Ask Mei

What’s so tasty about chicken feet?

A question about China’s food culture

I read an article in WiC about China’s intention to import chicken feet from the UK. It mentioned that the Chinese think we British waste too much food by throwing away animal parts. But what’s so good about chicken feet and pig ears? And why are the Chinese so obsessed with food in general?

(Female reader, UK)

Thank you for raising an issue that is one of the more telling differences I have seen between the Chinese and Western peoples.

First of all, it’s very true that we Chinese are obsessed with food. I myself truly believe that we Chinese live to eat, whereas most Westerners eat to live.

Our obsession with food has a history as long as our civilisation. One of the most recited mottos in Chinese is from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD): min yi shi wei tian (民以食为天) or “people take food as heaven”. It means that food is the number one priority for the general public.

One of my favourite writers Lin Yutang explained this dynamic quite eloquently: “How a Chinese spirit glows over a good feast! How apt is he to cry out that life is beautiful when his stomach and his intestines are well filled! From this well-filled stomach suffuses and radiates a happiness that is spiritual. The Chinese relies upon instinct and his instinct tells him that when the stomach is right, everything is right.”

Those instincts are enduring ones. Now that we are in the internet and social media age, younger Chinese have been inventing many new words. Among them is chi huo (吃货)or literally “eating machine” which is used by self-proclaimed food fanatics.

In terms of why we Chinese like to eat seemingly strange parts of an animal, I think it’s mostly because we have gone through so many famines in the past that we have learned to not waste anything edible. Plus, we believe every part of an animal has unique nutrients. For instance, chicken feet are rich in calcium and gelatine. Eating them stops your arteries clogging up and keeps your skin looking young.

In addition, the Chinese have developed sophisticated cooking methods and taste buds – to the extent that we have words associated with food that are non-existent in English.

For instance, the Chinese have the word se (涩) which means a sensation that is both tangy and bitter (one of the best examples is the taste of green persimmon).

Our appreciation of good food doesn’t dwell only on its looks and tastes, but also its textures and aftertastes. A good example is jellyfish. The rubbery sea creature doesn’t have any flavour nor offer much in the way of nutrients. But it’s a popular appetiser because of its unusual texture. We typically prepare it by blanching it till tender and then marinating it with soy sauce, sesame oil and chili sauce, which gives the dish a bit more kick.

I understand that habits are hard to break and that it’s difficult for many British people to appreciate some of our dishes. But I’ve been encouraged to see more authentic Chinese eateries opening in the UK as more adventurous Brits start to develop a taste for real Chinese cuisine.

One of my favourite contemporary British food writers is Fuchsia Dunlop and her memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is a must-read for Chinese food lovers, as well as anybody interested in contemporary China. Through her experiences with food, Dunlop’s memoir projects a vivid and insightful view of China’s cultural features and social changes. Having learned to cook in a Sichuan culinary school she also reveals some of the key differences between training to be a chef in China and the same role in the West. A major one is having to master 15 different chopping techniques in China, each of which is denoted by a separate linguistic term. Dunlop even notes that when she is visiting British friends and they ask her to chop something up, the request now seems vague to her. “Chop it how?” In China the instructions would be much more specific!

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]


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