Before delving into the food and dining customs of China in the "This is China" series I'm starting, I just want to say that the most important thing that China taught me about food is to let go. Seriously.
Before I went to China I was reading every single label, scoffing at partially hydrogenated oils and high-fructose corn syrup, fearful of seafood because of the mercury content, and just being way too uptight about what I was eating in general. I still avoid weird stuff in my food when possible, but when I can’t control it I just try to enjoy it. China definitely helped me realize that letting go is often the best thing to do when it comes to food.
Right before I got on that plane to China I realized that there was no way I would be able to have so much control over what I ate while I was abroad. I could barely read Chinese, let alone be able to decipher labels on processed foods, and it would be difficult to know where all my food came from. When I got there I also realized that I was going to miss out on some great dishes if I was over thinking everything I ate. There were probably a lot of weird metals and chemicals in the fish, vegetables, and meat that I consumed, but it tasted awesome and my experiences with such foods helped me adapt to the culture there. It was worth it.
My biggest breakthrough came one day when I was walking down the street and I saw a woman sitting outside of a restaurant that I had eaten at before. She had several heads of cabbage on the sidewalk in front of here and was chopping them up. Putting food on the sidewalk of any city is already pretty gross, but consider this—babies in China go to the bathroom right on the sidewalk. For real. They wear these pants with slits in them so when they’ve got to go, they can just squat wherever they are and relieve themselves. So when I saw the cabbages being chopped on the same sidewalk where I’d seen babies defecate I was completely disgusted. But then I realized, I ate at that restaurant and I was fine. The food was good. I didn’t get sick. How could I possibly know what was going on at any restaurant in Chengdu? And did it really matter that much?
I knew I could either be afraid of everything I was going to eat or just give in and let go. I decided to let go.
Now, four years later, I’ll pretty much put anything in my mouth at least once. I wasn’t too adventurous in terms of the actual food I ate when in China—the farthest I ventured off the beaten path was chicken feet and thousand-year old eggs—but I stopped worrying so much. In this modern world we can either concern ourselves with all the awful stuff that goes on with our food or simply enjoy ourselves. I’m not saying that people should be ignorant about what they eat, but sometimes you just have to let go of that control. And the results, as I discovered in China, are likely to be delicious.