I still remember the first Chinese restaurant that opened near our hometown in Maine. It was so exciting to get such exotic food to our small town. My favorite was the Pu Pu platter which came with assorted flavored and seasoned meats. The egg rolls tasted fantastic at the time and we ordered from there often.
I didn’t realize until I started traveling to China just how Americanized Chinese food is in the USA. But I also understand why. If Chinese food was served as it is in China, few would eat it here. Not because the food taste bad (although some does), but because it is so different.
On a trip to a more remote area in China near Nanxiong city, I had the opportunity to try a truly home cooked meal. Nanxiong is located about 2-3 hour drive north of Guangzhou China (a beautiful city in itself).
Nanxiong area is not actually rural as we would consider in the USA, but rural for the Chinese. There are restaurants there but not any that would even be considered 2 star by my ratings anyway. For that reason there is an alternative dining method that is unique (to my experience anyway) to China. Some Chinese people open up their homes to people to host a meal.
This is a wonderful concept and one I’m surprised has not caught on in a big way internationally. To allow foreigners the opportunity to eat a home cooked meal in an authentic Chinese home is brilliant. But I must clarify this is not the intended purpose. It is done more as a way for a family to generate income while filling a need in the more rural areas. I really doubt they host many foreigners.
I ate dinner with a few locals when I visited the area. They were familiar with the home and made the reservation. We dined at a reasonable 7 pm hour.
The family played the role of host and server but did mingle with the paying patrons. The food was plentiful but I was not accustomed to the style of eating nor the way the food was prepared.
First, the style I will describe. Everyone sat around a large round table. The food was placed on plates at the center of the table. Everyone was expected to serve themselves from the commonly shared plates onto their individual plates. We all used the same chopsticks we ate with to replenish from the common plates (something some may find disgusting but I was fine with it). If one particular dish was popular, it would be replenished.
Being used to ordering what I like off a menu and the entire portion being reserved for myself, this was a bit uncomfortable. Mainly because I felt self-conscious taking food of which I’m unaware of the taste and placing it on my plate, only to not eat it. But it turned out there was a bigger issue.
This leads to my second issue and that is the food itself. I found the Chinese are not a wasteful people. They cook all the parts and serve it, bones and all. I’m not talking big bones like we see on a T-Bone or a chicken breast, but all the small bones in the chicken neck and other parts. The fish served is also filled with small bones. To the point is was difficult to eat.
I found it very embarrassing eating with Chinese people who are adept at eating food with all the bones. I was continually spitting them out, desperately afraid I would choke in front of all at the table. Finally I settled on eating mainly the rice and vegetables, which are served in abundance. My table mates found my delicate eating of these foods quite amusing and took it in good fun.
The Chinese people always amuse me with their teeth cleaning when they finish eating. Toothpicks are handed to everyone and they begin digging out between their pegs. They are very sensitive about this though, as they use one hand to pick and the other covers their mouth so no one can see their teeth (or to prevent projectiles, I’m unsure). I did not participate as I always carry floss in my pocket and do this more discreetly later.
After the meal we all moved to the living area where coffee and tea was served. This was my favorite part. The family that served then relaxed with us and engaged in conversation. They mostly spoke in Mandarin (I assume) as the host family spoke no English. But it didn’t matter to me. I just enjoyed being in their home and watching them interact.
Tea time is very important to the Chinese people. Not only at meal time but also a dedicated tea time in the afternoon. It was in China that I became an afternoon tea drinker myself, taking advantage of the wonderful health benefits of various teas.
This is the main reason I like to travel, to interact with different cultures in their real environment. To eat authentic food, even if it’s not to my taste. To view first hand that although we may eat and live in different ways, we all share the same human spirit of kindness and fellowship.