Two years ago, when I decided to go to China for a student exchange, many questions came to my mind. “How will the people react to me? Will my Chinese level be good enough for people to understand me?” But there was one question that bothered me more than any other, namely: “How will the food taste?” The journey to the realization that Chinese food is now one of my favorite cuisines, was a very long one.
Many times you will hear people in my city (Merida, Yucatan, Mexico) say: “Sure, I love Chinese food! Going to China shouldn’t be a problem for me.” But then – just as it happened to myself – they are completely surprised that what they believed to be Chinese food, actually has nothing to do with the food in China and they struggle to get used to it.
That’s mainly because the food at Chinese restaurants in Mexico is more like a “Chinexican” mixture, adding more spices and meat to the pot. I remember the first time I ordered a dish of rice and beef in China. I was really shocked when the plate only had four thin slices of meat on top of all the rice and vegetables. This is very different from Mexican food, where the vegetables and even the rice are more of a side dish.
Hot and Cold
I come from a city where temperatures range between 30° and 40°C all year long. We actually wear sweaters when it’s a “freezing” 15°C, which honestly feels terribly cold. Maybe this makes you understand why every time we have a drink to refresh from a hard-day’s work, our water, beer, or juice must have at least three ice cubes in it so you can survive until the next day.
I used to live in Guangzhou, which is in the south of China and has a climate quite similar to ours in Yucatan. I don’t like hot weather, but it seems that hot weather likes me. I arrived in Guangzhou at the end of August and the heat was almost unbearable. When I went to the store to buy some water, I couldn’t find any place that had cooled bottles, all of it was warm.
It was only after I finally could ask someone about this strange habit that I learned that Chinese prefer their foods and drinks not to be cold. It’s due to the belief that the human body is warm. So, if you drink or eat cold things, you will unbalance the temperature in your body, eventually lowering your immunity against minor or major illnesses. Even though they might be right, I still hated it and couldn’t get used to drinking warm beverages.
Know your spices…
Another difference between Chinese and Mexican food are the spices. In my culture it is almost a competition among friends to see who can eat the spiciest dish. It was something that I truly missed during my stay in China, because the Chinese spice has a numbing taste and is almost sweet rather than hot like the typical Mexican “make you sweat” spice. In Yucatan we also grow “chile habanero”, which is one of the hottest spices in the world, so the Chinese spices had nothing against it.
…know the culture
After all these experiences and after living in China for a year, eating in all kinds of places, I have to say that the Chinese cuisine has a really special taste, with all its different flavors and smells. It has become one of my favorite foods and I realized that for Chinese people it is a really important part of their culture, such as Mexican food is a part of our lives.
All in all, I am sure that trying local food on your travels is an important way to get to know the culture of a place. Even though I struggled in the beginning, my love for food helped me to understand a little bit more about culture in China: from hot dishes in freezing Harbin, to spicy hot-pots in Sichuan, to sweets in Guangzhou. The food in China was so good and healthy, that although I ate the same amount as in Mexico – and believe me when I say it’s quite a lot – I lost 10 kilograms and my body felt different, healthier. Unfortunately I don’t have before and after pictures to prove it now.