I can’t say how many times I’ve heard a misconception about Chinese food announced on cooking shows on American TV. You’ve heard it, too. How many times have you been watching your favorite chef talking on TV about how to cook this or that Chinese food. The cooking show host then states that Chinese food is chopped small in the kitchen because the Chinese think it’s gauche to have to chop food at the table (as we do, with a knife and fork). The Chinese, so this myth goes, think everything should be cut bite sized by the chef in the kitchen. This rumor must have originated with someone who had no experience of actual Chinese food and hence no link with reality. Then this fantasy has been perpetuated by people who have no first hand experience but who think it sounds reasonable. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
The next time I hear some cooking show host say that Chinese food is cut up small in the kitchen so it can be served as bite size pieces, I’m going to jump inside that TV Tube and bash that person over the head with his wok! When I finish bashing him over the head, I’ll shove a plate heaping with 12 inch long cai xin (poached baby broccoli shoots) and another plate of pai gu (bite size pork rib bones) under his nose and make him eat it, for good measure to make sure he has learned his lesson about the "daintiness" of Chinese eating habits.
In addition to dim sum (snacks to accompany tea), Baby Broccoli Shoots, Steamed Fish, and Steamed White Sauce Chicken are among the foods that epitomize Cantonese cuisine. None of these dishes involve food that is cut in any manner so that it can be daintily eaten in small bites at the table. Rather, each dish involves picking up a large hunk of food with one’s chopsticks and biting (or gnawing) off pieces of it. The techniques to eat these with dispatch would all be an affront to Western sensibilities about table manners and how to eat. One of my friends told recently of a chef who was hired to go make dim sum in a restaurant in France. In order market the dim sum to the French, he had to reduce the size of his dim sum to actual bite size pieces.
I find food to be cut typically much larger than "bite size." So one must break a piece off using chopsticks. (In use of chopsticks, anything is fair game including using one as a poker if food is slippery.) If the food doesn’t want to be bitten off or pried away from its origin, one must pick up a chunk and gnaw at at until it breaks off. For instance, just a few days ago I ordered roasted duck in a local eating establishment. Half a duck was served, laid across the serving dish and sliced, bone and all, in slices about 1/4 inch thick. To eat it, I had to pick up one piece at a time, nibble off the meat while holding the entire slice with my chopstick, and then (yes) put the bony part in my mouth and suck the meat off the bones. Although I’ve become accustomed to it and now actually like flavor from the bones, I still find the actual maneuvering a bit challenging. Especially with fish, because the tiny little bones tend to get stuck in my mouth like needles.
The shoots from the broccoli plant served as cai xin completely belie the myth that Chinese food is cut bite sized! These shoots, which are delicious, are about 6 to 8 inches long. The young stalk of broccoli is cut just when the plant has begun to produce tiny flowers (long before these could create a "head" of broccoli). The shoot is poached quickly in chicken broth and then served. Tenderness or crunchiness of the stalk and greens depends of the cooking skill of the chef. If one is lucky, the tender shoot will break off in a bite size piece with a pleasant crunch. If one is unlucky, the shoot will be soggy and tough and will never yield to any amount of chewing. The pitiful person eating must gnaw at one end while the rest hangs out the front of the mouth. Since the darned thing won’t break off into small pieces as it’s bitten, it may never give in to chewing and hence must be swallowed whole after the entire thing is stuffed into the mouth. The person eating it in this manner takes on the appearance of a moose that has fished a plant from the bottom of a lake and is standing there chewing it, with half the wilted plant hanging out the front of its mouth. I sometimes have wondered, if it won’t yield to chewing and is 12" long, how in the world is my tummy going to cope with it. I guess it really extends the concept of roughage.
And of course it is wasetful to throw away the delicious bones which add texture, nutrition, and flavor. A Chinese friend once told me that bones make the food more "interesting," and that I could consider it something akin to chewing popcorn. Real Chinese food is not cut into bite size pieces for daintiness in eating. It is cut into bite size pieces so that the bones are small enough to be popped into one’s mouth like popcorn. Then, one sucks and gnaws the meat off the bones, rolling it around inside the mouth. When the bone has been cleared of meat and fat and skin, and marrow, by rolling it in and around the mouth, it is then spit out. In a high class establishment, a spit plate will be provided for this. In a lower ranking establishment, bones are spit out directly onto the table. The habit also extends to shrimp, which are eaten with head, shells, and feet attached. I must say, I always feel a bit sorry for girls and boys I see out on a date eating like this, with food hanging out of their mouths, chunks of bone being rolled around inside the mouth, and spitting bones on the table. It seems a bit uncomely for a dating experience, but I guess knowledge of what someone really looks like when they eat paves the way for the reality of future married life.
There is definitely a utility to this manner of eating. The cook, in fact, has much less preparatory work to do in the kitchen. He doesn’t need to cut up vegetables (unless he is trying to achieve a particular result in the blending of flavors or colors or textures). Rather than cutting up the chicken according to whether it is a leg or wing, western style, all he has to do is whack whack whack, cut the entire bird into bite size pieces, with enough effort to split the bones so that it’s easy to suck out the marrow. Chinese women don’t need to drink milk to get calcium, they simply suck on the bones. No spare protein or fat is wasted. A survey of the bones will reveal that they have been sucked clean. We won’t go into descriptions of which body parts are eaten. Suffice it to say, nothing is wasted. Parts that westerners turn their noses at, like fish eyes, are considered delicacies. When a fish is served, its head is pointed to the guest of honor so that he may have the choice part. Fortunately, it is gracious to turn the head towards the next ranking guest and gesture to say "qing qing," (please, please!).
And that observation about manners leads to a two way judgment. In a world where people are starving, isn’t it sinful to throw extravagant resources to raise meat animals and then to throw away important sources of nutrition and protein? When I throw away the head and bones on my fish, am I not throwing away the best part for calcium and protein? And, it’s not that manners are non-existent, they are just different. While it’s completely normal for one to have food hanging out of one’s mouth, slurp up rice out of a bowl using one’s chopsticks to shovel it sideways into the mouth, and spit bones out on the table, one does not touch one’s food with ones hands. Monkeys eat with their hands; humans eat with spoons and chopsticks. It is gauche to stir around in the food looking for the best pieces: one’s personal chopsticks only touch food that one is immediately taking from the (always) family style serving plate. Toothpicks are widely used, but the mouth is completely covered with the hand while doing it. Different strokes for different folks. All I can say is, "go figure!"