More Chins than a Chinese Phonebook

It’s an old joke, but for the Chinese it is no laughing matter.  In the past 30 years not only has there been an explosion in the Chinese economy, there has been an explosion in the ever-increasing size of the collective Chinese waistline.  There are now more overweight or obese people in China than ever before.  British economist Paul French and author of “Fat China” explains;  “In the last 30 years they’ve gone from famine to feast in just two generations”.  There are now around 200 million people in china that can be classified as being overweight.  Around half of those are regarded as being obese.

It is not simply the vast number of overweight or obese people in China that is concerning, it is the speed at which the problem has developed.  Obesity and the resulting health problems are now becoming more common in children.  The Chinese government now faces the real possibility of a major health crisis in the coming years if this issue is not tackled.  It is hard to believe that in the 1960’s, China had one of the worst famines in its history.  Between 1959 and 1961, millions of Chinese died through starvation.  This disaster has been attributed to a combination of drought, poor weather conditions and political policy at the time.  The exact number of those who died has been debated over the years with conservative estimates at around 15 million while others believe the figure to be as high as 43 million.  The truth is that it is now impossible to calculate.  Even death in China is on an incredible scale.

What are the reasons for this increasing obesity problem and how have the attitudes towards food changed through the generations to arrive at this point?  Like any major social and health problem, there is no single reason, but rather a combination of factors.

Social Divide and Employment

Despite the economic boom, many people in China still find it hard to make a living and feeding and clothing themselves is a daily struggle.  For many in the big cities however, this is not such a problem.  There is a huge financial divide between people in the cities and people in rural farming communities.

China was once an extremely lean society.   Even since the mid 1970’s the vast majority of people still scraped a living off the land, working long, backbreaking hours to barely be able to feed themselves.  Since the country began to allow free trade there has been a huge shift in employment opportunities.

The numbers of Chinese people working in agriculture has decreased since 1950 and there has been a sharp decline since 1970, with more people working in Manufacturing and Services.  This has been due to the changing ideology of the Chinese hierarchy and the reconstruction of the country.  More people are now working in factories, construction sites and offices in the cities.  This shift from agricultural work has meant higher wages and on average less physically demanding jobs.  That’s not to say that the Chinese don’t work long and physically demanding hours however.  Many people travel many hundreds of miles to find work and send much of their earnings back home for their families.  On average the standard of living has improved sharply though the generations and people now enjoy the benefits of a better economy and the perks that come with it.  The perks are higher earnings allowing people to eat whatever, whenever they want.  A developing middle class in China has meant that many people have a much more disposable income than ever before.

The emergence of this middle class has meant more people spend much more on commodities and luxuries than they could hope to dream of 30 years ago.  People in China can now shop, where and when they want.  There is no real surprise that a more westernised outlook to business and free trade has brought a more westernised style of living.  Mass produced food products and the emergence of supermarkets and a 24 hour lifestyle has meant the Chinese diet is of a much poorer standard than previous generations.

Fast Food

The arrival of the Americanised fast food industry in China certainly hasn’t helped.  McDonald’s, KFC and Taco Bell are now commonplace throughout the big cities in China.  The Chinese knack for copying has meant that replicas of these types of fast food restaurants are appearing all the time.  There is now a copy of Starbucks called Bucksstar, a rip off version of Pizza Hut called Pizza Huh and a knockoff McDonald’s called McDnoald’s?  Although none of these can rival KFC, which is the most popular fast food restaurant in China.

Higher income has meant bigger portions too.  Bigger portions and less physical exercise will inevitably lead too a bigger waistline.  China is well on track to emulate the Americans in this respect.  Children and young adults are the ones most likely to frequent these fast food establishments shunning more traditional foods for the quick, sugar rich alternatives.  Sweets, which were typically an uncommon treat, only a generation ago, are now a common daily snack among young people.

The One Child Policy

Interestingly one of the more bizarre reasons attributed to the rise of obesity has been the Chinese “one child policy”.

Many have argued that this results in parents overindulging their children.  Parents with comfortable incomes will lavish their children with snacks and big portions.  This may not be the case if there were more mouths to feed.  It is the younger generations that are suffering the most with a large increase of diabetes in children across China.

