Also, there are no fortune cookies in China. It's a stupid gimmick and you've all been fooled, as I once was.
It's the exact opposite in China. If a piece of meat doesn't have bones in it, or doesn't look like a a part of the animal that it came from, then it's vile and inedible. "How do we know that it's fresh? Why would I eat it?" a friend once said to me. I couldn't really respond to that, because she was exactly right. How do I know an abnormally large chicken breast is fresh? The expiration date on the package? Well what significance does it have when the breast has been injected with salt and other preservatives? Fresh kind of loses its meaning. Fresh is watching the owner of the restaurant walk out back holding a chicken upside-down and then having a steaming pile of chopped up chicken, bones, head and all, on your table twenty minutes later. That's fresh. That happens in China. That doesn't happen in the US, at least not where I'm from.
I am generally attracted to the freshness of Chinese cuisine. At the restaurant on the Dali-Lijiang highway not far from the front gate of our school is a restaurant that has a wonderful selection of fresh, wild greens. The way that you order food here in this part of Yunnan is that you enter the store, gawk at bowl after bowl of fresh vegetables, mushrooms, beans, meat, sea-life, and such in front of you and point at what looks good. They get new vegetables every day, most likely dropped off by locals who just harvested their crops for the week or by the basket-carrying mountain women who scale East Mountain in search of fresh fungi. After you point, the food is stir fried and on your table before you've even sat down. I love that, too, about Chinese cuisine. Everything is stir fried, and stir fried quickly. Everything is cut into small pieces so that it cooks quickly in a wok. There are no ovens for greasy, time consuming casseroles.
I don't often eat meat, but occasionally out here it's unavoidable. I also enjoy trying new things, like pig kidney (delicious!) every once in a while. Westerners are probably most turned off by Chinese meat dishes, especially in western provinces, because they are used to their marbled, shrink-wrapped, cookie-cutter cuts and are appalled when they see that the meat to fat ratio in most Chinese dishes is below 1.0, and on occasion dangerously approaches zero. I've watched a local family kill a pig, and then ate that pig minutes later. I've even been encouraged to eat cubes of pure pig fat. "It's good, and good for you!" they told me. Cuts of meat are different out here, and the tenderloin, the most coveted, expensive cut in the US it too lean for the Chinese palate. A 20-inch top-grade pork tenderloin will set you back about three dollars here, when it would cost fifty in the states. Essentially every part of the pig is used, from snout to hoof, in some way or another. Even the blood that is drained from the next is boiled and served as a tofu-textured delicacy. Pigs blood was probably the only Chinese dish that I actually disliked, but man, let me tell you, you haven't had pig's blood until you've had fresh pig's blood. Mmmmm.
News flash: chickens and other fowl don't naturally grow giant breasts. Chickens are skinny animals, and after seeing chicken after Chinese chicken I have to wonder how it's even possible to grow one of those shrink-wrapped Perdue breasts on those birds. Where would you fit it? Here in Heqing, when you order chicken, they kill a chicken for you, dip it in boiling water so the feathers come out easily, then they take a large knife and start chopping. What you get are small 1-inch sections of the bird from head to feet (including head and feet) in a big bowl, often stir fried with other vegetables. There are no pieces without bones. And the meat is delicious, if you're into that kind of thing.
What do I eat? For breakfast, I have oatmeal with nuts and a tub of cinnamon I made my dad smuggle in from the states when he visited. For lunch, my mainstay is a cabbage with tomatoes and cashews dish that I like to make. Dinner is a wildcard - sometimes some other combination of fresh vegetables I'll stir fry, or we'll go out to that restaurant and get corn and beans, fish skins, small potato things that look like goat poop but taste delicious, and maybe some tofu. There is no concept of dessert ("dessert? You're still hungry? Then keep eating rice!" That's an interesting side-point, actually: here in Yunnan, they bring the rice out last, as if to suggest, "eat all of the vegetables, meat, and other nutrient containing food you can, and if you're still hungry, fill up with rice." Makes quite a bit of sense to me.). Also, I forgot to mention, I have white rice with lunch and dinner, every lunch and dinner.
Which begs the question, what do I crave on my bumpkin diet? Actually not much. Perhaps bread. Yes, the only serious, powerful cravings I've experienced have been for bread. Good, hearty, crispy on the outside soft on the inside bread. I vividly remember watching The Pianist with Greg and Ken, two of the other foreign fellows, one weekend night a few months ago. At one point in the movie the Germans were handing out big, round loaves to the hollow-cheeked concentration camp inmates, and I swear to high heavens we were as excited to see that bread on the TV screen than those actors were to receive it. I don't mean to elicit a comparison between life in Yunnan and life in a concentration camp - I quite enjoy life out here and I'm sure I wouldn't quite enjoy life in a concentration camp - nor do I mean to downplay the despicable horrors of the latter; all I'm getting at is that after hundreds of meals where white rice is the only starch, bread, even two-dimensional TV bread, starts looking mighty delicious.
