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Food in Chinese Culture
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According to K. C. Chang, the editor of Food in Chinese Culture, few other cultures are as food oriented as the Chinese. by K.C. Chang
The importance of food in understanding human culture lies precisely in its infinite variability--variability that is not essential for species survival. For survival needs, people everywhere could eat the same food, to be measured only in calories, fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins. But people of different backgrounds eat very differently. The basic stuffs from which food is prepared; the ways in which it is preserved, cut up, cooked (if at all); the amount and variety at each meal; the tastes that are liked and disliked; the customs of serving food; the utensils; the beliefs about the food's properties--these all vary. The number of such "food variables" is great.
An anthropological approach to the study of food would be to isolate and identify the food variables, arrange these variables systematically, and explain why some of these variables go together or do not go together.
For convenience, we may use culture as a divider in relating food variables' hierarchically. I am using the word culture here in a classificatory sense implying the pattern or style of behavior of a group of people who share it. Food habits may be used as an important, or even determining, criterion in this connection. People who have the same culture share the same food habits, that is, they share the same assemblage of food variables. Peoples of different cultures share different assemblages of food variables. We might say that different cultures have different food choices. (The word choices is used here not necessarily in an active sense, granting the possibility that some choices could be imposed rather than selected.) Why these choices? What determines them? These are among the first questions in any study of food habits.
Within the same culture, the food habits are not at all necessarily homogeneous. In fact, as a rule they are not. Within the same general food style, there are different manifestations of food variables of a smaller range, for different social situations. People of different social classes or occupations eat differently. People on festive occasions, in mourning, or on a daily routine eat again differently. Different religious sects have different eating codes. Men and women, in various stages of their lives, eat differently. Different individuals have different tastes. Some of these differences are ones of preference, but others may be downright prescribed. Identifying these differences, explaining them, and relating them to other facets of social life are again among the tasks of a serious scholar of food.
Finally, systematically articulated food variables can be laid out in a time perspective, as in historical periods of varying lengths. We see how food habits change and seek to explore the reasons and consequences. My own generalizations pertain above all to the question: What characterizes Chinese food? . . . I see the following common themes:
The food style of a culture is certainly first of all determined by the natural resources that are available for its use. . . . It is thus not surprising that Chinese food is above all characterized by an assemblage of plants and animals that grew prosperously in the Chinese land for a long time. A detailed list would be out of place here, and quantitative data are not available. The following enumeration is highly impressionistic:
Starch Staples: millet, rice, kao-liang, wheat, maize, buckwheat, yam, sweet potato.
Legumes: soybean, broad bean, peanut, mung bean.
Vegetables: malva, amaranth, Chinese cabbage, mustard green, turnip, radish, mushroom.
Fruits: peach, apricot, plum, apple, jujube date, pear, crab apple, mountain haw, longan, litchi, orange.
Meats: pork, dog, beef, mutton, venison, chicken, duck,...
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