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Chinese Food Obsessions

Popularity 7Viewed 15225 times 2013-12-6 04:11 |Personal category:food|System category:Life| eating, food, snacks

Food, food, food. In the USA, you may have to travel many miles to buy groceries - it's horrible, makes no sense. In Chinese cities you don't have to go far to find street sellers, open air markets, small stores, or supermarkets. I love open air markets; they're an indigenous tradition around the world. You can get great local food and see a microcosm of the culture. In China, that means crowded, noisy, messy, not unduly hygienic, and everyone hustling for a deal.

The downside: You get your food in a flimsy plastic bag to schlep home. Even if it's eggs. Or soup. If those eggs break or the soup spills as you're walking, biking, bussing, or driving home, so what. Tough. A more expensive restaurant might give you a takeout box or styrofoam container, but mostly you get a plastic bag. No twist ties, either. Competition among vendors is cutthroat. They're watching the bottom line. If it's messy food, you can get it double-bagged and knotted. You pay for bigger plastic grocery bags in stores, so people do re-use those. Still, plastic waste is a staggering problem. There's trash in plain sight everywhere. Everyone complains about pollution, but I saw people discarding litter in the street as they walked.

Food prices keep rising, but many things are still what Americans would consider ridiculously cheap. The college where I was teaching was located near farmland, on the outskirts of what is considered a small Chinese city. Lianyungang is a coastal city with about 4 million people. Agriculture and fishing are big industries there, so fresh produce, grains, and fish are abundant and cheap. Prices are about half or less than those in Beijing and Shanghai for fresher food. In Lianyungang you can get cucumbers, potatoes, and rice for about 0.20/lb. (1.5RMB/jin?) Fabulous! At home in New Orleans it's 0.79 for one cuke or a pound of potatoes (4.7RMB/jin?). You can buy many species of fish for about $1.25/lb (7RMB/jin). Fish here starts at about four times that. Apples in season, 0.50/lb, strawberries, less than $1/lb, half what you pay here. But eggs, nuts, and meat cost at least as much as in the US, shrimp is pricier, and crab and lobster can be out of sight even if they're poor quality. Unscrupulous vendors? Sure, there are those. It's caveat emptor.

Teachers at Lianyungang Normal College get free lunch. That's usually several mixed vegetable dishes, one usually with some tofu or egg, about a 2 oz piece of meat or fish, and as much rice and vegetable broth as you want. Not bad for free, but less than 15% of the meal is protein - less than half what the average (overweight) American eats. People who pay cash for lunch pay about $1.25. The students have a separate cafeteria with different food stalls offering more interesting selections, but students pay at least $1 for each meal; they don't get much protein either, and they're always beefing about the food. Many people carry away their food in plastic bags or styrofoam containers with wooden chopsticks and throw them away. The dorms have no refrigerators. Snacking is the thing to do.

China is Munchie Heaven. You can buy in bulk, with each piece in its own package, or in a bigger bag or box, like how Americans usually buy snacks. The choices are endless, healthy and junky. Fresh fruit, sweet dried fruit, dried beef, pork, fish and squid, watermelon and pumpkin seeds, dried tofu, peanuts, crackers, cookies, soft and hard candies, pastries, weird pizza-like things with fake cheese, deep-fried rice, sticky rice cakes, scrawny chicken feet, chocolate and even potato chips. My personal favorites are roast chestnuts and small heavy cakes filled with sweet mung bean paste. In Beijing, I go for wan dou huang, made of peas. (see photo)

Because the Chinese can afford to eat more, they're becoming fatter, for all the same reasons Americans are. More cars, more sedentary jobs, less exercise, etc. Most people I met worried about weight gain. Among my female students were some who were resorting to extreme diets to slim down. World Health Organization statistics show that the number of overweight and obese Chinese adults rose from 25% in 2002 to 38.5% in 2010, compared to 69% of Americans. The rate of increase in China is growing faster than the GDP, researchers say. Ai ya!!

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Comment Comment (8 comments)

Reply Report liu5222512 2013-12-6 10:31
I like this essay.
Thanks for your contributing.
Reply Report lexalee 2013-12-6 22:28
liu5222512: I like this essay.
Thanks for your contributing.
Your attention and comment are most appreciated.
Reply Report huaren2323 2013-12-7 10:14
Very interesting and informative story about a snapshot of life at Lianyungang Normal. Sounds relaxing and even paced versus other places I knew. Glad you you chose to help China in your area of expertise. Keep it up!
Reply Report snowipine 2013-12-7 11:44
you are  real  modern sinologist.
Reply Report Frank.j33 2013-12-13 13:03
healthy or not , Chinese food is delicious and it is true.
Reply Report Zoggles 2013-12-13 16:15
I will say that over the years I have been in China, I have watched the general population gaining waistline. However, I don't ascribe to your closing comments blaming "more cars, more sedentary jobs, less exercise, etc."

Certainly road traffic has likewise multiplied over the years, a sign of growing prosperity and rising affluence - but there's not a huge difference between driving or taking a bus - in terms of healthiness. The walk to and from the bus stop usually is somewhat similar to the walk to and from your parking spot. Jobs? I don't think there has been much change here either. People still as before work long hours, and not in anywhere near the same lazy/comfortable conditions as the west. I don't even see any decline in the amount of sports being played - perhaps even an increase. Likewise, there are more fitness centres (but also more need now!)

As income rises, more certainly gets spent on food. People eat more, and drink more. Here in Dalian, men even walk around with their t-shirts rilled up to show off their bellies, rather than hide them.

My firm belief, is that the biggest impact has been due to all the western junk food chains rapidly expanding and multiplying here. Yes, I'm looking at you KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and even Burger King is now starting to get in on the act. The expansion is so great, that in some of these places, you can even sometimes see two other branches from the windows of another. These places are always packed with 小皇帝 being spoiled by the grandparents during the day, and by parents in the evenings - but of course, it's not just the children eating. These places are also highly popular with students - as many are open 24 hours - long after libraries, study rooms or even dormitories have been locked up.
Reply Report DailyofChina 2013-12-15 16:05
     Chinese food...
Reply Report lexalee 2013-12-16 12:08
Zoggles: I will say that over the years I have been in China, I have watched the general population gaining waistline. However, I don't ascribe to your closing ...
I think Chinese people are eating more of everything and the kids are less active in general.

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I am a semi-retired American physician and medical/science writer who lives in New Orleans, in the southeastern USA. I spent 2012-2013 teaching at a college in Lianyungang, Jiangsu.


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