Ironically, there is a German lady who runs a bakery in Dali (about a 2.5 hour bus ride south from here) who bakes the most delicious, hearty, crispy bread in all the land. Probably some of the best bread that I have ever consumed. She is a godsend, and although a 2.5 hour bus ride to pick up a fresh loaf of bread would have sounded crazy for the first 26 years of my life, it no longer does.
I also have a new sense for just how heavy the American diet actually is. I've lost a lot of weight since coming out here, and I wasn't exactly trying to. I was never really overweight - I'm about 5'11" and weighed in at a consistent 165 for the three or so years I was living and working in New Hampshire. I went to the gym regularly, always hoping to lean up a bit, but alas, no matter how hard I worked, nothing worked. I was content as a 5'11" 165 pound guy, though. Looking back, I still recall eating mostly vegetables and whole grains, not so much different than what I eat now. But when I think a bit harder I realize that I also ate a lot of packaged things. I made a lot of heavy sauces for my vegetables. I ate a lot of nuts and fruit. I ate a lot of pitas, and a lot of hummus. Hummus I guess is kind of the best example here. It's hailed as that savior food for vegetarians, but it's heavy, like peanut butter. One really shouldn't be consuming a tub a day as I used to.
Speaking of peanut butter, several weeks ago Greg was in his room making a peanut butter and honey sandwich when teacher Feng walked into his room to see what he was doing. Teacher Feng doesn't teach - I'm not sure what he does - but he's always around at the school either asking me how much my phone or Greg's bike costs or tending to his online vegetable garden. He's a good guy, and he often spends time watering the vegetable gardens of his online friends. Anyways, when he saw Greg slathering peanut butter on a slice of baba, or local flatbread, he was appalled:
"Whoa, what are you doing? You actually eat that stuff?"
"What?" Greg responded, "you don't like peanut butter?"
"No way, man, that stuff's way to rich for me," he said with a nervous laugh, as if Greg had asked, "what, you don't like drinking glue?"
When Greg finished up with the PB, he started drizzling honey on top. Teacher Feng just about lost it:
"You've got to be kidding me! Oh, man! What are you doing? You are 厉害. 厉害!"
厉害 (pronounced "li hai") is one of those useful words that I wish English had, but doesn't. I guess you could think of it as "badass," but it's more useful than that. If you have a bossy girlfriend, shes 厉害. If you kill the bug that's been flying around the classroom terrorizing the students, you're 厉害.
Teacher Feng actually left the room, either in utter disbelief or pure disgust, when Greg piled on the third piece of bread. He had just returned from a long bike ride and was going for the triple decker - bread, PB, honey, bread, PB, honey, bread - and teacher Feng was having none of it.
One other thing that happened to me is that I have lost my sweet tooth. I didn't have much of one to begin with - I've never been a desert guy - but I used to drink orange juice by the gallon (just ask my mom, she used to bring back 8 128-ounce jugs of Tropicana from the grocery store every week, I think those alone cost her 50$, which is more money than I spend on all the food I consume in an entire month) and was no stranger to fruit, jams, etc... There just isn't a lot of sugar out here to be consumed. Soft drinks come out during special banquets, and there are some semi-sweet cookies sold on the streets in town, but that's really about it. I think this is a good thing. I also think that wanton sugar consumption is the number one culprit for the American obesity epidemic, in front of desk jobs and the junk food, meat, and dairy lobbies. If the typical American actually saw the amount of sugar he or she consumed on a monthly basis (as Morgan Spurlock did in "Supersize Me"), you'd probably be appalled. I know teacher Feng would be.
If I had to guess, and I do, since I don't have a scale, I'd say I probably weigh about 150 pounds now. Perhaps a little bit less. I feel great, go running daily, have lots of energy, and eat to my hearts delight. It makes one wonder what all the fuss in the US about diets is really all about. Honestly, if you want to lose weight, just eat white rice and vegetables. You can stuff yourself silly, as I have, and still lose weight. Plus it's actually healthy. It's what most of the longest-lived people in the world eat daily (see "the Okinawans and their diet"). Throw in the meat off the bones of a freshly killed animal (if you're into that kind of thing) or beans on occasion, and you've got a complete meal. No need for anything in a package, buttery spreads, boxed cereals, milk, juices, or any of the other staples of a western diet. If I could change one thing, I might substitute brown rice for white rice, because it's a bit more nutritious. But that's a no-go out here - unpolished brown rice is too bumpkin for rural Yunnan; if you can't afford or don't put in the time to polish your rice, you might as well be a Hun. Perhaps that is a bit harsh, but the only place I've seen brown rice in China is in a swanky vegetarian place next to the Google building in Beijing, marketed as a weird health item. It's still distinctively un-Chinese.
Yeah, one of the things I'll miss most about China is the food. My heart trembles at the thought of waiting for a connection in San Francisco airport on my way back to the US staring at a sloppy ten-dollar chicken sandwich. What could be more depressing? And how do I know if it's fresh?