relationships and friendships. A foreign traveler in China, or a foreign visitor to a Chinese restaurant outside of China, can increase the pleasure of the meal by paying careful attention to the food, as Chinese people certainly do. Be as open as you can to the wonderful variety of this great cuisine. And when anyone asks you, "Chifanle meiyou?"--have you eaten?--the answer must always be, "Chifanle!" I have eaten, and I’m feeling fine.