Parallels

It seems that many of the reasons for the increase of obesity in China are very familiar to us.  There are many parallels with us in that respect.  Too many calories consumed and not enough burned off is the simple explanation.  However the psychology of over-eating is the difficult part to explain.  It seems that the Chinese problem is in that in trying to emulate the success that the west, they forgot to drop the parts that have been our undoing.  The younger generations in China are eating more, doing less exercise and as a result are getting unhealthier.  People have higher wages and an improved lifestyle, so they eat more and more often.  The introduction of Americanised fast food restaurants and their Chinese copycats has meant more choice but at a price.  China only has to look at the West to see where this current path will lead.  To their credit, China has invested Billions of Dollars into a new national health service, but they risk jeopardising that investment with the burden of an overweight population if they cannot halt what has already been set in motion.

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Challenge 6: Learn to use Chopsticks

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Y9HO-c0dxU]

Eating with chopsticks takes some practice, but if you visit China to do business then you will most likely eat at some point (food is a very important part of Chinese culture).

While the Chinese understand that westerners may not be comfortable with chopsticks, and will provide forks if needed (though not all restaurants, particularly the smaller ones, will have them), it is polite to have a go and an easy way to impress your hosts.

So, get hold of some chopsticks from the Chinese supermarket and get practicing! You don’t need to be eating Chinese food – try it on any meal…

Challenge 5: Cook an Authentic Chinese Dish

Ching-he.jpg

As you know, the food we get from Chinese takeaways has as much relationship with real chinese food as instant coffee does to a coffee bean. It’s been processed to suit western palettes, which usually means it’s very sweet and sticky. And deep fried.

Well it’s time to treat yourself to some real Chinese food – cooked by your own fair hands!

Your challenge is to cook a Chinese dish using a proper Chinese recipe. You’ll find that most Chinese food is extremely easy and quick to make (although some requires a bit of preparation). In my experience the Chinese don’t like to wait for their food!

Another aspect of authentic Chinese food is that it is a social activity – shared with friends and family, or undertaken publicly on the street or in large, noisy restaurants.

So my advice is don’t do this on your own. Get your team together for some cooking, or meet up with each of you contributing a dish and sharing what you’ve all created. (Coordinate so you all bring something different, and cook the rice at the time – plenty of it).

Alternatively, rope in your housemates or family. While you’re at it, do some research in to Chinese cooking and dining. Eating is actually an important part of socialising and doing business in China, and there are some customs and niceties that are worth knowing about (e.g. where to put your chopsticks when you’re not using them…)

Document the cooking and the eating and present your challenge as a recipe illustrated with images or, if you fancy yourself as the next Jamie Oliver or Sophie Dahl, a video.

Extra marks* for using chopsticks!

You can find lots of recipes online but I also recommend the book Chinese Cooking Made Easy (Amazon link) and the author’s other books. She explains what the various oils and spices contribute, and recommends the right type of rice and wok, among other things. Check the module Dropbox for some useful resources.

All the ingredients you need can be found in the Chinese supermarket that is now temporarily located behind the university on Hawkhill Road. The Riverside Tesco also has many of the spices and oils. Pool your resources if you want, but chances are anything you but like cooking alcohol will be used up once you’ve got the bug.

Enjoy!

 

(*there are no marks)

Food traditions in china

Food traditions in china

Households in rural china are known to thrive on growing as much of their own food as possible; this allows them to spend very little money on food. This low food expenditure suggests high poverty rates, however china’s rural population are generally not malnourished. Their diet mainly consists of rice, wheat flour, other grains and vegetables, with a low protein intake; through this most of their nutritional needs are met. Spend very little on food, allows families to save their money for the more important things in life: like school fees, household construction and other goods or services they may need.

Chinese people have many different eating traditions. Table manners are seen as a very important part of daily life, it is said that if you have good table manners it will add to the enjoyment of your meal and keep everyone in good spirits. Hosts in china are all friendly and hospitable. However, you must show them respect. Some may offer words of greeting to visitors before you eat and it is not till they have finished and say “please enjoy” or words similar you can tuck into your food, failure to do so shows major disrespect and is offensive to the host. The elders in a family are looked upon with great respect; they are seen as wise/intelligent people. As a show of respect it is tradition to present the senior members of the family with the best and finest foods first, this what is expected and has been going on for many generations. As shown in the photo hosts place the main dish in the center and arrange the side dishes evenly around it creating a circle. If dishes are prepared in a decorative form they will be presented facing the guest and elders, as a final act of respect.

