20 May 2004 2004 nian 5 yue 20 hao

Culture: Chinese Sandwiches

Food is natural, but cookery is a human invention, a system imposed upon the raw ingredients of plant and animal that is ancient yet constantly evolving. Of course, one can just eat and enjoy, but there are so many interesting questions to ponder. For example, why does the chinese dish called "fish-scented meat strips" contain no fish? And what are the similarities and differences between chinese and western cuisine?

Being such a large country with so many different regional styles of cooking, I sometimes suspect that every cooking concept that appears elsewhere in the world, from basic methods (like deep-frying in batter) to the overall idea (like noodles in a spicy tomato-based sauce), must also appear somewhere in China. But often, although the composition is similar, the taste is quite different. The noodles I mentioned are a popular dish in Xinjiang province, but although the concept is similar to a simple Italian spaghetti pomodoro, the seasoning and method is different, and the result is a unique Xinjiang flavour.

This noodle dish and its Italian "cousin" probably evolved quite independently. Other examples of similar-but-different foods include jidan'geng, which reminds me of baked custard but is garnished with chopped shallots and served as a savoury breakfast food, and doujiao gaibei "beans covered with a blanket", which is a stew with beans, potato, and pork that is covered with a layer of steamed dough, just like a good old-fashioned stew with dumplings. I also have to mention baked yam. In my country, people sometimes sell baked potato with various fillings as a kind of snack. Here, you can buy baked yams from street-side vendors who use a modified steel drum as an oven. Unlike potato, it doesn't need any filling—it's sweet and hot and tender. This is one idea I wish I could take back to Australia, along with pineapple-on-a-stick.

Where Do Melon Seeds Come From?

Yam is called at least half a dozen different names in different parts of China, but the name I'm most familiar with is digua, literally "earth melon". Can you guess what these other kinds of gua are?

Some words with the character 'gua'.

Not all of these things are considered melons in english, but there is a certain resemblance between them which I didn't notice until I learnt their chinese names. "West melon" is watermelon. "South melon" is pumpkin. "Yellow melon" is cucumber, but please don't infer that chinese cucumbers are yellow—they're not.

"Melon seeds" are roasted, seasoned seeds that are a popular snack in China. There are various kinds, such as watermelon seeds and pumpkin seeds, but the cheapest and most popular variety is sunflower seeds. Although sunflower is not a gua, these are still called guazi. And "Foolish melon" is not a food at all, just a way to insult someone.

Most chinese aren't aware that some of their favourite foods have cousins overseas. For example, many people insist that "salad" is a foreign food. Some will even add that chinese never eat vegetables raw. And yet, many restaurants list literally dozens of liangcai (cold dishes) on their menu, ranging from the ubiquitous sliced cucumber dressed in vinegar, to more exotic combinations which include chilled seafood or intestines. Salad and liangcai are similar in spirit but different in form: if you put one in front of me, I could tell you whether it came from the chinese or european tradition, but it's hard to explain what makes it so.

To take another example, "bread" is considered a foreign food, and yet China has a thousand and one kinds of bing, a word which has no equivalent in english but encompasses all manner of breads, pastries, and pancakes. Steamed bun (mantou) has long been a staple food in Northern China, and has a texture quite similar to bread. There is even a food from Xi'an which could be considered the cousin of the sandwich. The one available from my college's dining hall consists of a round flat bread, sliced, with seasoned mince meat and a lettuce leaf inside. This kind of bing is browned on both sides and slightly chewy—it reminds me a bit of toasted foccacia.

Roujiamo...cousin of the sandwich?

These foods which I call "cousins" are not to be confused with chinese attempts to imitate foreign foods. For example, bread is now widely available in China, and many of my students eat it as a snack or a breakfast. Most kinds are much sweeter than what is available in western countries. Some are deep fried. Some even have chocolate filling. It disappoints me to think that the people who eat this so-called bread probably think that it is the same as what people eat in France or Germany. There is even a kind of food that is marketed at hanbao (hamburger) but is really just a bread roll stuffed with a bit of processed meat and a foul-tasting mayonnaise, wrapped, and stuck on the supermarket shelves.

There are various brands of chinese chocolate, but not one is edible. I've given up even trying new brands, because I can tell by simply weighing them in my hand that they're not kosher. For some reason, they weigh less than real chocolate. But don't cross China off your list of travel destinations yet—Mars has a factory in Beijing, and their Dove chocolate is widely available and quite up to scratch (better than the Australian Cadbury brand which I grew up with, although that's not saying much). This is not a case of chinese brands catering to chinese tastes, because everyone I've spoken to confirms that Dove tastes better.

Speaking of bad imitations, I know that some cafes in my country have started to offer a pseudo-chinese stirfry on their menu. Their method is to throw in every kind of vegetable they can find, followed by a few spoonfuls of soy sauce. In fact, authentic chinese dishes usually combine just a few main ingredients, not a whole garden. Admittedly, this misconception seems to have started in overseas chinese restaurants themselves.

Milk has taken off in a big way in China. Particularly popular is suannai (literally "sour milk"), which is drinkable yoghurt. All sorts of milk-flavoured candies are starting to appear too. I suspect that it's all a plot again me, since I don't like milk and thought I would be able to escape it by coming to China. Cheese is not popular yet, but I predict a big future for it one day. All it needs is for somebody to deep fry it and serve it with chili.

