Home / Lifestyle / Food

China's mind-boggling culinary expanse

By John Lydon | China Daily | Updated: 2016-09-28 08:00

China's mind-boggling culinary expanse


We talk about Chinese food in the West as if it's a single, unified cuisine, but anyone who has visited China knows that's not the case.

There is East China food, West China food, and North and South China food, and that's before we even start talking about the combinations between them and the sub-categories.

Imagine trying to methodically work your way through successive regional variants until you've tasted every dish and cooking style this vast country has to offer. You might start your tour from some central point and swing out in an ever-growing arc, each day anew savoring new foods or culinary variations.

But let's face it. You could no more taste every variation of Chinese cuisine than you could see every gradation of hue in the seven colors of the rainbow's palette from red through orange, yellow, green, blue and indigo to violet.

The culinary expanse boggles the mind.

China's mind-boggling culinary expanse

So how do I fit in here?

There are two kinds of Westerner.

There are the bold, for whom no challenge is too great - like, say, the swashbuckling privateer Sir Francis Drake, who plundered Spain's silver shipments from the New World in the 16th century to serve Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Then there are the lily-livered ones ... why single them out by name? They already have enough burdens in life. As Drake's contemporary William Shakespeare wrote: "A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once".

I don't mean to compare myself to Drake, but I, too, can easily think of things far worse than the taste of death. The taste of jellyfish, for example.

A sense of courtesy compelled me once to eat jellyfish - a creature that in my country we loathe even stepping on at the beach, let alone putting in our mouths - at a welcoming dinner for a new China Daily editor in Beijing. I expected rigor mortis to set in soon after my jaws clamped down.

The cowards among Westerners will always choose familiar foods, the blander the better. Hence, the success of fast food restaurants. They give Westerners wherever they may find themselves in the world something boring and familiar to eat.

The Chinese, on the other hand, cast caution to the wind when they travel abroad. Recently, eight Chinese tourists in Israel made the news for a meal they ate.

They went to a restaurant famous for its hummus. There must have been a shortage of other delicacies on the menu because, according to The Washington Post, they ordered only some side dishes, lamb for a main course, dessert and vodka.

What do you do if you can't order a lot of different types of food? They ordered a lot of what there was and paid premium prices. Thirty kilos of lamb for the eight of them, and multiple $400 bottles of vodka. At the end of the meal, the bill amounted to $4,400.

Oh well, you only live once. So live it up while you can.