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What the Chinese Don't Eat

I first came to China in 2002 as an exchange student to Hong Kong. One of the first things that surprised me was what the Chinese ate: everything from the Animalia, Plantae, and Fungi kingdoms and everything in between. I was told by one local of the three basic rules of Chinese cooking: "If it flies and it's not an airplane, you can eat it. If it swims and it's not a submarine, you can eat it. If it has four legs and it's not a chair, you can eat."


For this subsequent trip, I was more amazed by the one thing Chinese people will not eat- a raw vegetable. I became aware of this at a small restaurant. There people picked their own ingredients and a cook boiled them in flavored broth. After I ate some boiled vegetables, I bought some more vegetables and had the cook cut off the rubber bands and place them raw into my bowl. The cook had a horrified face and the customers beside me looked in amazement as they heard the faint crunch of my raw salad. I wanted to make a healthier meal by adding a raw salad with the ingredients on hand.


For Chinese like Liu Xi, a teacher in Jiangsu who has traveled overseas, what matters most is that food taste good: "I can't imagine eating a vegetable without any taste. In China, it is the sauce and cooking that makes food delicious." The only place he ever saw a salad was on foreign television shows and even then he could not understand the idea. When he visited Canada, mostly women ate plates of raw vegetables and he could not understand why they deprived themselves of a good meal.


At certain cafe chains in China that offer some semi-Western food a few plates of cooked vegetables and raw foods are offered. Most are plates of raw and cut fruits such as apples, watermelon, coconut, cucumber and other in-season fruits. Of the vegetables offered, they are the traditional cooked varieties such as egg plant or Chinese cabbage. Under the section of "salad," what is offered are snack-sized plates of a few vegetables such carrots, cucumbers, corn and a small side-bowl of dressing. Salads eaten as meals by themselves are not offered such as a chef's or egg salad. Most raw vegetables in Chinese food are found as garnish consisting of some springs of parsley or cut turnip.

Considering China's notorious reputation for unsafe food and other products, Chinese patrons to restaurants and those that cook at home insist on having their food thoroughly washed and cooked: first because of personal taste and second because of hygiene. One such example as reported on Chinese news, and translated into English by the popular website, is how some people travel to restaurants or gather used vegetable oil from the trash to recycle and sell it. Delicious, but cheap Chinese food one might buy from the street can be made in such oil. Stories about unsafe food in China range from the well publicized melamine laced baby food formulas in 2008 to just watching the preparation of food at the local restaurants.


Chinese eating habits as studied in the book The China Study outlines that of the people who ate less animal products like beef, eggs, pork, milk and refined oil had less incidence of chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and obesity. The book covers a twenty year study done by the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine, Cornell University, and the University of Oxford that followed about 20,000 people.

Traditional Chinese food that is still cooked is very healthy provided that it is not drenched in too much refined oil or meat. This food contains a well balanced portion of carbohydrates and protein consisting of rice, cooked vegetables, and a limited amount animal protein in quite healthy. Before China's economic rise most meals were vegetable based with meat being rare. 


People who eat only vegetables in China by choice and not economic reasons do exist and are known as "zhaicai." However, most of these are Buddhist monks who gave the world meat substitutes like seitan and tempeh. Some of these monks also have their own dietary rules such as they cannot eat root plants like potatoes or beets since pulling them out of the ground would kill the plant. However, these monks and other vegetarians rarely eat raw vegetables though preferring their meals be cooked like the rest of the Chinese.


Modern industrialization has brought to China more processed food and the adding of M.S.G. to almost every food. This popular food additive has its own controversies. Chinese people with growing incomes are eating less traditional foods and becoming fatter and less fit then previous generations. Today about 20% of Chinese children are said to be obese and the trend continues to grow. From 1997 to 2008 the journal Health Affairs cited that the number of obese men tripled and the number of obese women doubled. Hopefully, Chinese people will incorporate at least more cooked vegetables and thoroughly washed raw fruits.


My own experimentation with eating raw foods in China came to a screeching halt once a friend pointed out the unsavory handling and preparation of food. But traditional Chinese food cooked at home, without the additives and recycled cooking oil is healthy. That is why I cook all my meals at home now and have discarded the humble salad.