Keeping Your Staples Stable
“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.