Everyone knows that the average Cantonese diet consists of camel’s hump, dog meat, and other creative means of using available resources. Google up a notorious game along the lines of “Dirty Chinese Restaurant” and you’ll find your stereotypical Chinese chef chasing cats with a cleaver and scrounging around dumpsters for extra pieces in his “special menu.” (If you can stomach the offensive plot line of this game, here is a link to the public reception surrounding it. You have been warned. I can’t say I have not lol’d to parts of the game, especially at the stereotypes that are somewhat… telling.)
But what I want to get to, satire aside, is the incredible flexibility that Asians have towards eating in general. In the western world, macronutrients, paleo dieting, and eating dinner before 6pm holds sway; eating has taken on the precision of launching a space shuttle. If you ever go to a diverse and inclusive potluck directed by white people (or people of white mindset), be sure to accommodate these diets:
-lactose-free (or dairy-free)
-no spicy foods
The average white person has practiced various diets for health or ethical reasons, ranging from organic produce to pescatarian diets to, more recently, “contextual vegetarian” or “social vegetarian” (meaning they’ll stick to vegetarian good when they can, and have meat if it’s essential to a social setting, ie. thanksgiving). Such diets are usually accompanied with a temporary conversion to Buddhism. Meanwhile, the average ten-course meal at an Asian wedding consists of gluten and more gluten, as well as carbs and red meat galore. Don’t even imagine finishing the meal by 6pm (it’ll take at least 3+hrs to eat everything).
Hence, Asian cuisine opens up a whole new attitude towards eating that isn’t necessarily measured by western standards of health. No measuring cups are even used here; mom stir-fries the beef with a pinch of soy sauce here and a guesstimate of oyster sauce there. No food pyramids are used (with carbs at the bottom and meat on top), because you’ll get all the nutrients you need from mom’s longtime soup (every Asian household has a soup that’s perpetually boiling in the corner, stewed with herbs and reused leftovers). The result is a plethora of carbs, protein, and vegetables that cater to all tastebuds and that aren’t afraid to flirt with a little overuse of MSG.
Just as Asians are always 15 minutes late, so too do they allow for more leeway in their dietary preferences. This leeway can extend to the actual nutritional quality of the food itself. With the exception of actual Buddhists or practitioners of the Tao, many Asian grandmothers would be rather upset you refused the rice and black bean sardine that they’ve lovingly laid out for you. In fact, being picky could be construed as hubris: if you took all the scallops and left the black bean sardine behind on the communal plate, does this mean you’re better than everyone?
I was recently chatting with “Big Chip” about the cultures of eating, and we agreed that East Asian and South Asian peoples both share a flexible and collective dietary mindset. We eat after 7pm because that’s when everyone is free and finished work; we have whatever our grandmas give us; and we’re creative with leftovers and spare parts of animals. Westerners often think Asians are backwards and conservative, especially in the realm of romance, but we know we’re actually progressive when it comes to eating. Sure, arranged marriages are still a thing for South Asian cultures, and no Chinese mother will ever marry her daughter to a man who lacks a 5-year-plan to acquire car, condo, and retirement savings. Still, it’s liberating when you sit down to your doctor cousin’s wedding dinner and dine on abalone and lobster galore with hardly a strand of vegetable in sight. Finish off with sugary porridges and red bean cakes to boot. We’re allowed to eat anything and everything, after all!