Chinese Perspectives on Food and Health

beijing-20170105-33Julia Theilen

What do you have for breakfast in China? How is Chinese barbecue different from the American one? And do they drink anything but tea in China? These were every-day questions that I found answers to during our trip to China. While finding these answers I also learned a lot more about Chinese diet and Chinese traditional medicine and about how Chinese eating traditions are linked to the country’s collectivistic cultural background.

First, I experienced that the relationship that Chinese people have towards the consumption of food in general is a much healthier one than what I could observe so far in the United States as well as compared to what I grew up with in Germany. For example, I understood that a main principle in Chinese food culture is quality over quantity. So, while in America, I discovered the world of super Big Macs in mass production, giant ice-cream sandwiches, huge stacks of chocolate chip pancakes, free refills and all-you-can-eat restaurants, in China food is appreciated not in size and mass but with attention to detail and quality. By this, I mean that we tried many bits and pieces of various dishes we ordered together as a group, with appetizers and main dishes being artificially presented at the table. For instance, I remember sushi rolls we were served once were colored pink and an entire fish was carefully arranged on a plate so it would look appealing. I liked the whole idea of sharing food as a group sitting at a round table and thereby trying many different kinds of food instead of ordering a whole meal for yourself and quietly eating it on your own, quickly so the next person can get a table, as it tends to be the case in Western and especially American culture. The social aspect of having dinner together seemed to be of higher relevance in China, rooting back to their collectivistic cultural background.

Back to my entry questions: There was one typically Chinese breakfast dish that I absolutely loved – it looked like a very flat, big pancake mixed with egg, folded like a burrito or crêpes and filled with lettuce, sausage and spices. It was freshly made, warm and very tasteful. And most importantly, it was very filling and gave me strength for the long days of walking and sightseeing.

Chinese barbecue was indeed another experience I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on. They put little pieces of chicken, pork, beef, duck or fish on sticks, added some seasoning and intense spices and barbecued it. No thick steaks, bacon, spare ribs or anything like that. As we specifically asked for it, we were also served grilled vegetables. Two of those managed to make specifically good memories for me: Eggplant covered with basically oil and garlic, and chives covered with oil and seasoning. With all this, I observed that our Chinese students occasionally had a bite of rice, but they mostly ate meat only for their barbecue – so, lots of protein, very few carbs. I guess that rice for them is comparable to what we think about slices of bread at the side of our dishes: Ok to fill your stomach, but not really tasty or worth eating if you’re not desperately hungry.

“We’ll order wine, do you want red or white? White? Ok, let’s get some white wine for her!” – This, followed by laughter, was what two of our Chinese students said to one of my Western fellow students when we had dinner together. And they had good reason to laugh, as we were to understand when the so-called white wine arrived at the table. It looked more like Vodka and looking back now, I’m pretty sure it is something like Vodka. I remember the bottle said something about more than 40 per cent alcohol and Chinese people seemed to just drink it with their food as if it was regular wine. After all, highly concentrated alcohol facilitates digestion. So, no, Chinese people don’t just drink tea all day.

They do however drink a lot of tea, but rather as a social ritual as for the cause of hydration. A very interesting insight I’d like to share is that Chinese culture tends to drink warm drinks. While Americans on this trip desperately missed their ice to add to coffee, tea or water, the Chinese would serve us hot water, warm soy bean milk and hot tea. Why? Because they believe that warm drinks are better for your health.

This again indicates that the reasons for why Chinese people consume food the way they do lies in their rich culture, traditions and in their philosophical background. Traditional Chinese medicine and diet follows certain principles that lead to a much healthier lifestyle than the Western one. The goal of traditional Chinese medicine is to support life energy ‘Qi’ and to support balance of the naturally contrasting forces Yin and Yang. All in all, a diet following traditional Chinese medicine aims to promote health and well-being.

For example, Chinese traditional medicine goes against consumption in excess and it advises you to not eat when you are not hungry and yet done digesting the previous meal. In the West, we don’t consume food primarily for the cause of nutrition anymore, but rather for pleasure and we like the idea of snacking in between meals.

Moreover, Chinese tradition believes that one should not eat what should not be eaten; meaning that foods that are naturally out of season but can nowadays be imported or grown in green houses should not be eaten when it’s not the season for them to naturally grow. Furthermore, Chinese tradition considers it unnecessary to add industrially manufactured sugar to food while American diet relies heavily on adding sugar in huge amounts to increase flavor. For instance, one 600ml can of Coke alone contains 64g of sugar and most granola that Americans like to have for breakfast contains a lot of sugar, too.

Hidden sugar in food and drinks causes serious issues of diabetes and overweight in Western societies. In extreme contrast to this, we could observe that Chinese students weighed themselves after every meal they had at their University cafeteria at Sanya University to keep track of their weight. This behavior reveals another aspect of the Chinese approach that is especially striking to me: Chinese medicine puts responsibility on the individual.

To conclude, I found a New York Times article from 2016 in which Dr. Unschuld, a German expert on Chinese medicine, makes an interesting and thought-provoking connection between this individual responsibility for health and Chinese economic growth:

“In China, medicine and politics are similar: You don’t blame others, you blame yourself.” He added, “You ask: ‘What did I do wrong? What made me vulnerable? What can I do against it?’ This is why China has risen.”

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