BY EVA LIAO BEIJING — I’ll admit it: In times of desperate measure, somewhere between Last Call and beddy bye, I’ve patronised some of the many Chinese fast food joints Philly has to offer. Places with names like Mr. Chow, Mr. Wong and David’s Mai Lai Wah taste best right around 3 A.M. And that’s all well and good, as long as nobody is laboring under the delusion that this is what Chinese food really tastes like — because, almost without exception, Chinese food in America is about as ‘real’ as the tits hanging on Anna Nicole, RIP. Truth is, most Round Eyes probably couldn’t stomach the real thing anyway. And I hate to break it to you folks, but sweet and sour doesn’t even exist in Asia (the exception being in Thailand). The average Chinese guy on the street couldn’t even tell you what sweet and sour pork is.
Despite a well-earned rep for being rail-thin, my people love to eat. I’ve lived in Italy, Brazil and America and nowhere do they take their dining more seriously than they do in Asia. As in America, it is a measure of leisure and an outward sign of prosperity. As in Italy, the dinner table is a locus of family inter-connectivity. And as it is in in France and Japan, it is an art form. Honor and tradition are the cornerstones of the Chinese culture, as is an ability to strategize against scarcity, to make more out of less. And all the above have directly impacted how, where and what it is exactly we eat.
I’ve long held that the Chinese use their, um, expansive definition of edibility to demonstrate their inherent bad-assness by eating the grossest thing they could think of: pigs blood, chicken feet and sea urchin are staples on the modern Chinese dinner table. I still get guff from my friends back in Philly about all the “gross” food I eat. Normal things to me like duck eggs over tofu, dried shrimp with black mushrooms or pickled-stinky vegetables make my white friends scrunch of their noses in barely disguised disgust.
But when I go back to Taiwan, the flip-flop is on the other foot. There’s lotsa stuff here I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot chopstick, much to the amusement and derision of my Taiwanese friends. To them, I’m the Americanized wussy who can’t handle “real” food because I won’t eat pig’s blood — or any other part of a pig’s innards for that matter. The other day while everyone devoured a plate of pig knuckle, I sat in the corner and pouted. Point being, despite how much I love, love, love Chinese food, there’s a lot of foodstuffs even I can’t stomach. For example, the deep friend bees my father ordered last week as we sat in a dingy noodle house in Yunnan.
In the end it’s a matter of all things being relative, I suppose. People here will pop the eyeballs of a fish in their mouth without blinking, but they take one look at a 99 cent Big Mac and swear it’s the nastiest thing they’ve ever seen. It is why Americans are so fat, they say, too fat to play soccer well. To them, movie theatre popcorn drowned in neon-yellow butter, 48 ounce Cokes, and dog-choking Snicker bars are more disgusting than any eel or insect or spiny crustacean they can catch and cook up — because at least they are real. They were alive once, they have a story. Now that’s a fortune they should put in cookies.
PREVIOUSLY ON THE TAO OF EVA: Made In Taiwan
ABOUT THIS COLUMN: Phawker Assistant Editor EVA LIAO is currently visiting family and friends along the Pacific Rim. TAO OF EVA is a collection of her semi-regular dispatches back to the home office.