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I came to China for the food.

This statement usually earns me raised eyebrows and polite laughs.

"But seriously, why did you come here?"

Food just is not an acceptable answer. Everybody seems to forget that it is one of our most basic needs. go without eating for a few days and then tell me what your priorities in life really are.

But I am supposed to say that I came because I love to travel (which I do), or to learn the language (which I am), to experience a different culture (no way around that one, really), or even because it will look good on my resume (which I highly doubt). I could say that, I guess, but you wanted the truth, did you not?

This is one of the few stories that actually have a beginning:
Five years ago a friend of mine took me to a small restaurant in Montreal's Chinatown. None of the waiters could speak English and nowhere on the menu was I able to find my Chinese food staples: egg rolls and sweet and sour chicken. Instead I was introduced to Yuxiang Eggplant, Home-style Tofu, a delicious concussion of Chicken and Mushrooms, and Beef braised in Soy sauce. It did not take me long to get over my previously formed expectations of what Chinese food should be like (and I finally had the answer to one of life's nagging questions: how can Chinese people be so skinny when all their food is deep fried). It was the beginning of an intense love affair. (The Chinese fiend who first took me to that restaurant later became my boyfriend - I blame that on the food as well).

A few years later I found myself with a Bachelor's Degree in Liberal Arts, the vague notion of wanting to become a writer, and an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia: adulthood with all its responsibilities was closing in on me. I had to get out.

the sensible thing would have been to go to France. It was close, familiar, and i had studied French for seven years, and to be honest, it could have used a bit of brushing up. But who wants to live of Brie and Baguette for more than a month? Instead I boarded a plane to Beijing and finally ended up in Chengdu.

Go to where the flavor is.

To tell you the truth, the first time I ate authentic Sichuan Cuisine I had tears and sweat  running down my cheeks, but I'm not easily deterred. I do have this theory, however, that the peppers are used not only for taste but also because of the color: it adds a bright and beautiful contrast to the gray monotony of the Chengdu sky.

Now that I am here I am taking courses in Mandarin, but my first words were all food-related. I was an expert at ordering food long before I was able to have the most basic conversation about the weather. It was in restaurants that I had my first lessons in Sichuan Dialect and in their kitchens that I learned the names of the ingredients of my favorite dishes. Yes, when I first came to China and had no way of communicating other than body language, I used to follow the waiters into the kitchen and point. Another option was to select dishes from the menu purly based on luck. I would point to some strange characters and hope for the best. I have made some amazing discoveries that way. It is also responsible for the fact that I have eaten thousand-year-old eggs, frog and intestines - none of which were as bad as I imagined them to be.

Amidst all the spices and noodles, hotpots and BBQ sticks, however, I did not just gain weight (which I did - rephrase previous question: how can Chinese people be so skinny when their food is so damn good?), I also found a sense of community. this might actually be the best part about eating in China: sharing the food. It's such a social experience. It is not only a time to eat but also a time to talk and laugh and drink: a time to be together. and everything is just up for grabs. I love the custom of putting the best piece of a dish in your neighbor's bowl to show your friendship and respect. And I love how here we pour tea for each other instead for ourselves. these "rules" could seem rigid and (in Western eyes) unnecessarily polite, but they do have a way of binding you together, of forming you into a group. Sharing food and drink is one of the most mythical rituals signifying community, friendship, and peace.
It really humbles our Western this-is-mine-and-that-is-yours mentality, where you get your food on your own plate and sharing occurs only between the best of friends and only after the obligatory "Could I try some of yours?"

So now I find that I am not only living in another culture, but that it is rubbing off on me: the other day I went out to a Western restaurant with some of my friends in order to satisfy our cravings for cheese, burgers and salads. We all ate off each other's plates without giving it a second thought. We ate the Chinese way. It is much more fun and more sensible as well: you get to try lots of different dishes for the price of one.

Bon Apetit!

copyright 2009 - 2020 Richard Winter
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