It's not every day you'd find me eating lunch in the house of a
stranger in Beijing.
But this wasn’t an everyday kind of day.
In early September, I had the opportunity to travel to China on tour with a men's chorus – the Toronto Northern Lights. It was a great trip, packed with all the tourist stuff one apparently should do in Beijing: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of the Heaven, Lama Temple, and the Summer Palace.
A few concerts, as well as Tourist-centred, “exit through the gift shop” attractions like the Jade Factory, Tea House, Pearl Shop, and Silk Warehouse rounded out the schedule. Have you ever seen hundreds of silk cocoons be stretched into quilts? I hadn't either. But I have now, and I even tried it myself! (It didn't go so well...)
Walking on The Great Wall was another highlight, especially as the chorus sang The Circle of Life. Looking up the mountain at the thousands of people journeying up the two thousand year old steps sure put some things (like life itself) into perspective.
Traditional Chinese food seems to be shared communally with the help of a Lazy Susan. I think the food people eat, and the way they eat it, says a lot about their culture.
The best meal we had came in the dining room of Mr. Wong. The tour company had brilliantly decided to find local hosts in the Hutong district of Beijing to serve home-cooked meals right in their homes. So, about twenty of us paraded into a small, plainly decorated living room and sat around two big tables.
The dishes started coming out - vegetables with less sauce, but packed with more delicious flavour than the restaurant food. We couldn't get enough of it! No Lazy Susan this time – we had to resort to the the old fashioned “pass the beans” technique. And “pass the beans” we did! Our table of 10 gobbled down 13 dishes, plus rice, of course.
Most fun of all, Mr. Wong, our host who had been sweating away all morning in the closet-like kitchen, came in to say hello. Through our translator, we were able to ask a bunch of questions. I'm curious, I guess, so I seemed to have more to ask than the rest of the group.
Mr. Wong, I learned, worked as a chef for his career (which explained the delicious food). He was retired now, but offered his home as a destination for groups like ours during the tourist season. He explained how he had gone to chef school for five years of training, and he came from a lineage of chefs. His grandfather had actually been a chef for the Emperor, and the vegetable balls we had eaten were the Emperor's favourite! I puffed out my chest, feeling a little more regal.
It sounded like a pretty noble profession! I wondered if chefs in North America (or anywhere) are appreciated as much as they should be. And what about kitchen staff? And serving staff? And farmers? Everybody who helps... Food is pretty important, after all. Everybody eats. (Trivia note: One guide told us the four small stars on China's flag represent different important groups: soldiers, workers, students, and, thankfully - farmers!) Of cours, Mr. Wong didn't work without help; his wife did most of the chopping and prep work. And chopping for 40 (20 in the next room at also) is no easy job.
It turns out that in China, KFC is the most popular restaurant, followed by McDonalds. It's changing the way Chinese people eat, in fact, and apparently, the way Chinese people die – (check out this great 3 minute TED Talk for a summary of how the “Western Diet” is affecting the health of the world.)
I wondered if Mr. Wong had ever eaten at KFC or McDonalds. I wondered if family dinners were important in China. I wondered if taking the family to KFC counted as a family dinner. I wondered if McDonalds had ever considered doing away with “happy meals”, adding family meals of shared dishes, and installing Lazy Susans. I wondered if Mr. Wong would call McDonalds meals “happy” at all. Maybe I wonder too much...
Looking at the smiling faces of the exhausted couple, I thought about their past years of work, the thousands of traditional dishes they must have prepared, the garlic and chilies hanging in their courtyard, their tiny kitchen, and the ridiculous quantity of delicious food that had emerged from it that morning. I felt exceptionally fortunate to have had the experience!
I had come to the Wong's house for lunch, but I feel like I got a taste of much more than their food that afternoon. Choosing to ask questions had been a good decision.
What will you ask this month?
September 27, 2012
“Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.”
Hope everyone is back into the swing of school! As fall comes, Ontario has delicious fall crops! I get a fresh local, organic food share every week, and if you want to make grocery shopping easy, you should consider it too! Support local farmers and get delicious food! Start here to find a community!
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Riddle of the Month:
I'm wood or glass, and big and flat, I'll bring you food – now how 'bout that? Turn me fast or turn me slow – I'm at your service, 'round I go! What am I?