Discovering the Chinese Mind through Chinese Food

Feb 08, 2010
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Have you noticed that Chinese food and Chinese thinking have a lot to do with each other?


1. In cooking we don’t have “1 cup”, “1/4 cup”, “1 teaspoon” measurement, we say “a little salt”. Exactly how little is little, it’s all a matter of exposure (to other cooks), exchange (of experience) and experience (of your own practice). We don’t have “preheat oven to 425 degrees” either, we say “small fire”, “medium fire”, “”big fire”. Scratch your head and think what these mean. The Chinese mind is similarly conditioned to process such chaotic vagueness with ease and patience.

2. When Americans eat meat, it’s a huge chunk of steak or meat loaf. When they eat vegetables, it’s salad that is made of things strictly from the green kingdom. Not us, we are omnivorous beings! We mix beef, beans, green onions (and in my case liberally applied hot pepper), all together, stir fry them. It’s supposed to be more balanced and healthy. That’s why my weight has been staying the same for 18 years.

When we think, we tend to see things as coming together instead of being separate entities. This has bad and good impact on the way we think. Sometimes it causes us to be more holistic thinkers, going fluidly from one thing to another with ease, but there might be risk for sloppy thinking, which I certainly do not encourage.

It is similar in medicine. Traditionally (before western medicine took the upper hand) traditional Chinese doctors would frown upon their colleagues who treat a pain in the head by examining just the head (for instance, an MRI of the head). We see the human body as an interconnected whole that is bigger than the sum of all the parts. A Chinese doctor may think, maybe that has something to do with a kidney problem. Would you please stick out your tongue so that we can make sure it is a kidney problem?

Chinese do not learn cooking by reading recipes. We mainly watch someone (mom, grandma, wife) do it and that’s how we learn.

3. Chinese do not learn cooking by reading recipes. We mainly watch someone (mom, grandma, wife) do it and that’s how we learn. Even now, living in the US, we learn in similar ways, sharing mainly in experience-based oral tradition. For instance we have a potluck together and we exchange ideas on how to cook, say, Dongpo Pork. We do have recipes, but most of them are useless anyway, as they seem not to have the kind of precision that can help an American to learn, which is good, because otherwise most Chinese restaurants will shut down.

Americans cook by reading recipes. If the recipe is lost, the cook goes nuts. To generalize from here, I think this also summarizes the difference in the passing of expertise in China and in America. In China, people learn more by following experts and try to internalize the expertise through observation, practice, error and mistakes. Americans do that too, but my observation is that people are more used to reading instructions, all the way from putting together a toy to the installation of softwares. This generalization may be equally related to individual learning styles rather than national differences.

4. When Chinese food is being cooked, salt, sugar, vinegar, and other ingredients and spices and sauces are already added in the food, so good luck getting the food to your taste. If you like cliches, they are all collectivist, communist types of food! Americans tend to make their food more bland to start with, and you add salt, pepper, and sugar yourself later on to make it more personalized. When Chinese think, we tend to be more collective in the choice of subjects, perspectives, and topics. You start from the forest and zoom in to the trees if needed. You start basically from a common “whole”. Americans seem to be more individualized in the way they approach things.

5. Oh, dessert. Chinese don’t have a tradition of eating dessert. Because desserts are too sweet, often people balance it with something bitter, such as coffee. To have coffee, some have sugar, some have cream, some have vanilla, etc. Life just gets so exponentially complex from there! We just drink tea! Green leaves and hot water. That’s it. You can drink that thing for hours and sit there, talk about food, stock market, a book, or simply gossip about something or someone. Imagine drinking 10 cups of coffee in a row! You can easily drink 10 cups of tea without upsetting your stomach. Chinese view with caution the extreme sweetness and bitterness as shown in dessert and coffee. We value a more moderate approach to sweetness.


Berlin Fang also blogs at Fool’s Mountain