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Food path to Chinese mind

Updated: 2011-01-21 10:47

By Berlin Fang (China Daily European Weekly)

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When we think, we tend to be more collective in the choice of subjects.

Food path to Chinese mind

It may not be a profound truth. But I have just discovered that Chinese food (and cooking) and Chinese thinking have a lot to do with each other.

It all starts with measurement. In cooking, we Chinese don't have "1 cup", "1/4 cup", and "1 teaspoon" kind of measurement. We just say, "add a little salt". Perception of "a little" is a matter of exposure (to other cooks), exchange (of experience) and experience (of one's own practice). We don't say, "preheat oven to 180 C" either. We say "small fire", "medium fire", and "big fire". The Chinese mind is conditioned to process such chaotic vagueness with ease and patience.

When Americans eat meat, it's usually a huge chunk; for example, steak. Salads, on the other hand, are strictly from the green kingdom. In comparison, we Chinese are omnivores! We mix beef, beans and spring onions (and liberally hot pepper in my case), and stir-fry them.

We are as much stir-fry eaters as we are stir-fry thinkers. On the brighter side, this makes us more holistic thinkers, going fluidly from one thing to another with ease. But there might be risk of sloppy thinking when irrelevant variables are associated with each other, such as the United States' healthcare reform and the currency manipulation debate. For example, some Chinese authors (you are reading one now) add one thing after another into a paper the way we eat from a hot pot.

Similar is the case in medicine. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine will frown upon a colleague who treats a headache by examining just the head through something like a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. We see the human body as an interconnected whole that is bigger than the sum of all its parts. In the US, some geniuses crafted health insurance in a way that most plans don't pay for dental treatment - as if teeth were not part of the human body!

Let's return to the kitchen. A typical Chinese kitchen has bowls, plates, chopsticks, knives, chopping boards, spoons, and that's about it. We use chopsticks to cook, serve, eat and even have soup. American kitchens, on the other hand, have a dazzling variety of tools, each for a special purpose. Most of these purposes are mysterious in their use to a poor foreigner. For instance, what do we need a long tube-like sucker in a kitchen for? I learned later that it's a tool to suck extra gravy when roasting turkey.

Once an American friend gave us a box full of kitchen tools while shifting home. I didn't know what most the tools were for, so I gave some of them to our Chinese friends. They didn't know what they were either, so they passed them on to somebody else. Since the Chinese community in the small town wasn't very large, soon these fancy tools made their way back to me.

We Chinese depend less on specialized tools when we think. We are learning to do that from the US and other countries, though, and hence the training workshops on balanced scorecard, SWOT analysis, Fishbone analysis, Gagne's 9 instructional events and what not.

We do not learn cooking by reading cookery books. We learn by watching moms, grandmas and wives cook. Also, our learning follows an experience-based oral tradition. Even in the US, Chinese families would gather at a potluck and start exchanging ideas on how to cook the Dongpo Pork or Salted Duck.

Our recipes are mostly useless, because they often lack the precision of measurement that budding or established American cooks need, which is good, because otherwise most Chinese restaurants would have been closed by now. This also summarizes the difference in the passing down of expertise in China and the US.

In China, people learn by following experts and try to internalize the expertise through observation, practice, and even mistakes. Americans do that too, but my observation is that they are more used to reading instructions, from putting together a toy all the way to installing software.

But this generalization may be related to individual learning styles as it is to national differences. Now there is the Internet and "cooking channels" and Fang Tai's Cooking Programs in both countries. This levels the playing field. Nobody reads anything anymore.

When Chinese food is being cooked, salt, sugar, vinegar, and other ingredients are already added. Our dishes are more like some collectivist types of food! Americans tend to make their food bland to start with, and eaters get to add salt, pepper and sugar to make it more personalized.

When we think, we tend to be more collective in the choice of subjects and perspectives. We start from the forest and zoom in to the trees, if needed. That is to say, we start basically from a common "whole". Americans seem to be more individualized in the way they approach things. Education is a typical example. There is much more flexibility in the US system, whereas in China, even at the college level, the focus is more on a common knowledge base.

Oh, dessert! Chinese don't have a tradition of eating dessert. Desserts are too sweet for us, so we balance them with something bitter. We don't take sweetness in its entirety and purity such as a chocolate cake! In terms of thinking, as a general rule, we traditionally value what we call zhong yong zhi dao (the way of the golden balance).

All these, however, are changing with people adopting extreme left or right positions. There is a limit to how far gross generalizations can go. So until next time, eat well, stay healthy, think often, and don't forget to read.

The author is an English-Chinese literary translator and instructional designer living in the US.


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