It's normal for a country's cuisine to evolve, innovate, and assimilate from other countries. But I would rather wait until a new ingredient is fully "sinosised", rather than eat a chinese version of a western dish. One of my friends recalls the time her mother made a salad, guided by nothing but her intuition of what a salad should be like. No doubt the woman can make a perfectly good liangcai, but it was her first attempt at liangcai's western cousin, and also her last. Is that because her family doesn't like salad, or just because they didn't like the one she created? I plan to make a simple garden salad for this friend one day, and test her response.

A final question to ponder is, which cuisine is superior, western or chinese? The people who choose the latter include some chinese whose experience of foreign food begins and ends at MacDonalds, but also include a significant number of western visitors. First we should consider exactly what we're comparing. All western food to all chinese food? I think this is fair, because just as Australians have become used to having the choice between Italian, French, Greek, etc restaurants, so too does the modern chinese city feature tastes from all over China. And there is as much variation between the regional cuisines of this huge country as there is between the cuisines of Europe. All in all, I can choose neither western nor chinese food as an obvious winner. Good food depends a lot on the restaurant you go to and the price you pay, and I have eaten enough cheap meals at the college dining hall to know that the worst food China has to offer can match the worst of my country too!

The comparison between 'Chinese' and 'everything else' just goes to show that you've been here too long...

...anyway, I think it'd have to be 'everything else,' if only because the rest of the world has a majority. Also, I'm quite fond of Indian, Mexican, and Vietnamese food, which would all have to go above Chinese food on my Top 10 list.
Brendan [homepage]
21.05.2004 , 11:35

There is definitely a family resemblance in 'European' as well as Chinese food.

My personal ranking, from best to worst:



Japanese (little variety though)


Southeast Asia (to wit, Thai)

Indonesia drops of the list. Nice country and extremely friendly people but I was astonished at the nondescript stuff they eat. No wonder they're so short and lucky for foreigners there's so much delicious fruit. Maybe something about being an island country (like the UK).
Tuur [homepage]
24.05.2004 , 02:38

well written article. I grew up on Chinese food as well as western and i enjoy western food as much as the next westerner but if i never ate western food again I wouldn't shed a tear, Chinese food is tops in variety and quality...Guangdong and Sichuan dishes top the list!
Dezza [homepage]
26.05.2004 , 00:56

hmm i used to really like chinese food and i miss good asian food when i'm in princeton. but over the past year or so i've gone off chinese. it feels too heavy in my stomach and i really dislike the dishes that have oily sauces. however, i've never experienced 'real' chinese food. my definition of 'real' chinese is australian chinese, as opposed to american chinese (which is awful in princeton). so, todd -- or anyone else who has been to china -- what is 'real' chinese food like and is it really as heavy and greasy as i currently think of it as?

ps tuur, indonesian food isn't that bad!!
27.05.2004 , 00:42

I'm from the USA, and living in Australia. I miss baked Yams, especially around the end of November (the US Thanksgiving). Another oddity I've noticed is that in Australia, pumpkin is treated as a veggie whereas in the US, it's cooked in sweet foods like pies and muffins. It's interesting to compare cultures. My favourite is Chinese though.

Another oddity. In the USA Chinese food includes EGG ROLLS, which are similar to Australian Chinese spring rolls, but fatter and shorter, with actual meat inside. It's generally enjoyed split in half with a bit of hot mustard sauce dabbled in. So what are Egg / Spring Rolls actually called in China? Thanks!

Great work, Todd!
Gaelyne [homepage]
28.05.2004 , 19:17

Anita: I can only answer based on the food I have tried in this particular area of China, of course. I guess the fried dishes are fairly oily, but some are more so (such as braised eggplant) and some are less. The thing that bothers me more is that they tend to be quite salty. But in any case, this area of China (north east) has a reputation for oily, salty food.

Anyway, don't forget that you usually eat it with plain rice, which I think counteracts the heaviness of the other dishes.

Gaelyne: Actually, now that you mention it, I don't remember actually seeing deep-fried spring rolls around here. They seem like the kind of snack food that you could probably find in a Cantonese "yum cha" (aka "dim sum") restaurant. However, I have been to restaurants where both the wrappers and the fillings are placed on the table and the guests roll it up themselves. As far as I know, these are also called "chunjuan" (literally, "Spring rolls"). That "Spring" is the season after Winter, if anyone was wondering.

Egg rolls, I assume, are wrapped in some kind of crepe made using egg. I don't know what those are called here (if they exist at all). But I know that "danjuan" (a literal translation of "egg roll") usually refers to a kind of sweet biscuit.
29.05.2004 , 13:28

Here's an innovation that I saw in the shops recently: cheese flavoured icecreams.
30.05.2004 , 08:32

If this is China then why can't I but prawn balls in sweet and sour chutney like I could in a Chinese takaway at home.

Could it be that Mr and Mrs Wong were pandering to my foreign taste rather than feeind me on authentic chinese food.

Chinese Sushi bites,
Angry Chinese Blogger [homepage]
10.06.2004 , 11:52

Foods keep evolving as in all cultures. Unfortunately, in the so-called more advanced culture, be it western or asian, foods have become far too "dressy" and pretentious. I prefer simple peasant foods which you could only find in the rural areas. BTW, Todd, I have enjoyed your article very much.
13.08.2004 , 10:07

14.10.2005 , 20:59

i think your gay for talkin about sandwiches
18.01.2006 , 04:32

Nice article :) mikeyZ affected
05.03.2006 , 22:31

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