Good food on a budget is a specialty not only in China, but across the developing world. In countries which have recently joined the world economy, or only within the past 20-30 years, local food traditions have stayed strong. And although Western food is becoming more popular in these countries, their preference for local traditional dishes is unlikely to change in the near future.
The one common remark that students studying abroad make about their experience is that food doesn’t meet their standards. For example, the pizza, pasta, sandwiches, and salads option that fill cafeterias in the US provoke a homesickness that is unavoidable. Looking at the common dish I had for dinner last night, could you blame them for missing home?
Have you tried “Bitter Melon” (苦瓜, Ku Gwa in Chinese)? Probably not. After the first bite you’ll say “What the… How can people eat this stuff on a regular basis??” And I agree, it is bitter and rough to get down. But many vegetables which have rather potent flavors in nature are full of great nutrients for our bodies. Think of it like a bank protecting its vault. The more valuable the contents, the more heavy-duty the lock! An appreciation for such vegetables is often steeped in the food culture of the local people where these mini-banks grow naturally.
Why don’t we make these choices too? Well, somewhere along the way of building our commerce-driven empire, we began allowing business to dictate what we should eat rather than carry forward traditions from the Old World. And after years of recalibration to the new norm, it is not going to be easy to switch back. We believe that healthy food isn’t delicious food because our preferred tastes have led us to diets full of sweet and salty “food-like substances,” a term I’ve borrowed from Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food. If our parents, friends, and coworkers began to redevelop the habit of traditional, ethnic cooking, we would certainly notice a difference in our waistlines and overall health.
My last thought: If Korean children are stating publicly that their favorite food is Kimchi (a spicy, pickled cabbage dish), and not ice cream, then there is a lot we can learn from the survival of traditional food values in a small but very modernized country.