The Spirit of Chinese Cuisine


If you want to understand China, then you must understand Chinese food culture. Food is inexorably woven in the flesh and soul of every Chinese person, and everything in China revolves around it. To separate the Chinese from food is to rend him apart, to tear his muscles from his bones. Food is not a part of Chinese life, not even the most important part. Rather, it is life: you can no more separate food from a Chinese person, than you can separate his body from itself. There is no disconnect between the Chinese and food. Thus, food is not something to be examined or adored. Rather, it is something that is a nascent piece of humanity, of life.

This is why you will not see Chinese acting like, say, the French about food. For the French, there is a simple but profound delight and adoration associated with food. You can see this among diners when the food arrives at the table — they will strain their necks to see it coming. Their faces will beam with joy as it is presented. They will discuss it throughout the meal. But the Chinese are different. They seem to show no special regard for great food as it arrives at their table. Their faces show no change; they go on with their discussions, and begin eating without fanfare, without so much as a bon appétit or a 慢慢吃.

To the uninitiated foreigner, it at first appears that Chinese do not particularly enjoy food, that they see nothing special in the beautiful, savory dishes placed in front of them. To believe this is to commit the first fundamental mistake of the foreigner in China: assuming that things operate as they do in the West. The Westerner who wishes to travel to the East must drop all presuppositions about the way the world works. For everything in the East is different, and does not work as it does in the West. The most fundamental assumptions about what should and should not be, are turned on their heads. It is folly to try to impose Western culture on the East, and doing so will only leave the Westerner confused, angry, and befuddled. To the Westerner in the East, everything seems like a contradiction of itself.

It is not that the Chinese do not anticipate and enjoy their food as it arrives at the table. Rather, it is that they enjoy it so much that they do not make a separation between themselves, their lives, and the food. It is for the same reason that a man does not stare at his arm in awe and joy — it is a part of him, something he lives with, something that he accepts as himself. Make no mistake about it — the Chinese love, adore, and appreciate food. Their cuisine is, in my opinion, one of the finest in the world. But they do not feel the need to relate to it externally. Rather, they exist in and with it, as a part of themselves. They love it as they do their own bodies and spirits. And that is, in fact, the spirit of Chinese cuisine.