As everyone knows china is the hometown of chopsticks but china were not the only ones to take up this tradition, they were also introduced in Vietnam, North Korea, and South Korea. It is said that the invention of chopsticks shows the wisdom of the Chinese, creating the simplest design of two sticks able to do so much to and with food. Nowadays it is a strong belief that chopsticks bring good luck to peoples lives, so are given as wedding presents and gifts. Chopsticks have developed over the years, starting off 5000 years ago as a two twigs picked off the ground and developing into two tapered sticks of equal lengths coming in all kinds of materials like bamboo, plastic, metal, bone, ivory, and gold. With allsorts of patterns engraved or printed onto them.

There are many rules regarding the correct way to use chopsticks. These must be obeyed or you could come across as having bad manners and can be seen as being very disrespectful.

  1. Firstly, it is considered begger like to hit the side of your bowl or plate with your chopstick because Chinese people think you would only do that when you are begging for food.
  2.  Secondly, it is seen as a kind of accusation to others if you where to stretch out your index finger while eating or point your chopsticks at another, at the table.
  3. Thirdly, it is seen bad manners to suck the end of a chopstick; this implies you haven’t been brought up properly, so puts shame on your family.
  4. And lastly, do not insert a chopstick vertically into the food. This is only done when burning incense to sacrifice the dead. So is a sign of major disrespect.

As you can see food is a very important part of Chinese heritage. There are many different traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, that Chinese people just see as a way of life but others looking in, might deem unnecessary. Their relationship with food is very important part of their life and people from around the world should look into this culture and try new things. Then people might even start up their own traditions to pass down the generations.

Ties in with todays international celebration lunch.

Food symbolism: Why do we give food meaning? BBC magazine article.

Dishes eaten at Chinese New Year carry great significance, as does the way a Burns Night supper is presented. But these are not the only meals which represent something to diners and the reasons we attach meaning are as myriad as the food itself.

It seems odd that a small parcel of tasty filling encased in a light dough wrapper can represent so much.

But the jiaozi dumpling symbolises prosperity to diners, who traditionally sit down for a family feast on the eve of Chinese New Year. It also means wealth when the dumpling is crescent shaped, like the gold ingot once used in ancient China as money.

Chinese chef Ching-He Huang says the centuries-old “lucky” food traditions come from superstitions about feeding the spiritual world, legends and history.

“For example, the bamboo glutinous rice, zongzi, was eaten to commemorate a famed poet. These rice dumplings were thrown in a river so the fish would feed on the rice instead of his corpse, because he threw himself into the river and he was a well-loved poet and patriot of the people,” she says.

Fuchsia Dunlop, BBC journalist and author of the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, says many of the meanings given to Chinese food are homophones of their names in Mandarin.

“In the Chinese language, so many different characters have the same sound and it is ripe for word play. For instance nian gao – which is a new year’s cake – also means tall or high, so it is eaten to represent doing better or reaching higher every year,” she says.

Steamed fish, which is a staple of many suppers, is served as a dish called nian nian you yu, the word for fish “yu”, being a homophone of “surplus” and “abundance”. It must be whole to symbolise completeness and good fortune.

Noodles represent a long life and autumn moon cakes are eaten to celebrate the roundness of the moon. Oranges are thought to symbolise wealth and tangerines good luck.

“The lunar new year is the biggest festival of the year in China,” says Dunlop. “An important element of it is for the whole family to be together, with people coming back to the provinces to share in the holiday.”

It is this togetherness that has perpetuated the popularity of the meal, says Huang.

“It’s a celebration of past, present and future. A big family gathering and a great excuse to eat great food. Eating is a social occasion in China because Chinese food is cooked in a way that is specifically for sharing, with lots of dishes at the dinner table.”

So a chicken must be served whole to symbolise family unity and togetherness, and whole roasted animals symbolise fidelity. Sweet, steamed cakes are also eaten as the sweetness symbolises a rich, sweet life and the round shape signifies family reunion.

Prof Michael Owen Jones wrote in a research paper for the American Folklore Society that people “define events through food”. He says individuals may also define themselves by the food they prepare, serve and consume, while symbols can evoke emotions.

If people do associate food with feelings and identity, celebratory meals will always remain part of human culture.

The ritual during festivals can also give the dishes meaning, such as on Burns Night in Scotland.

