Chinese cuisine: a cuisine that deeply appreciates textures and “delights”

Back in high school, I remember a friend that I made in journalism who was a third-generation Italian American. Her mom used to make the most incredible Italian-American feasts, many of which I was invited over to enjoy for their annual Christmas celebration each year. Although she loved food, she mostly really loved Western European food and found a lot of things about Cantonese Chinese food so puzzling. At that time, most of the Chinese people in our high school were Cantonese, and most of the Chinese restaurants in the city were also Cantonese. One day, she went on a rant against bean sprouts, also known as mung bean sprouts, especially in “Chinese chicken salad.” She was debating the idea of them to several of us in the room, most of us being Chinese.

“I just don’t understand bean sprouts!” she exclaimed, annoyed, picking them out of the salad she had purchased from the food court at Stonestown Galleria, the mall next to our high school. “They have absolutely NO flavor and add nothing to this salad at all!”

I looked at her, a bit amused. “They don’t have much flavor, yes, but they add a really nice crunch to the salad.”

“Who cares?” she retorted, clearly not liking my response. “It has no flavor, so it serves NO purpose in this or anything!”

What I didn’t realize then, but I realize now, is that to many non-Chinese or non-Asians, the concept of something being “delicious” is directly related only to a flavor. So if something does not have an actual distinct taste, there is no way that something can be delicious. Adding texture doesn’t add “flavor,” and therefore isn’t valued in western food. But to the average Chinese chef or Chinese person who appreciates food, texture is actually extremely important and part of what makes something “delicious.” The root of the word “delicious” is actually “delight,” as Fuchsia Dunlop so eloquently explains in her latest book, Invitation to a Banquet. So for something to be delicious, it doesn’t necessarily have to have a “taste,” but instead, it just needs to bring delight — if you stick with the definition of the word. Chinese people appreciate all textures, whether it’s a crispiness from a just deep-fried prawn, the crackle of a roast chicken skin, or the creamy wobble of a custard. Those are textures that Westerners generally appreciate. However, what Chinese people appreciate that the average Westerner will not are textures like the sliminess of taro (I LOVE THIS), or the crispiness of silver ear fungus (a clear fungus/mushroom that is oftentimes in Chinese tonic or dessert soups that I grew up with, but has virtually no flavor whatsoever; I had an addiction to this stuff as a teenager).

Fuchsia Dunlop asserts that one is unable to fully begin appreciating Chinese cuisine if one is not able to appreciate mouth feel, or what Chinese refer to as 口感, or kǒugǎn. You must be able to appreciate the pleasure of texture, otherwise Chinese food in its purest, most authentic forms will be incomprehensible to you. As someone who studied 3.5 years of Mandarin Chinese in college and grew up knowing how to speak Toisan and understand some Cantonese, I will never be fully fluent or literate in the language. But even if I were, I found out that even the most fluent, literate Chinese person may not even know how rich their language is, as there is an endless lexicon of Chinese words not just for “mouth feel” but also for different ways of cutting and cooking foods that are unique by REGION or town of China; a Sichuanese chef may have specific words for julienning vegetables that just do not translate up north in Beijing! I was just blown away by this part of the book.

One of the great interpreters of Chinese culture for western readers Lin Yutang wrote in his book My Country and My People: “If there is anything we are serious about, it is neither religion nor learning, but food. We openly acclaim eating as one of the few joys in this human life.” So I thought back to my high school friend’s diatribe against mung bean sprouts while reading the section about mouth feel. I hope she has moved on from her narrow view of bean sprouts and embraced the texture; who knows, maybe since then, she’s actually eaten more varieties of Chinese food and gets why that “crunch” is important in the context of that salad. But if she hasn’t, I suppose she will just be one of the many westerners who is never able to fully embrace Chinese food due to her own mental block the way Fuchsia subtly warns against.

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