Certain experiences are so strongly part of every day life that I bump up against them harder and more often. Thus, I write about them more. Food is one of those things.
I’m not sure if I have described my first experience of dining in China, in July of 2004. It was one of my first meals in the country, and I was looking forward to sampling real Chinese cuisine. Moreover, I was in a new culture, with a new friend. I was eager not to do anything improper or revolting. Imagine my horror, when I realized I had taken a bite of something that had a bone square in the middle of it. Well, not even just one bone, a lot of tiny little bones. Hmm. What to do. Well, in China it’s not a problem. Indeed, my Chinese friends, when puzzling over why Americans "don’t like bones," are invariably astounded when I tell them that in America, it is considered rude not to swallow everything one puts in one’s mouth, and thus very awkward when one inadvertently gets a bone or other inedible thing in one’s mouth. I rather enjoy the look of astonishment I get when I reveal this secret about "why Americans don’t like bones!"
A Chinese table setting is completely different from a Western one. First of all, there is a small cup for tea. Second, there is a small bowl for one’s food. Rice is spooned first into the bowl, and then food from other dishes is laid on top of the rice. (As they are eaten together, the rice underneath soaks up sauce and flavor from the food on top.) Third, there are chopsticks, and often a spoon, to eat with. Fourth, is a very small plate that nothing is served on. I call this the spit plate. Everybody uses it, with no hesitation or self consciousness. Nobody looks around furtively, to see if anyone will observe them spit the food out. Nobody uses a napkin to cover their mouth. Nobody is watching because nobody cares: It’s just expected that when a person gleans all the nutritious stuff out of the food he has put in his mouth, he will spit the remainder out onto the spit plate. It’s a sure sign that someone is a westerner if he serves food onto, or eats it off of, his spit plate!
I have gradually become accustomed to using the spit plate for things I don’t want to swallow. In fact, I no longer think anything of it. One day, Sophie and I had gotten take out lunch at a cheap stall (three dishes and a rice for 5 RMB). We were standing up eating our lunches, and she burst out laughing for no reason. Puzzled, I asked her why she was laughing. She replied, "You’re eating just like a Chinese person!" Even my family has noticed. One day last year, when we were eating something, somewhere, I heard C say (in an exasperated, teenager voice), "Mom, You CAN’T DO THAT IN THE UNITED STATES!" I assured her I didn’t plan to adopt those eating habits in the USA. But, I admit, once the habit is acquired it’s hard to switch back to American notions of propriety.
I rather enjoy the very casual, happy atmosphere of a table full of people reaching across the table to get food out of dishes, serving each other food, serving each other hot tea in tiny cups, elbows on table, leaning over plates, slurping rice out of bowls, and spitting bones out. The ambience reminds me a bit of the casual atmosphere of the USA restaurants where peanut hulls are thrown on the floor, or the low country boil places and crab shacks of the Eastern seaboard where the trash is thrown into holes in the middle of the tables. Fairly often, an attentive waiter will come around and change out the plates.
A lot of stuff gets spit out onto the plate, but a lot doesn’t. Cartilage, skin, soft parts of bones, basically anything that can be chewed up and digested, are not discarded. The culinary challenge of my first two years in China was to feel comfortable using the spit plate. The challenge of my third year in China has been to learn to appreciate the wider variety of taste and texture than is found in American cuisine, and to use the plate for less.
For the first two years I lived here, I theorized that people don’t waste any part of the animal because they cannot afford to waste protein and nutrition. I try to be conscientious and not waste, but I’m not so frugal that I resort to eating bones. In the USA, where everyone is fat (yes, we know it), fat is not desirable to eat. Here, where nobody is fat, fat is food energy. Nutrition. Fat is good. Chicken feet, with tasty skin and fat, sell for more money here than chicken breast. I knew my youngest child had been socialized to live in China when she announced she wanted just one more bite of that good chicken, reached across, and used her chopsticks to take the tastiest piece of skin. The older have never eaten the skin; we just didn’t do it.
My Chinese teacher Xue Li told me that Chinese people enjoy the texture of bones much the same way that we Americans enjoy the texture of popcorn. "It’s interesting," she said. Still, I held to my protein theory. That is, until about four months ago. Something gradually began to change in my attitude, and it all began with a comment that Sophie made during lunch one day.
