Keep­ing Your Staples Sta­ble

NewsChina - - FLAVOR OF THE MONTH - By Mina Yan

“I'm from Shanxi. We eat noo­dles.” So said an older fam­ily friend curtly over din­ner one night as he waved his hand at a large plate of steam­ing hot dumplings. It was one of my first vis­its to China and the sen­ti­ment puz­zled me. What did your place of birth have to do with whether or not you eat dumplings? Do Ital­ians only eat pizza and pasta? Do the French only eat crois­sants? I'm from Cal­i­for­nia – should I be forced to per­sist purely on a diet of In-n-out burg­ers and sushi?

As it turns out, dif­fer­ent re­gions in China have dif­fer­ent sta­ple foods that lo­cals hold dear to their hearts (and bel­lies), and it's not un­com­mon to see peo­ple shun carbs and starches they are not ac­cus­tomed to eat­ing.

To un­der­stand this, it's worth think­ing about the idea of “cour­ses” as they ap­pear in Chi­nese meals, and where sta­ple foods sit in the hi­er­ar­chy. When sit­ting down to a Chi­nese ban­quet it may seem that ev­ery­thing ar­rives on the ta­ble all at once, but there is ac­tu­ally or­der in the chaos. Un­like a mul­ti­course meal in Western cul­ture, where each is re­moved be­fore the next one is pre­sented, Chi­nese cour­ses are stack­able.

A typ­i­cal pat­tern sees the meal start with a se­lec­tion of cold dishes such as sim­ple sal­ads and cold meats, fol­lowed by a soup, and then a main course round, which is al­ways hot. The num­ber of dishes in the main course round should match the num­ber of guests at the ta­ble. And then, when the guests reach the end of this main course, the sta­ple course ap­pears.

The sta­ple course is some­thing starchy in­tended to en­sure guests leave the ta­ble feel­ing full and sat­is­fied. Chi­nese cui­sine isn't world fa­mous for desserts, but on oc­ca­sions a dessert will be served – typ­i­cally a fruit plat­ter to aid di­ges­tion or some­thing vis­cous and bean based (and far less sweet than a Western ana­log).

What's that got to do with my fam­ily friend from Shanxi Prov­ince? Dif­fer­ent starch dishes are pop­u­lar in dif­fer­ent re­gions. While north­ern­ers love dumplings, in Shan­dong Prov­ince you'll most likely be pre­sented with a big plate of steamed buns ( man­tou) not un­like the bar­be­cue pork buns you find at a dim sum place – but with­out the bar­be­cue pork. If you're din­ing in Shanxi, you'll find noo­dles of every size and shape, while rice dom­i­nates in South­ern China.

As it turns out, agri­cul­ture plays a large part in this. China's rice is pri­mar­ily grown in the south around the Yangtze River. That means hearty serv­ings of rice on most din­ner ta­bles there, in both the plain form and fried with all man­ner of good­ies. North­ern China is known for its rich soil and agri­cul­ture, and flour is plen­ti­ful – mean­ing noo­dles abound.

Maybe the Shanxi man just wasn't ac­cus­tomed to fin­ish­ing a meal with dump­ings, and was us­ing his re­gional iden­tity to ex­plain that. The re­sponse could have been about fa­mil­iar­ity and tra­di­tion. Chi­nese mil­len­ni­als might be ea­ger to try the lat­est food trend­ing on so­cial me­dia, but many older Chi­nese peo­ple have stayed put in their home­towns for much of their lives. So they stick to what they know and love. For those of us who travel to China from afar, ev­ery­thing seems ex­otic, and we're ex­cited by all the new culi­nary dis­cov­er­ies and fla­vor pro­files. But for lo­cals, Chi­nese food might not hold many sur­prises. In the end, maybe it's just a mat­ter of com­fort.

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