Burns Night suppers began in 1801, when friends of the late Scottish poet Robert Burns gathered together to celebrate his life and his poetry. They recited his Address to a Haggis and feasted on the offal, oatmeal and spices wrapped in a sheep’s stomach. It started what has since become a national tradition, although there are some variations to how the supper is celebrated.

Prof Gerard Carruthers, Glasgow University’s co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, says haggis was actually invented by the Chinese, but took on its “power” after Burns died.

“Burns’s poem to the haggis – it’s comical, but also serious. In the 18th Century, he felt people were too luxurious and eating too many luxuries, so his message was ‘keep it simple’.”

Scottish chef Shirley Spear says haggis is a very rustic Scottish dish.

“Burns was a farmer’s son and the haggis and vegetables served with it have strong association with the land. It’s a symbol of a humble life. Burns became a world renowned poet but had humble beginnings. It also symbolises his approach to life, meaning every person is worth his own salt. It’s about the simple man.”

The ritual of piping in the haggis, reciting the poem and plunging the knife in to the dish before serving it out stems back to peasant one-pot dishes which are shared, she says.

The stabbing of the haggis also mimics the idea of Scottish aggression and military power, says Prof Carruthers.

“The early Burns suppers were at a time when Britain was at war with France, so the idea was: ‘Let’s have a bit of fun in gloomy times.’ Burns’s poem is about celebrating the haggis, but this stabbing also had Masonic undertones. All these things are in the mix.”

But over the course of time, symbolism can change and food myths can spring up, says Gray. Many of which need “debunking”. Take simnel cake, which is usually baked and eaten during the Easter period.

“People associate with it servants having a day off, also that it was made for Mothering Sunday and had balls on the top to represent Jesus and his disciples. None of it is true.”

So where do such myths come from? They can usually be traced back to one era – the Victorians, she says. They were “very good at telling tall stories”.

Traditional to serve:

Cock-a-leekie soup
Haggis, neeps & tatties (“Haggis wi’ bashit neeps an’ champit tatties”)
Clootie Dumpling (a pudding prepared in a linen cloth or cloot) or Typsy Laird (a Scottish sherry trifle)
Whisky
Chinese homophones

Steamed fish – the Mandarin word for fish is “yu” and the phrase “nian nian you yu” is a popular Chinese New Year greeting. “Yu” also means abundance, so the phrase means: “Every year may you have abundance”
“Fa cai” or “black moss” – a seaweed dish also sounds like “fa cai” – to prosper
Apples – because the Mandarin word for apple is “ping”, and “ping an” means peace
Nian gao – sweet sticky glutinous rice cake, dipped in egg batter. Nian gao is also part of the phrase “nian nian sheng gao” meaning “every year you rise up the ranks”. “Nian” also means “sticky”, so you will stick with loved ones through thick and thin

Symbolism in Chinese Food

food

An interesting report from the BBC today on symbolism and food, not just in China but Scotland as well:

Dishes eaten at Chinese New Year carry great significance, as does the way a Burns Night supper is presented. But these are not the only meals which represent something to diners and the reasons we attach meaning are as myriad as the food itself.
It seems odd that a small parcel of tasty filling encased in a light dough wrapper can represent so much.

But the jiaozi dumpling symbolises prosperity to diners, who traditionally sit down for a family feast on the eve of Chinese New Year. It also means wealth when the dumpling is crescent shaped, like the gold ingot once used in ancient China as money.

Chinese chef Ching-He Huang says the centuries-old “lucky” food traditions come from superstitions about feeding the spiritual world, legends and history.

“For example, the bamboo glutinous rice, zongzi, was eaten to commemorate a famed poet. These rice dumplings were thrown in a river so the fish would feed on the rice instead of his corpse, because he threw himself into the river and he was a well-loved poet and patriot of the people,” she says.

Fuchsia Dunlop, BBC journalist and author of the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, says many of the meanings given to Chinese food are homophones of their names in Mandarin.

“In the Chinese language, so many different characters have the same sound and it is ripe for word play. For instance nian gao – which is a new year’s cake – also means tall or high, so it is eaten to represent doing better or reaching higher every year,” she says.
Steamed fish, which is a staple of many suppers, is served as a dish called nian nian you yu, the word for fish “yu”, being a homophone of “surplus” and “abundance”. It must be whole to symbolise completeness and good fortune.
Noodles represent a long life and autumn moon cakes are eaten to celebrate the roundness of the moon. Oranges are thought to symbolise wealth and tangerines good luck.

Read more over at the BBC site where there’s also a video