We shared a lunch one day that, of course, included a dish that had bones in it. My habit has been to rather gingerly nibble at the meat, and then use my chopsticks to get rid of the part I don’t want. I’ve perfected the ability to hold the morsel in my chopsticks and nibble at it, rather than putting the whole thing in my mouth. Of course the subject switched to bones at some point. Sophie made the comment, "We think a little bit of bone is good for you."
"WHAT?!! Eureka!" A light bulb is flashing in my imagination! I’m exactly the kind of nerd who reads the types of scientific journals that report about things like . . . studies concerning why Asian women have less osteoporosis, even though they don’t drink milk. Over the years since I’ve been an adult, there has been speculation in "the literature," and studies, concerning genetics, nutrition, and combinations of nutrition. There have been studies about soy in the Asian diet (a stereotype not necessarily true), low fat in the Asian diet (a stereotype not necessarily true), the high protein / low fat Japanese diet . . . you name it. Out of curiosity, I found a study just the other day of Hong Kong women trying to link soy protein to menopause differences.
But as every cultural anthropologist knows, there is always a danger that we fail to account for the lense through which we see the world: we may spend an hour looking for our glasses, only to find that they are sitting right on our nose. How many people designing those studies, trying to figure out why Asian women don’t get osteoporosis, realize that Asian women suck on bones? And here Sophie is, telling me, "We think it’s good for you."
That explains bones. It doesn’t explain shrimp shells.
Shrimp shells have been a complete mystery to me. The first week I was ever in China, I was served tiny shrimp fried whole and served as an appetizer, very much like popcorn in texture and size. In those, the shell was soft to start with and fried crispy. But I couldn’t rationalize why much larger, huskier shrimp are served the same way. Even worse, they are usually split down the back, which makes them even harder to peel, and there is sauce poured all over them in the kitchen. Why not wait until after you peel the shrimp to put the sauce on them? The first time I ever ate shrimp with Sophie, I told her Americans don’t eat the heads. She replied, "We don’t, either." "Soooo," I wanted to ask, "Exactly which part are you eating right now?" Because it definitely appeared that she was nibbling at the head. Shrimp are served not only with the head, but with feet and tail. It just doesn’t make sense!
The answer came from my friend Mike. One day at lunch, as we both struggled to peel our shrimp, I puzzled aloud over this mystery. He told me that shrimp shells are the main ingredient in glucosamine chondroitin — the supplement people take to supply nutrition to aging cartilage. Another eureka moment! I’ve never looked at shrimp shells the same way since. Indeed, on that particular day at lunch, I realized that much of the shrimp shell was fried so crispy that it was quite crunchy, not soggy or chewy at all. I began to nibble at my shrimp the same way Sophie did, eating the crunchiest parts of the shell but leaving the chewy or tough parts. I noticed that when the backs are split, as these were, this nibbling process becomes much easier.
But, yesterday was the true, culinary high dive. I went to lunch with Sophie and her friend, May. Knowing that I love shrimp, they ordered shrimp in Magi sauce. The shrimp that came were medium sized, heads and tails attached as always, fried crispy with a sauce poured over top. I sat across the table from May. I saw her pick up one shrimp. She held it with her chopstick by both head and tail, so that the back was exposed like a U. Then she neatly bit the back off, eating the middle part shell and all. Once the middle was gone, the tail and head were still in the grip of the chopsticks, easily discarded onto the spit plate. (Although May confided that she eats the head, too, something I won’t try because of my decision before I came here not to eat any parts of a central nervous system.)
I decided to imitate May’s perfect technique. It worked like a charm. The shell was crunchy like fried rice noodles, the shrimp mild, and the sauce delicious. More importantly, I felt nothing offensive in my mouth, just crunchiness. It was so much easier to eat it without shelling it, that I probably half of the shrimp myself (also because they were so good!), completely astonished at the fact that I was actually eating shrimp shells and enjoying it. That’s when I figured I had jumped off the high dive.
Well, not quite. Today, we were out for lunch, while running errands, and our driver ordered a mystery dish. It was really tasty, and everyone said it was chicken. The meat was all white meat, the bones seemed much too small to be chicken, and it didn’t really taste like chicken. I made them tell me four times at various points during the meal that it was not cat.